FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Transhumanism Goes Mainstream

Transhumanism -- and the ethical questions surrounding it -- was the topic of a recent Stanford University bioethics conference.� Titled "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights," the conference explored the rights of people to enhance their own bodies.�

The conference was notable because it took a step toward taking transhumanism out of the realm of theory and into a very practical line of thinking.� Indeed, the recent debates over steroid use in sports should alert us to the sorts of controversies that will accompany "biological contingencies" in the future:

[Bioethicist Anita] Silvers argues that the right not to be normal, is, in fact, the essence of freedom. Human beings, she argues, have always modified themselves, usually because we see the modifications as some kind of advantage. Banning it, as some have argued for, means forcing people to adhere to a government-imposed standard of normal.

The instinct to prevent people from making alterations to themselves worries British philosopher Andy Miah, a lecturer in media, bioethics and cyber culture at the University of Paisley in Scotland. “I explain it as a contempt for �Otherness.’ We seek to suppress people whom we feel are abnormal, mutants or monsters. Historically, societies have done this a lot. They continue to do it and I find it embarrassing.�

Such debate only scratches the surface of the transhumanist controversy.� Just as technologists worry about a "digital divide," so too will we have to come to terms with a "biological divide" that separates those who can afford body enhancements from those who cannot (in a sense, this exists already, as not everyone has the money to join a gym, get braces or cosmetic surgery).� But the types of transformations that transhumanists are considering may be far more drastic, leading to what are perhaps whole new classes of humans.� As he Barry Bonds controversy has demonstrated, that will be difficult to reconcile in a culture that values equality and fair play.

UPDATE: Transhumanism is Wikipedia's featured article for 6/2/06!

Source:� MSNBC

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Connecting Little Guys to Really Big Guys

"Crowdsourcing" is the new buzzword to describe leveraging the Internet and the "wisdom of crowds" to solve problems and obtain information, whether via open source programming, file sharing or soliciting group input.  The idea, of course, isn't new, but who's using it is of interest. 

Pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly funded InnoCentive’s launch in 2001 as a way to connect with brainpower outside the company – people who could help develop drugs and speed them to market. From the outset, InnoCentive threw open the doors to other firms eager to access the network’s trove of ad hoc experts. Companies like Boeing, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble now post their most ornery scientific problems on InnoCentive’s Web site; anyone on InnoCentive’s network can take a shot at cracking them.

The companies – or seekers, in InnoCentive parlance – pay solvers anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 per solution. (They also pay InnoCentive a fee to participate.) Jill Panetta, InnoCentive’s chief scientific officer, says more than 30 percent of the problems posted on the site have been cracked, “which is 30 percent more than would have been solved using a traditional, in-house approach.”

The solvers are not who you might expect. Many are hobbyists working from their proverbial garage, like the University of Dallas undergrad who came up with a chemical to use in art restoration, or the Cary, North Carolina, patent lawyer who devised a novel way to mix large batches of chemical compounds.

A related concept is the iBridge Network, which aims to link universities up with entrepreneurs who can help bring technologies being developed in university labs to market.

When it works, crowdsourcing can be a win-win situation.  An individual or group looking for a solution can obtain one at relatively low cost, while individuals with knowledge can apply it to make money or advance their careers.  Naturally, the risk of abuse exists -- and that's where opportunity exists for developers seeking to design networking sites that are effective, efficient, and equitable.

Sources:  Wired, KurzweilAI.net, innovation.net

Connecting Little Guys to Really Big Guys

"Crowdsourcing" is the new buzzword to describe leveraging the Internet and the "wisdom of crowds" to solve problems and obtain information, whether via open source programming, file sharing or soliciting group input.  The idea, of course, isn't new, but who's using it is of interest. 

Pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly funded InnoCentive’s launch in 2001 as a way to connect with brainpower outside the company – people who could help develop drugs and speed them to market. From the outset, InnoCentive threw open the doors to other firms eager to access the network’s trove of ad hoc experts. Companies like Boeing, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble now post their most ornery scientific problems on InnoCentive’s Web site; anyone on InnoCentive’s network can take a shot at cracking them.

The companies – or seekers, in InnoCentive parlance – pay solvers anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 per solution. (They also pay InnoCentive a fee to participate.) Jill Panetta, InnoCentive’s chief scientific officer, says more than 30 percent of the problems posted on the site have been cracked, “which is 30 percent more than would have been solved using a traditional, in-house approach.”

The solvers are not who you might expect. Many are hobbyists working from their proverbial garage, like the University of Dallas undergrad who came up with a chemical to use in art restoration, or the Cary, North Carolina, patent lawyer who devised a novel way to mix large batches of chemical compounds.

When it works, crowdsourcing can be a win-win situation.  An individual or group looking for a solution can obtain one at relatively low cost, while individuals with knowledge can apply it to make money or advance their careers.  Naturally, the risk of abuse exists -- and that's where opportunity exists for developers seeking to design networking sites that are effective, efficient, and equitable.

Sources:  Wired, KurzweilAI.net

"Strange" Future Gadgets

A foldable DVD player?  AN LCD display that retains an image without a charge?  A transparent toaster??  Whether you think these product concepts are weird or simply good innovations, TecEBlog lists these and others among its "Top 10 Strangest Gadgets of the Future."  Some of which regular FutureWire readers will recall from past postings...

Are Young People More Politically Engaged than their Elders?

Conventional wisdom holds that young people don't pay much attention to politics or current events.  Yet a new study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has found that Americans aged 18-29 (Gen-Y, Millennials, GenNext, DotNet, etc.) appear to be more politically active than previously believed.

The report cites Census data showing a sharp uptick in youth voter turnout between 2000 and 2004 (although they still trail their elders significantly), and evidence that more young people are active in fundraising and volunteering their services.  Furthermore, young people are more likely to hold liberal political views and favor Democratic candidates than their GenX and Boomer elders, though the ratio of Democrats/Republicans is about the same as with Boomers when they were that age.  That liberal viewpoint, however, is not wholly uniform; while young people are more likely than their elders to support gay marriage and hold a favorable view of government, they are also less supportive of abortion on demand.

With easy access to news and political discussion online and on 24-hour cable, there's no reason why today's youth shouldn't be more politically literate than their predecessors.  Plus, with many of their peers serving in Iraq and other flashpoints across the globe, young people have a stake in the decisions our elected officials make.  The true test of their political commitment though, will be whether it holds as they grow older, and whether their perspective change as they launch careers or raise families. 

Business 2.0 Profiles The Wireless Future

Business 2.0 takes a look at how the latest wireless technology will affect the way we work and interact through the Internet. 

The interactive article explores such tools as GPS tracking, VOIP, Internet TV, music recommendations, and mobile blogging.  It also looks ahead to mobile devices with full keyboards, touchscreens, and massive storage.

Source:  Emergic

Pay-By-The-Hour Computer Financing

Microsoft wants you to own a computer.  So much, in fact, that it is willing to let you pay for one by the hour.

Through its FlexGo plan, consumers can pay for half of a PC up front, then pay for usage by the hour.  After several hundred hours, the consumer owns the PC.  Such a plan allows consumers -- particularly those in developing countries -- to tailor their payments to what they can afford at the moment.

Such pay-as-you-go plans are becoming more prevalent as a way to make technology more affordable, much as easy credit did in the early 20th century... but hopefully without overwhelming consumers with debt.

Source:  Springwise

Friday, May 26, 2006

Google Embraces DIY Video Ads

As several startups explore the possibilities of using viral video in advertising, the 800-pound gorilla of online ads has awakened to the prospect.  Google will soon allow its advertisers to upload homemade video clips for their ads.

Anyone with a Google AdWords account can create and upload an ad, just so long as it is less than two minutes long.  The ad will then be displayed on blogs and websites that have related content, just like other Google ads.  Google has been testing the concept this past spring with major corporate advertisers, but it plans to roll it into production as early as today, some reports say.

As with web ad banners that evolved in the late '90s, video ads will go through some growing pains as advertisers learn what resonates with viewers and, most importantly, motivates them to buy their products or services.  This period of experimentation will be a lot like the first few episodes of an American Idol season -- brilliance juxtaposed against... well, you know...

Source:  Marketwatch

Putting Your Best Foot Backward

At first glance, running backward seems about as good an idea as running with scissors.  But the practice -- also known as retro-running -- is gaining adherents who claim it improves balance and peripheral vision, burns more calories than regular running, tones more body parts, and can reduce stress on joints.

Hardcore retro-runners have competed in races, and even marathons (the world record for a retro-run marathon is 3 hours, 43 minutes, set by a Chinese runner in 2004).  But retro-running also has its obvious hazards.  Practitioners all have stories of stepping into potholes or running into parked cars, and recommend that beginners choose quiet, open areas such as an empty track.

Not brave enough to try retro-running on your regular jogging route?  Frankly, we can't blame you.  Many treadmills and elliptical trainers operate in reverse mode, allowing you to try retro-running for yourself in a safe environment.

Source:  CNN.com

More Tattle-Tale Toilets

Toilets -- urinals in particular -- are getting quite interactive these days.  Last year we profiled a conceptual urinal that screens users for STDs.  Now, bars in New York's Nassau County are piloting urinal drain covers that play messages discouraging patrons from drinking too much.

The Wizmark Urinal Communicator (gotta love that name!) is paid for with DWI fines and is being distributed to bars for free.  When the device senses a "visitor" (their word) nearby, it plays a 15-second message:  "Hey you. Yea You, having a few drinks? Then listen up!  Think you had one to many then it's time to call a cab or call a sober friend for a ride home. It sure is safer and a hell of a lot cheaper than a DWI. Make the smart choice tonight, don't drink and drive."

Of course, anything that discourages overindulgence and potentially saves lives is worthwhile.  But one must wonder about the next logical steps for such devices, such as detecting the presence of substances in urine and automatically reporting them.

Sources:  WCBS Newsradio 880, Techdirt

All the Cells that are Fit to Print

Gabor Forgacs, a biophysicist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, is pioneering a technique for arranging human tissue that he calls "bioprinting."  One day, bioprinting could allow tissue engineers to construct portions of artificial organs.

Bioprinting involves layering clumps of "bioink" to create a three-dimensional structure.  So far, Forgacs has succeeded in creating a cluster of chicken heart cells that beat synchronously.

This is not the first time that tissue engineers have tried to build tissue structures, but bioprinting promises to be an economical process.

Source:  New Scientist

Monday, May 22, 2006

[BREAKING NEWS] NOAA Predicts 10 Hurricanes for '06 Season

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has forecast 10 hurricanes for the 2006 Atlantic storm season (which begins June 1), with four to six of those being "major" storms (Category 3 or higher) and an additional three to six named storms that don't reach hurricane strength.

The prediction is for a far less active hurricane season than last year, which spawned an unprecedented 28 named storms and 15 hurricanes (the NOAA had predicted that last year would be a busy season, but not that busy).  That, of course, included the colossally devastating storms Katrina and Rita, as well as Wilma, which at one point became the most powerful hurricane ever recorded.

Scientists have also warned that hurricanes could track farther north this year, threatening the Mid-Atlantic states and possibly even New England.  Overall, meteorologists are noting an overall increase in hurricane activity since 1995; most attribute this to a natural cycle that can run from 15 to 40 years, though some say that global warming is also a contributing factor.

Source:  MSNBC

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Hyper-Local Weather

Remember the old George Carlin bit in which he wondered why TV weather people quoted weather reports from the airport when, in fact, nobody lives at the airport?  For everyone who feels that weather forecasts are irrelevant comes "hyper-local" weather.

Accu-Weather, NBC Weather Plus and The Weather Channel are all perfecting technology that will allow them to deliver granular weather reports, specific to areas as close as a mile apart.  High Resolution Aggregated Data (HiRAD), when combined with radar and satellite imagery and delivered through the Web and digital cable, could effectively allow the viewer to see immediate and long-range forecasts for his or her own neighborhood or street.  This level of detail would be enormously helpful -- even a lifesaver -- in the case of powerful yet highly localized and fast-moving events such as tornadoes or thunderstorms.

Sources:  Broadcasting & Cable, Lost Remote

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A Future for Books and Paper

It's always been assumed that books and paper would be among the first victims of the Information Revolution (remember that phrase?).  But, as we've seen, it hasn't quite worked out that way.  To the contrary, argues anthropologist Alex Golub, the printed word will almost surely remain a part of our future:

It’s true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources “have features” or “are usable” while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct — paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven’t figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.

Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.

But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

Golub goes on to praise the librarian's and bookstore's role in "filtering" and organizing content, and even the decorative value of books in the home.  One suspects that Golub is not a voice in the wilderness, that he speaks for many who feel the same way.

Sources: Inside Higher Ed, Question Technology

Friday, May 19, 2006

Class of '06 is Lukewarm About the Hot Job Market

A reasonably strong economy combined with the first rumblings of Baby Boomer retirements is fueling the hottest job market for graduating college students in years.  According to one survey, 60% of employers surveyed said they plan to hire more college grads than last year.  The market is reportedly so hot that even liberal arts majors are in demand!  (Seriously, employers are realizing the benefit of hiring employees with diverse backgrounds)

But as we've noted before, today's young people have a healthy dose of cynicism when considering corporate careers.  Not only have today's kids seen their elders burned by downsizing and witnessed the Enron debacle, but thanks to the Internet, they have more information at their fingertips than any generation before:

[Graduating students] plot their careers like chess masters. They ask pointed questions about company ethics and finances. Parents are more involved too, quizzing recruiters and in rare cases, even sitting in on job interviews.

"Kids today are wired. They can find out almost anything in seconds about a company and the questions recruiters ask," said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey consulting firm. "If the picture you paint is not reality, this generation will quit on a dime."

Recruiter W. Stanton Smith took note of such brashness a few years ago, when promising young hires quit. "People weren't just saluting and taking orders anymore," he recalled.

In response, businesses in typically stodgy fields such as accounting are highlighting their employee-friendly corporate cultures and their positions on socially conscious issues.

The involvement of parents is another factor that sets today's youth apart from their predecessors.  With today's narrowing generation gap, kids and their parents are closer, and kids want their parents to take an active role in their life decisions.  Whereas I would have died if my parents had sat in on any of my job interviews... that is, if the interviewer didn't laugh me out of the room first.

Source:  Ypulse, LA Times

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"LifeStraw" Brings Drinkable Water to the Developing World

From the innovations-so-obvious-it's-amazing-no-one-thought-of-them-before department comes the LifeStraw, a plastic tube with an iodine/carbon filter designed to allow people to drink water safely.

Created by a Danish inventor, the LifeStraw can be used in developing countries and disaster zones where potable water is rare. To use, the drinker simply sucks through it; the water passes through the filter, which kills bacteria, and blocks parasites and other contaminants. The list price is around $3.50 (though considering that many in the developing world subsist on less than a dollar a day, the cost would have to be subsidized somehow). Each filter could last from six months to a year.

Many futurists fear that the worldwide lack of fresh water will be one of the great global crises in the coming years. Already, an estimated 6,000 people die of water-borne diseases each day, and many throughout the world travel miles on foot in the search for fresh water.

Source: BBC

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Optical Processing Could Increase Internet Speeds by 1000X

An Australian research consortium is reportedly developing a photonic chip that would process digital signals much faster than conventional silicon electronics

The chip would work by routing light signals, controlling the frequency of light pulses, and regulating the behavior of the light by changing its color.  Like silicon, optical circuits could be printed, leading to cost-effective mass production.

By converting much of the Internet's networking to fiber optics, such circuitry could eliminate lag times and create an 1000-fold increase in the Net's overall speed.  With such optical switching in place, even the largest downloads could be completed within a fraction of a second. 

Of course, this would depend on most all of the Internet's components being converted to optical circuitry -- a daunting task even if the technology were immediately available.  The research team, though, hopes to have a functioning optical switch ready within the coming months.

Source:  Sharkride

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Forbes Summarizes "Future in Review"

Forbes has a summary of the recent "Future in Review" meeting held last week at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.  In case you missed the $4,000-per-head event in which you could have rubbed shoulders with key future-focused business leaders and consultants, the conversation reportedly ranged from the functional to the fantastic, covering topics such as space travel (SpaceX founder Elon Musk outlined a plan to travel to Mars before 2020), "flex" cars that run on multiple fuel types, and Google's philanthropic efforts to fight disease in the developing world.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Is Cognitive Computing Poised to be an "Overnight Success"?

Can a computer chip process information the same way they human brain does? If so, how far away are we from such "cognitive computing"? It all depends on who you ask.

Palm Computing co-founder Jeff Hawkins says, "We've been trying to do this for 50 to 60 years. Artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, neural networks, the Fifth Generation project -- they've all had big moments in the sun. The reality is we've not had much success." But he's not as pessimistic as he sounds, as he has founded a company called Numenta to build a computer memory platform that mimics human thought processes.

Others, citing rapid advances in computing power and efficiency, believe we may be much closer to major breakthroughs. Says James Albus, a senior fellow and founder of the Intelligent Systems Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, "We are at a tipping point... analogous to where nuclear physics was in 1905. The technology is emerging to conduct definitive experiments. The neurosciences have developed a good idea of computation and representation of the brain." The most advanced supercomputers, Albus notes, are approaching the computational speed of the human brain.

The blog Responsible Nanotechnology cites recent talks by futurists Ray Kurzweil and Eliezer Yudkowsky illustrating how major technologies such as this can appear to be going nowhere for long periods (even though work is underway), followed by an explosion in innovation and productivity, taking most everybody by surprise. It's analogous to the groundbreaking actor or musician who becomes an "overnight success" after years of hard work, practice and dashed hopes.

What excites computer scientists about cognitive computing is that it's the process that allows people to perform abstract thinking, learn, recognize patterns, and navigate spaces. It's what makes us smart, as well as giving us our personality and creativity. Besides fulfilling the promise of genuine artificial intelligence, cognitive computing may also allow us to repair certain types of brain damage and degeneration with a "bionic brain."

RELATED: To foster the development of artificial intelligence, the European Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies initiative has created a "virtual community" that will allow software to generate avatars that could interact and learn. Aside from helping researchers learn more about how AI cooperates and manages conflict, the environment will also help sociologists model behaviors in crisis environments.

Sources: ZDNet Australia, Responsible Nanotechnology

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

US, Europe, China Vie for Cultural Influence

For years, the global marketplace has been dominated by American advertising, media  and products.  However, the Herman Group forecasts increased competition from Europe and China on the world stage, and the different cultural influences that such presences would bring:

Watching trends, we look beyond China to other parts of the world under the influence of Western cultures. American and European marketers are deeply invested in extending their reach and penetration. They must now anticipate and prepare for competition from Chinese marketers. There is a new player in the global race for cultural influence, the tremendous consumerism impact, and the more subtle pursuit of political attachment.

The Herman Group also anticipates a surprising level of diversity from the Chinese marketplace, reflecting the array of cultural niches and preferences that marketers in the West are just beginning to understand.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Developer Creates a Prototype "Zero Energy Home"

So-called "zero energy homes" have been around for awhile in experimental form.  But now, an Oklahoma-based housing developer has created a prototype that could bring such high-efficiency, environmentally friendly homes into the mainstream housing market.

The builder, Ideal Homes, constructed the house in a suburb of Edmond, Oklahoma.  The house is designed to sell for about $200,000 in a market where an equivalent house using more traditional energy methods would sell for about $125,000.  Ideal Homes is positioning itself to be a leader in new housing construction, perhaps hoping to redefine it the way that William Levitt did in the 1950s

Despite its name, a zero energy house does use energy, and is connected to the power grid.  But through solar cells, ground-source heat pumps, tankless water heaters, sophisticated insulation and architecture that leverages sunlight, a zero energy house can actually generate more energy than it consumes. 

The higher cost of the house may outweigh the energy savings in the short term, but the savings will surely increase as the price of fossil fuels rises.  Plus, if zero energy design becomes the standard for housing construction, costs are certain to fall, making zero energy homes that much more attractive.

Source:  Futurismic

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Will 2006 be a Season of "Niche Blockbuster" Movies?

Those observing the film industry made note of the overall decline in box office sales in 2005.  This year, despite a rise in business, analysts are noting that this summer's slate of major releases does not appear to be generating much excitement among those in the prime movie-going age bracket (18-30 year olds). 

An online survey of young people by the consumer trend forecasting firm Zandl Group concerning the 2006 summer movies found that only three releases (The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and X-Men: The Last Stand) generated interest from more than 50% of those surveyed.  Additionally, much has been made of the less-than-spectacular numbers earned thus far by the season's first big release, Mission Impossible III, and the anemic first-weekend earnings of Poseidon, the $160 million remake of the classic 1972 disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure.

The long tail effect, combined with greater online offerings, is creating the phenomenon of the "niche blockbuster."  Unlike the classic Hollywood blockbuster that "everyone" went to see, niche blockbusters can still earn respectable profits, but will appeal to specific audiences.  The 2006 menu of summer movies may well be one that appeals to just such niches.

Sources:  VisibilityPR, Box Office Mojo

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Content Reclaiming the Throne

"Content is king!" went the battle cry from the early days of the Web.  A decade later, with the dotcom bust a distant bad memory and Web 2.0 reinvigorating the online world, content is once again the focus of attention.  The attention of some very big and surprising players, it should be noted.

User-generated video has, of course, the hottest buzz at the moment.  This buzz has caught the eye of advertisers, eager to find new ways to attract viewers who ignore TV commercials and popup ads.  An Atlanta-based ad agency called ViTrue is developing a model for selling customer-created ads, to "enable major brands to leverage customer creativity to produce more relevant and engaging ads, at lower production and distribution costs." To do this, ViTrue has acquired a controlling interest in the video sharing site Sharkle.

The way ViTrue sees it, everyone wins:  the client gets a low-cost ad that raises its visibility in in a hard-to-reach demographic, consumers see something that's both informative and entertaining, and would-be video producers get their work showcased.  The strategy has its risks -- the viral video craze could die down, or viewers could get jaded quickly -- but with the market for online video advertising expected to reach $640 million in the US alone by 2007, it's a risk advertisers have to take.

Companies like ViTrue aren't the only ones embracing content these days.  No less a player than Microsoft has announced its entry into the content creation space.  While hardly a stranger in this area -- Microsoft launched Slate and MSNBC back in the Web 1.0 days, and Bill Gates said in early 1996, "Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet" -- Microsoft appears to be once again making content development and advertising key priorities.  Said CEO Steve Ballmer in a May 4 meeting with advertisers, "We think the desire for people to read online and the desire you have to communicate online actually exceeds the good inventory that's available out there today." 

Microsoft's approach appears to center around beefing up its MSN network by, among other things, acquiring UK-based game developer Lionhead Studios and online advertising firm Massive Inc.  Some speculate that Microsoft may also purchase a stake in some of the Internet TV startups, or even in an established media powerhouse like Time Warner.

Sources:  Lost Remote, Springwise, Business Week

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The Changing Face of Grocery Shopping

Evolving consumer tastes and business trends are changing the way we shop for groceries.  Once a dull, utilitarian task that stressed low prices over style, grocery shopping is taking on new and even exciting facets.

In the US, perhaps the most notable trend is that toward upscale stores such as Wegman's, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.  In addition to providing the customer with innovative and exotic products -- many of which are organic and ecologically sensitive -- these stores strive to create a shopping experience, offering cooking classes and other attractions to make the stores special destinations.  Many of these stores also have cafes and eat-in facilities, allowing shoppers to dine where they shop (serving a dual purpose of offering a time-saving service while showcasing the store's foods).  Such moves appear to be paying off, as shoppers often travel out of their way to shop at these stores.

In these stores, enhancements to the customer experience is more than just window dressing.  These stores consider themselves to be on a mission... and the result is that their employees are energized, and pass that sense of purpose on to their customers.  Attention to detail, then, is an outgrowth of employee passion.

The trend toward upgrading supermarkets is being noticed in Europe, as the Austrian chain MPreis is incorporating stunning and progressive architecture in its store construction.  With each store featuring its own eye-catching design, MPreis stores are as far away as one can get from bland "big box" retail construction. 

One notable aspect of this trend is that, with all this attention to style and mission, prices in these stores are only slightly higher than that of their discount competitors -- who are taking notice of these stores' success. 

The most notable of these, Wal-Mart, is preparing to launch a line of organic foods.  Organic advocates generally applaud this move, as Wal-Mart's power in the retail space can only raise organic products' profile in the mainstream, though some critics dismiss the move as "greenwashing," or using organics as a mere marketing ploy while changing little about their retail operations.

Upscale grocers are thriving because informed consumers are voting with their wallets, choosing style, service, quality and sustainability over low prices in their grocery shopping, even if that means paying slightly more. 

Sources:  Springwise, WorldChanging

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Pilot Program for a "SmartShirt"

Sensatex, Inc. is preparing a pilot study of a "SmartShirt" that was originally developed by DARPA and the Georgia Institute of Technology.  The shirt contains an integrated sensor system that can measure the wearer's heart rate, respiration and body temperature.  The data from the SmartShirt can be read wirelessly into a PDA or a PC for further analysis.

Sensatex envisions the primary market for SmartShirts will be first responders (fire fighters, police, EMTs), athletes and perhaps soldiers.  It is also developing a "Health Monitoring System" that would allow patients with chronic conditions to be monitored remotely by healthcare professionals.

In a similar vein, Sensatex is also developing a SmartBra that would monitor vital signs.

Sensatex is reportedly looking for beta testers for its SmartShirt.  If you are interested, visit the company's website for contact information (in "Contact Us" under the site's "Press Room" tab, or info@sensatex.com).

Source:  Roland Piquepaille's Tech Trends

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Global Warming Slows Wind Patterns

Could global warming be weakening air circulation between the eastern and western regions of the Pacific Ocean?  It's possible, according to a recent study conducted by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Reviewing records dating back to 1861, the research team found that a steady west-to-east flow of tropical Pacific air called the Walker circulation is declining due to lessening pressure differences between the two regions of the ocean.  The team then constructed models that suggested that only human-driven atmospheric warming could account for the reduced pressure.

The result of a weakened Walker circulation?  The Walker circulation, among other things, governs the El Niño-La Niña weather cycle, and a depressed air flow could cause more El Niño rainy cycles.  Such cycles could help alleviate drought in the western US, but could also cause dry spells in tropical regions.

Source:  ScienceNOW

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Friday, May 12, 2006

End of an Era? Hummer Sunsets the H1

After the 2006 model season, Hummer will discontinue its H1 model SUV -- the original, modeled after the military HumVee, which caused a sensation when introduced to the civilian market in 1992.

Although Hummer's parent company GM denies it, one has to wonder if the H1's atrocious gas mileage (10 MPG) had any bearing on the decision in this age of $3+ gas. Always considered a tiffany product aimed at celebrities and others willing to pay $130,000 and up for a status symbol, the H1 was never a big seller in terms of volume. And people who can afford that much for a car are among those least affected by higher gas prices. Nevertheless, the H1's sales were off 14% from 2004.

Perhaps posterity will look back on the H1 as an artifact peculiar to our time, among the first victims of a broader cultural shift in attitudes surrounding energy and the environment. Or, they may see it as simply another exotic vehicle that had a respectable 14-year run.

Source: MSNBC

Moble Phones Fueling Economy in Bangladesh

We've seen before how technology can help impoverished countries improve their standard of living by putting isolated individuals and communities in touch with jobs and critical resources.  Key among these technologies is the cell phone, which is helping people in Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries

The mobile phone industry there employs nearly 240,000 people, putting a badly needed $650 million into the nation's GDP and paying $256 million in taxes.

Falling costs and better coverage have led to an explosive growth in cell phone usage in Bangladesh, with 11 million citizens now owning a cell phone.  Granted, that's only 7% of the total population, but considering that nearly half of those people survive on less than a dollar a day, that's impressive.

Source:  AFP (via Yahoo)

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Get Ready for Blikis

Combine a blog and a wiki, and you get a bliki.  It's deceptively simple... adding blog-style posting and an RSS feed to the DIY collaborative and archiving capability of a wiki.  It's one of those ideas that makes you say "Why didn't I think of that ?!?"

The Social Synergy Bliki is an example of a bliki in action.  It's very new and a work in progress, but it illustrates how a bliki could meet the needs of individuals and groups who until now haven't seen the value of either blogs or wikis.

If you'd like to give the idea a try, the bliki also has instructions for creating your own.

Source:  Smart Mobs

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Minority Baby Boom

According to the US Census Bureau, nearly half of all American children under 5 are of a racial or ethnic minority background... with 70% of those children of Hispanic origin.

The implications of this are not lost on those who study demographics and its impact not only on current needs such as education, but on future populations:

William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, predicted that the United States will have "a multicultural population that will probably be more tolerant, accommodating to other races and more able to succeed in a global economy."

There could be increased competition for money and power, he added: "The older, predominantly white baby-boom generations will need to accommodate younger, multiethnic young adults and child populations in civic life, political decisions and sharing of government resources" in places such as the Washington suburbs.

Source: Washington Post (via MSNBC)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Calling Mom on Mother's Day... And Any Day

Long-distance phone calls still peak on Mother's Day, when folks from all over call Mom to give her their love. However, calling Mom is no longer a rare event, as the lowering of long-distance rates and the ubiquitousness of cell phones have led to the commoditization of the phone conversation.

According to Pew Research, 42% of adults talk with a parent every day, versus only 32% in 1989. For parents and children who live in different towns, 22% maintain daily contact, as opposed to 8% in 1989.

Indeed, I'm old enough to remember when calling Grandma several states away was a special occasion in of itself, reserved only for holidays, birthdays or deaths in the family. Nowadays, Grandma and grandkids both have cell phones... and may be IM'ing or e-mailing when they're not talking or texting.

Censor Cable? Customers Say, "@%#$& That!"

Cable TV customers overwhelmingly believe that cable TV channels -- and premium channels especially -- should be allowed to run programming as they please, without censorship or undue regulation.

A study by Arbitron found that 77% of cable subscribers surveyed agreed that "premium networks [like HBO and Showtime] should be able to air unrestricted programming," and 62% believed that "cable networks should be free to air whatever programming they please." By contrast, only 19% found that cable programming was frequently "offensive."

However, the same survey found that a majority (54%) liked the idea of a la carte payments for networks and packages, allowing customers to more finely choose what best suits their needs and interests, whereas 42% were content with current offerings.

Such support for unfettered programming doesn't appear to account for those who currently don't subscribe to cable because they object to the content or feel they can't control what their families see. Nevertheless, the survey points to a growing interest on the part of consumers to decide for themselves what's appropriate. "In an on-demand, multi-platform world, consumers increasingly want to experience media on their own terms," said Carol Edwards of Arbitron. "As technology for media grows, consumers have more choices. This presents the cable industry with new opportunities to be creative in how they reach consumers."

Source: eMarketer

Monday, May 08, 2006

Talking Point Presents a New Tool for Collaboration

The UK-based site Talking Point offers a new way for collecting and organizing group thought for research and planning.

Its Flash-based interface collects opinions on a certain question (the current question posted is "What in your life would you like to see technology improve?"), and displays the answers in a graphical format. The words are placed in a circular cluster, with the most popular responses displayed most prominently and toward the middle.

Aside from being a potential tool for collecting customer feedback, Talking Point can also aid enterprises in strategic planning, by collecting input from large groups and displaying it in an intuitive format.

Source: Trendwatching.com

Friday, May 05, 2006

Contactless Payments Through Cell Phones? Not So Fast...

Members of Generations X and Y -- normally eager to embrace new technology -- are taking a pass on contactless payments made through mobile phones, and are wary of contactless payments in general.

A survey of 4,000 Americans aged 16 to 43 showed that 38% were not interested in using their cell phones to make payments via RFID or Bluetooth, and 60% avoid existing systems of contactless payment.  Many cited security concerns, while others said that they weren't likely to use their phones in that manner.  Predictably, those on the older end of the survey were most resistant to the idea, while the greatest support came from the youngest respondents.

Karen Webster, president of Market Platform Dynamics, who conducted the survey, believes that the it shows that consumers are taking a "wait and see" approach before taking the plunge into a new technology that would involve their finances.  "I would expect that today you would get something of a lukewarm reception, as we did. I would expect to see that change over time as devices become more prevalent and as the value proposition from the issuer develops."

In other words, contactless payments have to prove their worth... as well as their safety and stability.  However, it's one thing to be a technology guinea pig, but quite another when one's bank account is at stake.

Source:  ClickZ

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Mark June 6 on Your Calendar

To some people, dates mean things.  Very bad things.  It's no accident, for instance, that the Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, the anniversary of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, several years earlier.

That's why many in public safety and law enforcement are eyeing this coming June 6 warily.  The date -- 6/6/06 -- could inspire acts of violence from fringe groups who identify it with the Biblical Mark of the Beast, 666.

So far, no official warnings have been issued by authorities... but that doesn't mean they're not concerned.  Googling "6/6/06" produces a variety of websites about the significance of the date, including everything from a prediction of the arrival of the antichrist (and a detailed timeline including dates such as 7/7/07, 8/8/08, etc.), to a story about mothers who fear to give birth on that date, to a very calculated release date for the remake of the 1970s horror film The Omen.

The Christian website Rapture Ready attempts to measure global activities that point to the arrival of the End Times.  As of today the "Rapture Index" stands at 155; anything above 145 is rated as "Fasten your seat belts!" Some predict that it will spike even higher as June 6 approaches.

Source:  Denver Post (via Urban Legends and Folklore, About.com)

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The Future of Clothes

What will people be wearing 20 years from now?  Five years from now?  Six months from now?  Futurist Joseph Coates ponders the future of clothing styles, reflecting on both how our current fashions came to be, and where they are headed.  Coates emphasizes that social trends, marketing, status, politics, religion, globalization, climate, technical innovation (zippers, synthetic fabrics, color-fast dyes) and even health concerns are drivers of fashion change, and that new factors such as the Internet, mass customization and global warming will also play a role in what we'll be wearing tomorrow.

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Town Hall Meetings via Skypecasts

Skype, the free, Internet-based voice service, is lending its expertise to the social networking movement in the form of real-time "town hall" meetings, where up to 100 participants can join in a single session.

The TypePad blogging service is integrating Skypecasts into its members' blogs. "Blogging is a very asynchronous activity,'' said Michael Sippey, general manager for TypePad. "I post, and people read it, eventually. One of the things bloggers want to do is create a community around their blog, and with the Skypecasts . . . it's a great way to take blogging from a purely publishing medium to a true communication medium.''

Skypecasting works much like conference calling, with moderators able to mute, expel and give the floor to participants.  Anyone who's participated in a large conference call or online chat knows that careful moderation is a must.

For now, Skypecasting's largest draw is that it's free, and that it's being marketed to a segment that might not have leveraged conference calling before, particularly teens.  It will be interesting to see how these users put Skypecasting to work, and what innovations they bring to the table.

Source:  San Jose Mercury News

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OnHollywood Ponders Viral Media

How can Hollywood harness the growing power of user-created online content -- namely video?  Is there a business model allowing money to be made directly from viral video... or are such videos a means to a different end?

The recent OnHollywood conference, hosted by the AlwaysOn Network, examined these and other technological questions that are changing the entertainment industry.  Among other things, the conference acknowledged the growing impact and popularity of video clips, and the way that they are redefining what it means for something to be a "hit."  "Trying to create a mass market misses the point. It is more efficient to serve micro markets," said Brightcove CEO Jeremy Allaire. "I am not sure if 10,000 to 30,000 viewers will be economically sustainable, but I think that's the hope."

Although video clips won't likely supplant movies and TV shows, they are evolving into an entertainment medium in their own right, complete with their own set of aesthetic standards.  Video clips are also bumping up against the classic problem of new media:  the difficulty in creating a business model.  Specialty broadband channels are appearing, as well as other models for making money... but the field remains a work in progress.

Source:  CNET

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[UPGRADE] New E-Mail Newsletter Engine

FutureWire readers who prefer to receive posts via e-mail can subscribe to a mailing list using the new e-mail newsletter engine, powered by FeedBurner.  This should be more stable and reliable than the previous engine.

To sign up, just enter your e-mail address in the form at the right-hand margin of the FutureWire web page.  You will receive further instructions by e-mail, including directions for unsubscribing.  You will only receive one message per day, containing all posts from the previous day.  If you subscribed to FutureWire e-mails via the previous engine, you will need to re-subscribe.

SciDev.Net's Bird Flu Dossier

Increasingly, the spread of the H5N1 virus (aka bird flu) is making news, with fears that it could mutate and cause a pandemic.  In response to the need for accurate information, SciDev.Net has created an online dossier that includes an introduction to bird flu, the latest news, facts and figures, feature articles and editorials.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Building Crisis Awareness Through Games

Few of us here in the affluent West can even begin to imagine the horrors of the civil war now raging in the Darfur region of SudanMtvU, a subsidiary of MTV Networks serving college students, is betting that it can raise awareness of the crisis through an online game.  Darfur is Dying is a browser-based game that allows the player to role-play one of several Sudanese villagers who must forage for water and help their people survive, all while avoiding militias.  It's a creative way of educating people about -- and soliciting donations for -- one of the world's great travesties.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Vatican Considers Endorsing Condoms... But Special Conditions Will Apply

Even the most traditional and conservative of institutions cannot avoid the realities of the modern world forever. A little over a year since his ordination, Pope Benedict XVI is taking the bold step of considering permitting Catholics to use condoms under very specific conditions.

Condoms would be endorsed only as a method to prevent the spread of AIDS and HIV, and not as a form of birth control. Under one possible scenario, the Vatican would allow the use of condoms only for married couples where one partner is infected.

Even this very limited endorsement, in its speculative stages, is generating heated debate. Catholic conservatives who oppose any change in the church's position are already viewing it as an opening to misinterpretation and confusion over what was once a very clear (if controversial) doctrine. "That will be picked up as 'Church O.K.'s Condoms,' and that would seem to undermine the whole church teaching on sexuality and marriage," said the Rev. Brian V. Johnstone, a moral theologian at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.

But others see it as simply acknowledging a global health crisis, especially in Africa, where the church is growing, and where AIDS is rampant. Plus, they argue, only a pope such as Benedict, whose credentials as a moral hardliner are undisputed, could introduce such an idea without it being perceived as a slippery slope. Though, as Rev. Johnstone says, it may be viewed as such anyway.

Source: New York Times

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Japan's Bleeding-Edge Cell Phones

South Korea has been a hotbed of cell phone innovation recently, but the Japanese are also making their presence felt. The NEC N902i videophone, for example, boasts advanced features such as an anti-shake camera, a text scanner, and speech output of text that "speaks" e-mails. Perhaps most significantly, the phone also includes a digital wallet for making contactless micropayments, and a bar-code reader that can read bar codes placed on ads to provide the user with more information through the cell phone.

The N902i is a strong seller in Japan, and users there are reportedly making use of the advanced features, particularly the bar-code reader.

Source: Martin's Mobile Technology Page

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Rethinking the Light Bulb

The incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison's transformative invention that has become a universal metaphor for bright ideas, might be an idea whose time is passing.

While cheap to produce, this 19th century technology generates lots of heat, making it an energy waster and potentially dangerous. Ever since the introduction of flourescent lighting in the 1930s, electrical engineers and scientists have been trying to develop a better light bulb. Long-lasting, low-watt compact flourescent lamps (CFLs) are a start, but researchers are even more interested in light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Efficient, cool-burning LED lights are all around us, but only recently have versions been developed that generate a white light bright enough to illuminate a large space. Now, scientists are intrigued by the possibilities of organic LEDs, or OLEDs, which can be produced in wafer-thin sheets that could theoretically turn walls, ceilings and other flat objects into lights -- something that in itself opens up a whole new world of interior design possibilities. OLEDs are nearly 100% energy efficient, meaning that nearly all the energy going into them is used to produce light and not heat.

Currently, the biggest challenge is developing an OLED that is moisture resistant, as even the slightest amount of moisture can foul the sensitive components of an OLED light. Researchers from Princeton University, the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan are joining forces in this effort. The team recently described their OLED work in a paper published in the journal Nature.

RELATED: Besides old-fashioned light bulbs, another unexpected source of energy consumption is so-called "vampire power," or the electricity used by transformers and electronics, even when those devices are off. This post from WorldChanging explains, and offers ways to monitor and reduce this waste.

Source: BBC

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Future Blues

Futurists, by nature, have a positive outlook toward things to come. But many don't share that optimism these days, as a new poll from the Pew Research Center shows.

Half of the American adults surveyed said that today's children will grow up to be worse off than people are today, as opposed to 34% who say they'll be better off. That particular question did not define the terms "better off" or "worse off," and addressed children in general, not just those of the survey subjects.

When the question was asked of parents concerning their own children, most still believe that their kids will be better off that they are, though the percentage of parents who believe that (56%) has shrunk by 10 points since 2002, and the percentage of those who think their children will be less well off (22%) has nearly doubled.

Of all the demographic groups broken out of the survey, only Hispanics had a majority who believed that children of today will be better off tomorrow. "One likely explanation is that so many Hispanics are immigrants - and immigrants throughout history have tended to be upwardly mobile people with faith in the future," says Pew. Overall, women were more downbeat than men, and the older, less educated and less affluent were the most pessimistic, though college grads registered a sharp decline in optimism over 2002.

Historically, the results from these sorts of surveys usually say more about the present than the future. Downbeat assessments of the future were common in the early '90s, during a period of economic recession. But optimism grew during that decade as the economy boomed and exciting Internet technology captured the popular imagination, only to fall again in the wake of 9/11. Today's economic hardships such as the rising cost of fuel, geopolitical tensions, moral ambiguity, and lack of confidence in our political leadership are surely driving much of our present concerns about the future.

Make Money With Your Viral Video

OK... so you have that hilarious video clip that you're sure will spread over the Web like wildfire. What do you do with it?

You could upload it to one of the many video sites... or you could upload it to a new site called Revver, and make money with it. Revver is similar to video sites like YouTube, but when a video clip is uploaded to Revver, an ad is attached that pays the video owner whenever it is clicked. The ad stays with the video even if it is uploaded to other sites, shared via IM or P2P, e-mailed, or even burned to a CD. Clip owners can also specify which type of ads they want associated with their clips.

Revver is still in beta and a new kid on the block, so it might be awhile before its videos gain a high profile. Plus, the revenue model might invite some unwelcome spam and lame marketing efforts. But considering the current popularity of viral video, it's no wonder that someone would attempt to build a revenue model around it.

Source: Trend Central

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When Company Time and Personal Time Collide

If you're reading this at work, you might be putting your job at risk. Or not.

Recently, a New York City administrative law judge declined to support the city's Department of Education to fire an employee for surfing the Web on company time. "It should be observed," Judge John B. Spooner wrote, "that the Internet has become the modern equivalent of a telephone or a daily newspaper, providing a combination of communication and information that most employees use as frequently in their personal lives as for their work."

This case further highlights the growing ambiguity of what constitutes "company time" or a "work day." In today's always-on business world, many knowledge workers work after hours, whether at home or on the road. Employers don't complain about that -- and in some cases it's an expectation -- so why should they quibble if workers use time during the workday for personal tasks? Progressive, enlightened employers don't, recognizing the increased blurring of the work and personal spaces. Adding fuel to the controversy are studies suggesting that employees who work from home spend almost twice as much time using the Internet for work use after hours than using it for personal use during work hours.

Ultimately, we may move toward a work model in which much employee pay is based on output of work, rather than hours spent or the "bucket" in which those hours are contained.

Source: Washington Post

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A Scenario for a US-China War

Retired Brigadier General Victor N. Corpus examines some scenarios for future military conflict -- none of which should provide any comfort to the Pentagon.

A key scenario involves the US making a pre-emptive strike against China after instigating unrest in Taiwan and a Chinese military response. The Chinese arsenal includes everything from economic weapons (dumping US Treasury bonds, causing a financial panic), anti-satellite "space mines," and an "assassin's mace" of rocket torpedoes and supersonic cruise missiles launched against an advancing carrier fleet. Corpus believes that such an attack would be very difficult to counter, and that it could, in effect, make the American aircraft carrier fleet obsolete... just as carriers and other weapons did to the battleship in World War II. In fact, Corpus believes that China could use such a strategy to neutralize US forces in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Pacific in a matter of hours. Furthermore, Corpus believes that Chinese cruise missiles launched across the Pacific could even pose a threat to US West Coast cities... especially if they're tipped with nuclear warheads.

Corpus also speculates on the impact of asynchronous and asymmetrical warfare that includes everything from crude "dirty" bombs, computer hacking and chemical/biological weapons, to high-tech weapons that use lasers, ultrahigh frequencies, microwaves and ultrasonic waves.

Corpus' scenarios are meant to highlight the danger of pre-emptive war, concluding that the US will be best served applying its vast power and resources to peaceful purposes. However, one would hope that current and future US military planners are considering these such weapons and strategies in their own battle plans.

Source: Minding the Planet

Self-Cooling Cans

Using an environmentally safe, built-in evaporator, a new can design by Tempra Technology can lower the temperature of its contents by 30 degrees in just three minutes. For a cool beverage, just twist the can's bottom.

Miller Brewing Co. plans to debut Tempra cans for its beverages by mid-2007. While this will initially be a premium product (and a lot of people will buy it for the novelty factor) and the can itself makes up the bulk of the product (a 16-oz can holds only 10.5-oz of liquid), it could have practical applications in situations where refrigeration is not available, such as camping, disaster zones and relief efforts in developing countries.

Tempra makes several lines of self-heating and self-cooling packaging for food, healthcare and veterinary medicine.

Source: Sharkride