FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

US Interstate Highway System Turns 50

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower learned the value of good roads when, as a young Army officer, he led a convoy across the US in 1919. During that journey, vehicles got so mired in mud that they had to be abandoned. Nearly 40 years later, Eisenhower used Hitler's own state-of-the-art Autobahn to pursue the retreating Nazis. So when Eisenhower became President, it's little surprise that he pushed for -- and got -- a national superhighway system.

Today, that Interstate Highway system, commissioned in June 1956, is turning 50 years old (Eisenhower sold the system as a civil defense mechanism at the height of the Cold War). Most of us are too young to remember life before the Interstates, but they radically changed the way Americans travel and commute, providing lessons in the unintended consequences of a major disruptive innovation.

Foremost, the Interstates marked the transition of the major land transportation vehicle from the train to the automobile... leading to many good things (more personal freedom, a robust auto industry that provided good jobs, an equally healthy travel industry that catered to auto travelers and vacationers) and bad (pollution, dependence on oil, decline of the rail industry). The car-centered society that the Interstates fostered begat other innovations such as suburban tract housing developments, shopping malls, motel and restaurant chains, suburban office parks, and, most recently, "edge cities." Older city centers, by contrast, were emptied and left to those who could not afford cars.

As Interstates replaced older US highways (such as the legendary Route 66), their proximity to existing towns and businesses was literally a matter of life and death. "Mom and Pop" stores, motels and even whole towns that did not have the good fortune to be located near an Interstate exit were bypassed, and many eventually declined. Everywhere in America are ghosts of our pre-Interstate past.

Next week, millions of Americans will be hitting the road for the July 4th holiday. Most likely, that road will be an Interstate, celebrating its birthday along with the nation's.

Source: Washington Post (via MSNBC)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Canada: The First Cashless Society?

The Great White North is leading the way toward cashless payments. Canadians are the world's most enthusiastic users of debit cards and smart cards, and appear to be more interested than those in other countries in cellphone payments and fingerprint scans. Canadians are even applying cashless technology to such items as parking meters.

However, not all is perfect in this cashless scenario. Payment errors and customer service problems abound, and 12% of Canadians surveyed said they would quit using electronic payment if problems persisted.

Those involved in cashless payment systems in other countries will surely be watching Canada to learn which services consumers embrace, what problems emerge, and how they're resolved. Ultimately, they'll want to see if Canadians eschew cash altogether in favor of high-tech payments.

Source: Canada.com

US Middle-Class Neighborhoods Disappearing

Wither the middle class in America? If you wanted to search for it, you'd have an increasingly hard time finding it in American neighborhoods. Between 1970 and 2000, widening income disparity and new real estate options available to those who can afford them have sent middle-income communities on the decline. In Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, these neighborhoods have fallen by more than 20% in 30 years. In that same period, the percentage of middle-income neighborhoods in the top 100 US metro areas declined from 58% to 41%.

The Brookings Institute survey, which measured the decline, also noted that this decline has led to more segregated communities and lower quality services for poorer neighborhoods. Middle-income neighborhoods sometimes gentrify, attracting wealthy homebuyers interested in restoring quaint communities (and displacing their poorer neighbors in the process). More typically, the affluent move to newer "exurb" communities with larger homes and more property, inadvertently causing property values in their old neighborhoods to fall. That scenario becomes a downward spiral; high-income people move out, home values decline, low-income people move in, schools deteriorate, crime goes up, repeat.

Zoning laws also help make communities more homogeneous. "As upper-income Americans are drawn to the new houses, neighborhoods become more homogeneous," says Thomas Bier, executive in residence at the Center for Housing Research and Policy at Cleveland State University. "The zoning is such that it prevents anything other than a certain income range from living there. It is our latest method of discrimination."

So long as upper-middle- and high-income homebuyers have the mobility to move out of middle-class neighborhoods, the decline of those neighborhoods will be a future trend. Formulating a solution, however, isn't easy; some say that this isn't even a problem, that homebuyers are simply making intelligent choices for their families. Attempts to develop sustainable, moderate-income communities have had limited success, and have little appeal in an upwardly mobile housing market (though they may interest aging baby boomers seeking a tighter-knit community and smaller, more manageable homes). Just as the American preference for SUVs has been limited only by the rise in oil prices, it will likely take an economic crisis, such as a full-blown collapse of the housing market or a major recession, to put the brakes on this trend.

UPDATE: Visit this forum for an insightful discussion about this theme and the possible origins and future of our class divisions.

UPDATE 2: Newsweek explores new approaches to creating sustainable, attractive suburbs throughout the world.

Source: Washington Post

Thorium for Safe, Clean Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is touted as an atmosphere-friendly, cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels as a means to generate electricity. But even though the safety of nuclear power plants has improved greatly in recent years, nuclear power has one problem -- what to do with spent nuclear fuel, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years.

Scientists have begun looking to thorium as a safe fuel source that produces far less nuclear waste, no weapons-grade byproducts, and at lower cost than uranium. Unlike uranium, thorium cannot start a fission explosion, making it useless as a weapon. It also degrades more quickly, and retains only 5% of the radioactivity of uranium. Spent fuel still needs to be stored safely, but for only a fraction of the time of spent uranium.

The biggest challenge to using thorium in nuclear power is that it isn't a good fuel by itself; it needs an amount of uranium or plutonium to kick-start it. Some companies have developed blends of nuclear fuel that balance thorium's beneficial properties with the other elements needed to make it work; these blends can be used to retrofit existing nuclear reactors. A Washington, DC-based company called Thorium Power has created such a blend, which is currently being used in reactors in Russia. Another technology called an Accelerator Driven System (ADS) uses an accelerator beam to energize and regulate thorium fuel rods.

Thorium may be as close as we'll come in the near future to "green" nuclear power. It's not perfect yet, but the twin crises of global warming and fossil fuel depletion will surely drive innovation and demand.

Sources: COSMOS, FuturePundit, advanced nanotechnology

FON Could Re-define Wi-Fi

So-called "mesh" wireless networking, in which users can access wi-fi Internet through one of many local hotspots, finally has a champion -- FON, a Spanish company that hopes to combine social networking with $5 wireless routers for its members to share their access points and create a ubiquitous network of hot spots.

The key to FON's success will supposedly be its portal, through which network users will need to pass, and on which business members can purchase ad space. Users wishing to acccess the network but not sharing an access point can do so fot $3 per day, versus $10 per day to access many other wi-fi networks.

Some observers remain dubious as to how much revenue this will generate, but FON's approach is, if nothing else, an innovative attempt to get inexpensive wi-fi access into underserved areas.

Sources: Red Herring, Futurismic

Monday, June 26, 2006

US, European Consumers Continue to Embrace Self-Service

Consumers in the US and Europe appear to prefer retailers who offer multiple channels for sales (online, kiosk, self-checkout, etc.).  Such self-service adds convenience while serving a population that has grown accustomed to online shopping.  There is even evidence showing that self-service actually increases sales, especially when it provides customer tools such as comparison shopping and order tracking.

In France, a majority of consumers say they prefer self-service checkout over checkout by a human cashier, and consumers in other European countries aren't far behind.  In both the US and Europe, retailers favor self-service because it has been shown to reduce employee theft from cash registers.

Source: ePayNews

The Friend-less American

It's been said that one can never have too many friends.  Yet despite greater online connectivity, the average Americans has fewer friends that he or she did 20 years ago, with nearly a quarter claiming to have "zero" close friends and half citing one or two.

The findings are the result of a survey of 1,500 Americans conducted for a paper to be published in the American Sociological Review.  "This is a big social change, and it indicates something that's not good for our society," said Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, lead author of the paper.

The results were compared to a similar study done in 1985, in which respondents cited having between three and five close friends on average.  The decline in friendships is attributed to Americans lacking the resources to form and maintain lasting relationships -- working longer hours, commuting farther, changing jobs and being downsized more frequently, staying single, having fewer children and shunning traditional social organizations (the "bowling alone" phenomenon).  Our high-tech, convenience-oriented society, moreover, enables us to conduct our daily business with minimal human interaction.  In many "bedroom communities," neighbors rarely speak to one another and have little in common, if they're not completely transient, and neighbors often regard one another as nuisances or even threats rather than as friends.  Perhaps it's not surprising that a generation taught not to talk to strangers would find it difficult to regard them as "friends they haven't met yet."

Sociologists are concerned about this trend, not only because friendships contribute to individuals' psychological and even physical well-being, but because friends provide a social "safety net" that can be invaluable in times of crisis.  Smith-Lovin cites hurricanes as examples of friendships serving as lifesavers:  "It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them. It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?'"

Odds are that such isolation will only worsen in the future unless Americans make fundamental changes in their work and social lives.  Improved work-life balance may help, along with communities that are designed to foster interaction and common activities.  Social groups can also foster individual relationships in a safe and inviting atmosphere, as can leveraging online social networks to promote face-to-face activities.

Source:  CNN.com

3D Web Browsing Makes a Comeback

Remember the hype surrounding Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) and how all the next-generation Web browsers were going to be three-dimensional? Well, the 3D buzz is coming back -- but will it be more than just talk this time around?

New technologies, greater bandwidth and more computing power are behind the latest efforts to incorporate 3D into the browsing experience -- an effort that, its supporters say, was simply ahead of its time back in the '90s. An XML-based 3D coding architecture called X3D, along with 3D application support in the Windows Presentation Foundation (aka: Avalon) that's expected to be a part of the Vista OS, offer a new framework for 3D tools of all kinds. Also, a new generation of 3D browsers such as 3B offers rich browsing environments.

But beyond the technical improvements, 3D browsing is still hampered by the fact that, aside from certain uses, it remains the proverbial hammer in search of a nail. Most people are comfortable with the 2D browsing environment, and find three dimensions disorienting and unnecessary. Gamers and those already accustomed to 3D environments may find 3D browsers appealing (expect players in youth markets to take the lead in experimenting with 3D websites), and 3D browsing has a role in education and simulation training. But otherwise, 3D browsers will likely remain a niche item, used only in situations that call for a rich navigation space.

Source: Extremetech

Using Ethnography to Innovate

To innovate and compete in today's global and rapidly changing economy, businesses are turning to ethnography to help them better understand their current and potential customers. Using principles of anthropology and cultural demographics, this relatively new discipline allows companies to market to specific groups in specific regions.

Intel is a leader in this effort, identifying such groups as "transnationals" who travel extensively and depend on technology to keep them connected. Such observations come as a result of studying people's daily behaviors, interviews, partnering with other experts, and understanding of local customs and preferences. Other organizations with fewer resources will surely want to leverage this practice... perhaps leading to opportunities for consulting ethnographers.

Source: BusinessWeek

Sunday, June 25, 2006

US Population to Hit 300 Million by Fall; Hispanics Driving Growth

The US Census Bureau estimates that the population of the US will reach 300 million sometime this coming October. Much of this growth is coming from Hispanics, who, between birth and immigration, account for half of the nation's population growth. By contrast, white non-Hispanics contribute to only one-fifth of the growth.

The last such milestone for the US population was when it reached 200 million in 1967. Since then, the number of people in the US who were born in other countries has risen from 10 million to 36 million.

Source: MSNBC

Friday, June 23, 2006

IFTF Uncovers Five Hot "Artifacts of the Future"

The Institute for the Future has identified five products that it believes will be disruptive breakthroughs in the coming years.  Presented as "artifacts of the future" for Protcer & Gamble, the mock-ups were shown as ordinary products that might appear on store shelves 10 years from now:

  • "Pharma-Fruit," fruits fortified with medications and vitamins

  • RFID tag blockers and locators

  • Bottled water from melting glaciers (might as well get some benefit out of global warming!)

  • "Reputation accounts," a universally recognized metric for measuring contributions to blogs, wikis, and other online activity

  • Ticketing systems that know your social networks and offer group discounts for you and your "buddies."

Source:  Business 2.0

"Red Crystal" the Newest Humanitarian Emblem

The world is familiar with the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and the good work they do. Yet those symbols, derived from Christianity and Islam, have triggered controversy and resentment in areas experiencing religious strife, as well as in countries that are neither predominantly Muslim nor Christian. To alleviate needless friction, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has adopted a new, religiously neutral symbol of a diamond, or "crystal."

The Red Cross/Crescent controversy has been especially pronounced in Israel and Israeli-occupied territories. Also in recent years, concern has been raised that the cross and crescent emblems may provoke anger in religiously volatile regions.

Source: Telegraph

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Web Video: The Next Bubble?

Web video is all the rage, and everyone's rushing to cash in.  At least 173 video sites like YouTube and Broadsnatch are currently competing for eyeballs... and some are getting venture capital funding in the millions. 

However, the questions surrounding the online video goldrush are hauntingly familiar.  What's the unique angle that new players bring to the table?  What happens when online video is no longer the "cool new thing"?  And everybody's favorite question:  Where's the revenue?  Video sites have additional risks that web startups in the '90s didn't have.  For one, they need to be careful of copyright infringement, as many web videos are ripped from commercial sources.  Also, running a video site requires a lot of overhead in the form of storage, bandwidth and servers, not to mention staff and marketing costs.

Those who observe the online video space warn of a possible shakeout, perhaps within the year.  Meanwhile, those brave enough to enter into the online video space are trying to develop new revenue models and carve a unique niche for themselves that will let them prosper once the dust settles.

Source:  CNN/Money

The 2006 National Entertainment State

Ten years ago, The Nation mapped out what it called "The National Entertainment State," plotting out the major entertainment conglomerates.  Now, they've revisited that map, adding in Internet influences to Disney, GE, News Corp. and other media giants.  The Nation explains the glaring absence of up-and-comers like Google and Yahoo by saying "they do not own--not yet, anyway--the major television networks, which remain Americans' #1 source of news."

Monday, June 19, 2006

Mothers of the Future May be Older... Much Older

Research unveiled at the 22nd annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Prague gives hope to women who want to freeze their eggs for later fertilization, perhaps decades down the road. Using the new technique, called Cryotop, eggs have a 90% survival rate, yield a pregnancy rate of 42%. The process prevents formation of ice crystals that can damage eggs.

Until now, freezing of unfertilized eggs has been a trickier process than freezing of sperm or embryos. But techniques such as Cryotop will provide new options to women who want to preserve their eggs for later fertilization.

The entire process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) adds a new wrinkle to the birth process, and the differences between our physiology and modern society. IVF is popular because women increasingly want to delay childbirth until they are financially stable and otherwise in a good position to start a family. Yet this might not occur until relatively late in life -- and with increasing lifespans, women might choose to wait to have children until their 50s, 60s or even later.

This, of course, conflicts with the way that the human body has evolved over the last 150,000 years. Until about 100 years ago, women's peak childbearing years were in their teens and early 20s; after that, with lowered fertility, they could help their daughters raise their children, and relatively few women lived long past menopause. Therefore, infertility had a social benefit, and post-menopause was a rare and unnatural condition.

Today, we discourage teen girls and young women from having children, urging them to focus on their educations and other aspects of life. Meanwhile, women in their 50s may have 40 or 50 healthy years ahead of them -- years that they might want to devote to parenthood.

As our notions of aging and childbirth change, so will our expected timeline for starting a family. Some futurists believe that people might have multiple families at different times in their lives, while others believe that people's youth (teen years through their 30s) will be devoted to self-fulfillment, with marriage and childbirth reserved for what we today consider to be "midlife."

Source: Eurekalert

Nielsen Will Measure Online, Portable Media Viewers

Realizing that audiences are viewing video content through many media other than TV, Nielsen Media Research will begin measuring viewership through the Web, video iPods, DVRs and video-capable cell phones. The new program, called "Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement," (A2/M2) will enable a variety of new-media producers to measure their ratings -- opening up new possibilities for advertising and other forms of sponsorship, and providing a better understanding of viewer demographics and behavior. Measurement of portable media will be especially revealing.

Nielsen will begin rolling out A2/M2 this summer, but sees full implementation as a multi-year initiative.

Source: BuzzMachine

"Star Trek" Fans Create Their Own New Episodes

Hardcore fans of Star Trek are adding a whole new meaning to the adage, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." With no new Star Trek series or episodes currently in the works, fans are writing and producing their own original episodes, and making them available online.

Digital technology is putting a whole new spin on fan fiction, giving enthusiasts the tools to create and distribute entire episodes that explore different themes, create new characters and re-interpret existing ones, and that are as optimistic, funny or dark as their creators want them to be. Among the productions available online -- featuring varying levels of technical sophistication -- are Hidden Frontier, StarshipExeter.com, Starship Farragut, and Star Trek New Voyages.

One would think that the copyright attorneys at Paramount Studios, which owns the rights to Star Trek, would be having fits over these ventures. But admirably, Paramount is taking a hands-off approach, regarding the producers as hobbyists who don't profit from their work. Plus, most of these productions honor the original spirit of Star Trek, which would give Paramount little concern. Some of the original Star Trek actors are even getting involved in the productions.

These productions, combined with the copyright holder's benevolent attitude, may set a new precedent for fans wishing to breathe new life into their favorite TV shows or movies. The most creative and successful ones might even find that their passion will translate into profit.

Source: New York Times

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Stereo Systems: Yet Another Victim of iPod Disruption

Music purchased on physical media (CD, tapes, etc.) apparently isn't the only technology that the iPod is disrupting:

Indeed, by plugging the iPod into a pair of speakers, many people are dispensing with a traditional home hi-fi set up altogether. The sound quality isn't as good (purists say), but it's good enough, and for many - perhaps most - of us the gain in control and simplicity easily outweighs the disadvantages. So the iPod signals the end of another, if less malign, producer tyranny - hi-fi manufacturers beware...

One lesson is the importance of using the right medium, and executing it properly. The iPod is a textbook example of getting applications - for playing, organising and buying music - to work seamlessly together through the net without dropping you between the gaps. The second is simplicity. The more complicated the product, the harder it has to work to make you love it. A large part of the iPod's appeal is how easy it is to use - put another way, the fact that nothing gets between you and what you want from it.

Long ago, complicated tape decks, turntables, equalizers and amplifiers -- all driving sound through massive speakers -- were the ultimate status symbols for audiophiles. Indeed, their size and complexity (embodying everything the iPod is not) was a large part of their appeal. Then "boom boxes" (remember those) made music portable, simpler and more controllable. Today, the PC/laptop, coupled with the MP3 player, has displaced the hi-fi system for the most part.

Sources: Guardian, Emergic

Friday, June 16, 2006

Political Blogging Gets More Interesting with Age

The YearlyKos convention held by the liberal blog Daily Kos last week attracted a lot of media attention -- and not merely because of the high-profile Democrats who showed up. YearlyKos was cited by many pundits as one more sign of the mainstreaming of bloggers in the political arena, and the meeting of the digital and "real world" spaces. Surely, its only a matter of time before conservative blogs host a gathering of their own.

Political blogs have been making their presence known since the 2004 election (even though Daily Kos and other liberal blogs couldn't get John Kerry elected). Increasingly, the impact of political blogging is appearing in unexpected ways:

  • The government of Iran is recognizing the potential power of blogging. It has reportedly gone so far to set up an "Office of Religious Blogs," through which bloggers can receive technical training and support (and obstenibly be "coached" to write pro-regime posts). The office claims to have trained 500 novice bloggers.

  • Republican strategist Jack Burkman, who has appeared as a commentator on Scarborough Country and other political cable shows, has been accused of trying to solicit sex from a girl who was attending the recent DC Pride parade. The girl, who claims Burkman gave her his business card, blogged about the alleged encounter on MySpace.

RELATED: It wasn't blogging, but it's an example of how politics, sex and technology can get all jumbled up. When chatting with who he thought was a 14-year-old girl, former DHS press aide Brian Doyle said that President Bush was a "nice guy but not a good president ... he is not very bright and it is evident ... bush is a liar ... there were NO weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. total lie to go to war." Of course, with his real intention apparently being to seduce the "girl" (actually an undercover police officer), openly mocking his boss's boss would be the least of his worries... especially after he was arrested in April.

Coke + Mentos = Lessons in Viral Marketing

This summer's goofy craze -- fueled by as many as 800 videos posted online -- appears to be creating carbonic geysers by putting Mentos candies in bottles of soda. It's relatively cheap, if not completely clean fun, and even provides something of a science lesson. Some with a little too much time on their hands have already elevated the physical reaction into an art form.

Yet Mentos blasting is not all fun and games. According to the Wall Street Journal, the fad has resulted in about $10 million worth of publicity for Mentos. Coca-Cola, for whom $10 million in marketing is just a drop in a soda glass, is somewhat dubious about the phenomenon. As one rep from Coke was reported to have said of his product, "We would hope people want to drink it more than try experiments with it."

Hey, either way, people are buying the stuff. As online marketing consultant B.L. Ochman notes, Mentos demonstrates vividly the power of viral marketing. In this case, the publicity was positive, encouraging folks to become backyard scientists through a modest purchase of Mentos and Coke. But Ochman makes a more ominous observation: what if those 800 videos had been negative, encouraging people not to buy those products by illustrating a defect or a hazard? "Would most companies even have a clue of where to look for them?", she writes. "How many companies know how to monitor MySpace and other social media communities? It's a brand new world, and this story ought to be a heads up to every CMO who's still saying 'this social media stuff isn't important to us.'"

The answer: Probably very few. Most companies, though, have employees who understand social media, and who would likely be among the first to spot viral buzz surrounding their company's product or service. (They might even be aware of such tools as marktd, a digg-like marketing news site that allows users to share and "mark" articles that discuss trends in advertising, media, branding, event planning and public relations.) Such employees should be encouraged to present their findings to senior management... who, in turn, need to be made aware of online marketing and the impact it can have (just as they needed to be made aware of the Web a decade ago). Creating an executive-sponsored ad hoc team to monitor developments in viral media would be a cost-effective way to help companies stay on top of things online -- and either exploit positive development or be proactive about negative ones.

Additional strategies for reconciling marketing with the digital world are presented in this article from strategy+business.

UPDATE: The Motley Fool likewise slams Coke for misreading the Mentos craze.

UPDATE 2: Another reason why Coke shouldn't be so quick to dismiss this meme: Sales of Coke, Pepsi and other carbonated soft drinks were down across the board in 2005 -- the first major sales decline in 20 years.

Source: Smart Mobs

Google Searches the Government

Just in time to help celebrate our nation's independence, Google has unveiled a new type of searching freedom.

Google U.S. Government Search is a portal and search engine for a variety of government resources, from official White House and military releases, to third-party news stories (including non-U.S. sources) and blog postings. Users can even get a weather forecast for Washington DC (current conditions: sunny and 77°F).

Google U.S. Government Search is ideal for anyone needing to research government news and information, as ite appers to search a wider variety of content than other government-related portals.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Disposable Film Cameras Survive in a Digital World

As we've noted before (here and here), the photographic film industry appears to be in its death throes, the buggy whip of the 21st century.  The growing prevalence of digital and phone cameras has driven down sales of traditional film to the point where film manufactures have either gone out of business or (in the case of the venerable Agfa brand) gone bankrupt.  Yet one bright spot remains for film:  Disposable cameras, which still enjoy healthy sales.

Disposable cameras offer that twin appeal of low cost and simplicity, appealing to the forgetful, impulsive, cheap and technophobic.  They're also ideal for rugged situations where one might be wary of taking an expensive digital camera.  Last year, 202 million digital cameras were sold in the US -- a strong and steady sales figure, considering that the film market as a whole is shrinking by 20% per year.  Even in tech-happy Japan, disposable film cameras remain popular.

Even this niche, however, will soon be threatened by improved camera phones, as well as disposable digital and video cameras.

Source:  CNN.com

Imagining Mobile Phones in 2015

Cell phones have evolved so much over the past couple of years that it's hard if not impossible to imagine what they'll be like in another decade.  But recently, 26 design students from London's Central St Martins College of Art and Design decided to take a crack at it, designing competing prototypes for mobile devices people might be carrying in 2015.

The students considered functional as well as technical issues in their designs, and were meant to complement the user's lives and be as simple and unobtrusive as possible.  Some designs incorporated phones into necklaces and rings, while others allowed callers to exchange aromas and light patterns.  Still others explored new design metaphors beyond the typical "clamshell" or "candybar," taking advantage of ultrathin technology to fold like paper or a small notebook.

Said course director Ben Hughes, "It was an area [the students] were interested in and they were very happy to get involved. They looked at mobile phone technology and how it's going to evolve with what 4G and even 5G can offer in terms of bandwidth and memory. There were also cultural and socio-economic factors, how our lives are changing and [how] the mobile phone evolves to fit that."

The competition was sponsored by Nokia, and the student who produced the winning design earned an internship with the mobile phone maker.  That student, Daniel Meyer, created a mobile phone that doubled as a digital tabletop picture frame -- perfect for the high-tech traveler seeking reminders of home.

Source:  Silicon.com

Wal-Mart to Customize Stores via Demographics

Until recently, Wal-Mart could enjoy growth and prosperity simply by offering a wide variety of goods at rock-bottom prices in its stores throughout the country.  But even Wal-Mart faces competitive pressure... and to that end the retail giant is seeking to customize its offerings based on demographic differences.

Wal-Mart has always been conscious of geographic differences (selling, for instance, more beach gear and storm supplies in Florida, and more snowblowers in Minnesota).  But now, Wal-Mart is using its wealth of sales and inventory data to segment based on demographics, allowing it to market to specific age, ethnicity and income brackets.

Stores in which the majority of shoppers are African-American, for instance, sell more entertainment products and fewer sporting goods; those with a Latino base feature lots of fresh produce and "farmers' market" events on weekends.  Some pilot stores that cater to high-income ($75,000+) customers have done well selling gourmet and organic foods, housewares and high-end electronics.  Stores that focus on older shoppers (age 45+) sell more pet supplies and fewer baby items and toys. 

Wal-Mart, however, isn't forgetting its roots in catering to lower- to middle-income consumers, many of them rural.  For these stores, Wal-Mart will continue to emphasize the "community social setting" aspect, in which the store serves as a hub for the community, with restaurants and other meeting places.

The challenge for Wal-Mart will come when the demographics in these stores overlap.  What, for instance, will high-income, older customers demand, or rural African-American shoppers?

Source:  CNN/Money

Businesses Must Innovate to Balance Customer Service with Turnover

All businesses, naturally, strive to offer superior customer service. But that will be difficult in the coming years as, if predictions by the Herman Group and other HR consultants prove to hold up, employee turnover increases.

With more job openings available, workers have a powerful incentive to "job-hop" for better salary and benefits. Employees are also increasingly reluctant to work long hours; if anything, they're looking for jobs with fewer hours and better work-life balance. As a result, employers risk being short-staffed and unable to properly serve customers.

Herman predicts that some employers will respond by over-staffing -- reversing the downsizing and outsourcing trends -- yet will use innovative approaches to help keep costs down and productivity high. Among these, hiring workers on a "stand-by" basis, perhaps having them work only a couple of days per week, then paying them a reduced stand-by wage on the days they don't work. This would give workers greater job security and freedom, yet would allow an employer to ramp up quickly when needed without paying full wages to workers who aren't carrying a full workload. Employers might also rotate workers more aggressively, moving them where the labor is needed. Yet others might, in essence, create their own temporary worker pools in the way that schools manage pools of substitute teachers.

UPDATE: Recruiting is reportedly becoming highly competitive in the venture capital space, with technical and management talent in increasingly tight supply. In response, specialized recruitment websites for VCs are appearing.

Finding Diamonds with Zeppelins

From the "everything old is new again" file, the diamond producer De Beers is using zeppelins to scan the landscape of Botswana for rock formations that could contain diamonds.

The $9 million zeppelin, owned and operated by Bell Geospace, is helping De Beers spot "kimberlite pipes, " volcanic rock formations that might contain diamonds (emphasis on might, as only one in 10 contain diamonds). Kimberlite pipes are hard to spot on the ground, but aerial surveying makes locating them easier.

Use of the zeppelin, in service since November, comes at a pivotal time for De Beers, as the diamond industry is becoming increasingly competitive. Most of Botswana's obvious diamond deposits have been tapped out, and the European Union has broken up much of De Beers' monopolistic advantage. Considering the legacy of dirigible technology, both the scanning technology and the results are so secret that De Beers won't discuss them in depth, and restrict photographs.

Source: CNN.com

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sony Debuts "Robotic Stores"

Some will call them vending machines, but Sony is calling their new line of automated retail devices "robotic stores."  Naming aside, the goal is to make buying digital cameras, MP3 players and other tech gadgets as easy -- and as impulsive -- as buying a pack of gum.

The kiosks, manufactured by San Francisco-based Zoom Systems, are being piloted in malls in Georgia, Colorado and California.  Through them, consumers can purchase cameras, batteries, MP3 players, memory sticks, CDs and DVDs using a credit or debit card.  In addition to supplying the kiosks, Zoom will provide restocking and maintenance service.

Sony sees the kiosks as a less-expensive alternative to storefronts, allowing them to get their products in front of customers at a variety of locations -- malls, airports and grocery stores, to name a few.  Additionally, Sony hopes to capitalize on immediate gratification by making their products so convenient.

The strategy seems to be directly opposite to that of Dell, which is experimenting with stores that don't carry inventory, but where customers can see and handle products before placing an order that will be delivered to their homes.  Dell will place these new stores in upscale malls, in direct competition with the highly successful Apple retail outlets that have appeared over the last several years.

Source:  New York Times (via CNET)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Laptops in the Classroom: Good or Bad?

As both an attendee and presenter at meetings, I have a good idea of how many people who type away on laptops during presentations are taking studious notes... and how many are checking their e-mail, IM'ing their friends, surfing the Web or playing games.  Here's a hint:  The note-takers are in the minority.

With more students bringing laptops into classrooms, teachers and professors have the same sneaky suspicions.  So much so that some faculty are urging the banning of wireless Internet and even laptops themselves from classes.  Among the schools considering such a ban are Harvard Law School, which may institute a crackdown when students return this fall.

In addition to students who find their laptops a distraction, many professors feel that laptops' presence inhibits class participation and student interactivity.  Some have proposed blocking wireless Internet from classrooms... but on many campuses, this is no longer feasible technically.  Individual professors who have banned laptops from their classes claim that they have received few complaints and that their students get more out of the classes.  But is this unfair to the students who actually use their laptops to take notes?

With laptops becoming less expensive -- and initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child that advocate computer technology for everyone, everywhere -- laptop use will become an expectation among ever younger students.  How will this conflict with instructors who see laptops as a threat?  Will educators try to incorporate technology more into the classroom experience, or will the classroom become a "tech-free zone" that emphasizes human interaction, with laptops and other devices reserved for distance learning?

And for those who doubt that students are doing anything other than productive work while in class, watch this video clip...

Source:  TaxProf Blog

Invasion of the Zombies!

Is your Windows PC a zombie?  (Hold your tongues, Mac users!)  Microsoft thinks there's a very good chance it could be.

Statistics compiled by Microsoft's Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool, 60% of the Windows systems scanned between January 2005 and March 2006 had some kind of "backdoor" Trojan malware installed, which could allow a malicious user to take control of them without the authorized users' knowledge -- in effect, turning them into "zombies." 

In some cases, zombie computers are used to attack other systems.  In others, they allow a cracker access to the computer's data.  Typically, Trojans are spread through adware or viruses.  According to Microsoft figures, Trojans far outnumbered other types of security breaches, including e-mail worms and rootkits. 

These numbers suggest that we have a long way to go in the battle for digital security.  As new digital devices appear, and as more of these devices interact digitally and exchange valuable data, the prevalence of malware is going to become an exponentially increasing problem.

Source:  ZDNet

Employers Googling Job Candidates... And Often, They Don't Like What They See

With the post-graduation hiring season in full swing, young job seekers might want to take care what they post about themselves on their MySpace profiles or blogs.  Increasingly, Web-savvy employers are searching for information on prospective candidates.  And often, what they find gives them pause.  Consider this example:

When a small consulting company in Chicago was looking to hire a summer intern this month, the company's president went online to check on a promising candidate who had just graduated from the University of Illinois.

At Facebook, a popular social networking site, the executive found the candidate's Web page with this description of his interests: "smokin' blunts" (cigars hollowed out and stuffed with marijuana), shooting people and obsessive sex, all described in vivid slang.

It did not matter that the student was clearly posturing. He was done. "A lot of it makes me think, what kind of judgment does this person have?" said the company's president, Brad Karsh. "Why are you allowing this to be viewed publicly, effectively, or semipublicly?"

Oops. College students entering the "real world" have always known that the lifestyles and laid-back norms they've enjoyed before are less than welcome in the workplace.  But with more people of all ages posting personal information online, the variances between college life and corporate life are becoming more pronounced.  Perhaps schools need to stress more strenuously the reality that one's seemingly innocent actions can have repercussions years later.  But then again, if an employer objects to something that's a fundamental part of your personality, is that someplace you really want to work anyway?

Secondly, this is one more nail in the coffin of our traditional notion of privacy.  If someone can learn volumes about your personal life by surfing the Web, is that an invasion of privacy?  Not if what they find is material that you yourself posted for others to read...

Source:  International Herald Tribune

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Take My "CrackBerry," Please!

The addictive nature of BlackBerry devices has earned them the nickname "CrackBerries."  For its guests who want to go cold turkey (for a little while, anyway), the Sheraton Chicago Hotel will lock up their BlackBerries so they can try new and different things -- like actually interacting with people.

The hotel does not charge for the service, and guests can request their BlackBerries back anytime they want (then again, those really bent on kicking the habit might try leaving the bloody things home).  It would be interesting to learn the longest -- and shortest -- times that the hotel has been asked to hold a BlackBerry in protective custody.  For such a predicament says more about our 24/7 work culture than the devices themselves.

Source:  CNN.com

E-mail 2.0

To paraphrase that old adage about the weather, everyone complains about e-mail, but no one ever does anything about it. E-mail has become a technology that we couldn't live without in our business and personal lives... yet it's rife with spam, viruses and fraud. In fact, one estimate places the amount of spam at 90% of all e-mail traffic!

In response, Kelly Martin of SecurityFocus makes the modest proposal that the backbone of our e-mail system, Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP), is fundamentally broken and should be scrapped. Designed to be used by a handful of engineers and geeks, SMTP was excellent at what it was designed for -- and is, indeed, the reason why e-mail has evolved into such a successful medium. But it wasn't designed for security or accountability, and patchwork attempts to make it so can't keep up with the threats.

To that end, Martin proposes developing a new e-mail system that incorporates a high level of security (encryption, compression, secure identities and public-private-key authentication), along with peer-to-peer instant messaging and videoconferencing. The system would be open, of course -- and there, Martin is realistic about the difficulty in getting the various commercial e-mailers to adopt it.

Similar proposals have been made before and have gone nowhere, in part because the existing e-mail system is so firmly entrenched. Yet the demand and the know-how is there. The open source community could rally resources and expertise just as it did to create Linux, and enterprises and commercial operators would certainly welcome a spam-free protocol. Perhaps what's needed is a spark of some kind, whether from a handful of determined developers, an innovative company, or a government body.

Source: The Register

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

LA Cops Use Drone Aircraft to Catch Crooks

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- otherwise known as drones -- have made their mark in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowing our military to spot and even destroy the enemy from a safe distance. Now, UAV technology is being considered by US law enforcement for surveillance and rescue operations.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has begun testing a 6-foot long, 4-pound, battery-powered UAV called the SkySeer that can be carried by an individual officer, assembled within five minutes, and can transmit video in real time. Far cheaper and more discrete than helicopter surveillance, the SkySeer will be used to pinpoint the location of fugitives or injured people needing rescue. It can also fly into highly dangerous situations without risk to lives or heavy equipment.

Currently, LA sheriffs only have a single prototype SkySeer. If all goes well, they hope to increase that number, and also develop a web portal to allow other law enforcement officers and subject matter experts to view real-time SkySeer video from any location.

Source: BBC

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Virtual Job Interviews

Job seekers and employers have been able to connect through the Web for years.  Now, an online video system called HireVue seeks to "webify" another element of the hiring process -- the job interview.

Through HireVue, a candidate can participate in an online pre-interview using a webcam and web conferencing software.  This allows employers to pre-screen more candidates before committing to in-person interviews.  Candidates, for their part, can get a better feel for employers early in the process.

Source:  Springwise

The Mindless "Hive Mind"

Consultant, author and filmmaker Jaron Lanier offers a stinging rebuttal to the claims that the "wisdom of crowds" is smarter than individuals in an essay titled "Digital Maoism."  In it, he argues that "foolish collectivism" that typically drives Wikipedia and digg is eclipsing individual expertise, with inaccuracies and loss of focus as the result.

As an example, Lanier cites his experience with the a relatively new meta-site called popurls, which aggregates the most popular links from digg, del.icio.us and similar sites.  "In the last few days," he writes, "an experimental approach to diabetes management has been announced that might prevent nerve damage. That's huge news for tens of millions of Americans. It is not mentioned on popurls. Popurls does clue us in to this news: 'Student sets simultaneous world ice cream-eating record, worst ever ice cream headache.'"

Lanier doesn't totally dismiss collective intelligence, but he cautions against putting too much credence or confidence in it, particularly when it gravitates toward hype, trivia and mediocrity.  "Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of," he writes, "also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals. These people focused the collective and in some cases also corrected for some of the common hive mind failure modes. The balancing of influence between people and collectives is the heart of the design of democracies, scientific communities, and many other long-standing projects."

Some may dismiss Lanier as an elitist, but he makes some very sound points that explain in part why collective tools such as wikis are still, for the most part, on the periphery.  Collective intelligence remains immature, and it's still up to the early adopters to strike a balance between leveraging group intelligence and helping others interpret and direct that intelligence.

Does America Risk Global Decline?

We are so used to thinking of the US as the "leader of the free world" and "the world's only superpower" that we may fail to heed warning signs pointing to a loss of America's global edge. In a recent essay, Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria compares America's current world position with that of Great Britain in the 1890's -- a time when few imagined that any entity other than the British Empire could dominate the globe:

Well, Americans have replaced Britons atop the world, and we are now worried that history is happening to us. History has arrived in the form of "Three Billion New Capitalists," as Clyde Prestowitz's recent book puts it, people from countries like China, India and the former Soviet Union, which all once scorned the global market economy but are now enthusiastic and increasingly sophisticated participants in it. They are poorer, hungrier and in some cases well trained, and will inevitably compete with Americans and America for a slice of the pie. A Goldman Sachs study concludes that by 2045, China will be the largest economy in the world, replacing the United States.

Zakaria doesn't think America's decline is inevitable -- in fact, he cites many areas of unparalleled US leadership and excellence -- he warns that our continued neglect of our infrastructure, combined with losses in technical and manufacturing expertise, could very well compromise America's position on the world stage in the coming years.

RELATED: Seed magazine asks a damn good question: "How come scientists are famous in Asia, and we get Kevin Federline?"

Monday, June 05, 2006

Can Play-Doh and Gummi Bears Fool Fingerprint Scanners?

Fingerprint scanners have typically been considered one of the more dependable (and therefore popular) security technologies -- reliable, intuitive and largely foolproof.  Recently, though, cryptographers have experimented with materials that can simulate a human thumb and bear a bogus fingerprint that a scanner might accept

The results have been sobering enough for some information security experts to recommend a complete rethinking of fingerprint technology.  Materials as common as Play-Doh and Gummi Bears have been shown to retain forged fingerprints that scanners then read as authentic.  In one test run by a Japanese cryptographer, a false finger made from Gummi Bears fooled a fingerprint scanner 80% of the time!

Source: RealTechNews

Building Computers with Vision

As smart as computers are these days, they still have crummy eyesight. Electronic eyes cannot readily distinguish different shapes, let alone add context to what they see. Humans, on the other hand, take it for granted that we can not only instantly tell a cat apart from a dog, but can identify faces of individuals on sight.

Now, a team at MIT's Center for Biological and Computational Learning is seeking to develop software that could help electronic cameras understand more of what they see, and act on it instantly. For instance, such software could be added to surveillance cameras to allow them to instantly identify an intruder and sound an alarm. Or, it could help a robot more clearly navigate visually.

Of course, this is no mean feat, as humans use as much as 40% of their brain function for interpreting what they see. Moreover, we don't fully understand how the brain works in this area. The software developers are seeking to replicate this action by helping computers analyze images pixel by pixel, and identifying differences among pixel positions and colors.

Source: MIT Technology Review

Friday, June 02, 2006

Where Mind Meets Machine

Scientists are making huge strides in developing computing devices that interface directly with the human mind. CNET profiles several such experiments, including:

  • BrainGate, a computer that allows those with spinal cord injuries and other immobilizing conditions to control electronic devices through their thoughts.

  • BioBricks, an open source library of DNA sequences and other biological components for synthetic organisms (or "genetically engineered machines").

  • DARPA's "BioCOMP" biocomputation project, which strives to use DNA for storage and computation (perhaps the ultimate man-machine interface).

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Social Networking Technology in the Classroom

Teachers whose students have a comfort level with social networking technologies can leverage those systems in classroom instruction. An article in the online education journal Innovate explains how wikis and systems such as MySpace and Facebook can serve as a "secondary orality," combining the immediacy and interactivity of oral communication with the permanence of print. Of course, this is not new in academia, but today's generation of tools, as well as students' preferences, make it more practical than ever before.

MTV Produces TV Series for Mobile Phones

Its influential, tech-savvy audience have made MTV's productions -- Beavis and Butt-Head, Jackass and The Osbournes -- trendsetters. If its latest TV series, Sway's Hip-Hop Owner's Manual, is a similar trailblazer, it'll be with a difference -- the series is being produced especially for video-capable cell phones.

Each episode, which will explain words and phrases associated with hip-hop, will be approximately three minutes long, and will be scaled for the very small screen. And while TV shows for cell phones have been produced in Europe and Asia for some time, this is the first effort targeting 18-24-year-old Americans (the trend setters that MTV calls the "cred kids").

MTV is banking on being on the forefront of a market that could grow to $27 billion by the end of the decade, according to one estimate. However, mobile video is so new that there's no agreement on what audiences really want, or how it will make money. How, for instance, will viewers respond to ads, and what type will work? Will the "cred kids" really welcome top-down content, or are they searching for grass-roots material from their peers? And how exactly are people using mobile video? Those who examine this market note the phenomenon of "video snacking" -- watching mobile videos during brief break periods.

Source: New York Times

Americans Wary of Nuclear Power

Those who advocate nuclear power as a solution to America's future energy challenges have an uphill battle convincing the public. When asked about the feasibility of various alternative energy sources, a majority of Americans displayed deep skepticism about the use of nuclear power, believing that conservation and other alternative sources were better near-term solutions.

Concerns about nuclear power centered on cost and time rather than safety. The survey, conducted by the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute, found that 61% of those surveyed believed that America couldn't afford to wait for nuclear power if "building more nuclear power plants will take a decade or more in the US and cost tens of billions of dollars." The responses remained consistent across the political spectrum, with both conservatives and liberals in remarkable agreement.

The respondents overwhelmingly agreed (88%) that conservation should be the first step toward reducing energy dependence and emissions, followed by harnessing wind and solar power. Even if building new nuclear power plants was considered an option, most respondents said, "Not in my backyard!" Of those surveyed, 81% said the did not want "to have a nuclear power plant reactor constructed next to or otherwise close" to their home.