Tag Archives: Environment

The Conflict of Interest of CO2

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Quite a hoo ha over one of those weekend type stories whose headline in the Times of London says it all:

Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches

Physicist Alex Wissner-Gross says that performing two Google searches uses up as much energy as boiling the kettle for a cup of tea

The article liberally quotes Wissner-Gross “a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon.” Lower down the storiy It also says “Wissner-Gross has submitted his research for publication by the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and has also set up a website www.CO2stats.com.”

True. Though what it doesn’t say is that the website—and Wissner-Gross–directly benefits from this kind of research. C02Stats offers clients plans, ranging from $5 a month to $100, to calculate their websites total energy consumption, make it more energy efficient, and then neutralizes their carbon footprint by buying renewable energy from wind and solar farms.

The startup is funded by Y Combinator, which specializes in giving modest funding—about $10,000—to small startups. Indeed, Wissner-Gross, an environmental fellow, has set up four such companies.

Now, the research may well be right. (Some doubt it.) And the idea of certifying websites is not a bad idea. But I guess what troubles me is that an academic is able to publish research which tries to prove a point which would benefit the same academic’s business which offers green certification which depends upon a service which the business sells.

I’m sure it’s not the only example, but it strikes me as quite a compromise going on there.

Reforestation, Google Earth Style

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Here’s a very cool way to mix technology and environmental stuff, via the Google Earth Blog. (Interest declared: It’s part of the NEWtrees project, the brainchild of my publisher and friend Mark Hanusz):

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) offers you the opportunity to buy a tree which will be planted in a rainforest in Sebangau National Forest in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. In return, they not only plant the tree, but give you a Google Earth KML file in return with the location coordinates of your tree. Theoretically, as Google continues to update with higher resolution satellite and aerial imagery, you should be able to watch the growth of your tree (and the others who donate trees) over the coming years. To get started, you simply go to the web site mybabytree.org. They have a very cute animation that will guide you through the process, and you can use Paypal to make your donation. You can see the location and list of trees purchased so far here . Borneo is another location, like the Amazon, where rain forests are disappearing due to logging at a freightening pace. I hope WWF will extend the concept to the rapidly declining rain forests in the Amazon.

Why’s this so good? Because it leverages straightforward technology — GPS, Google Earth — to make the global significant on an individual scale. I remember when I was a kid my dad planted a tree for me in Northampton as part of a local Men of the Trees project (now the International Tree Foundation). Sadly the project was bulldozed to make way for a bypass, but hopefully that’s not likely to happen in Kalimantan. Certainly I could relate a lot more to one tree than a forest.

 

Google Earth Blog: Buy a Tree for the Rainforest – Get a KML

Satellites to the Rescue

Satellite image of Muzaffarabad region of Pakistan showing landslides caused by the 2005 south Asian earthquake. Map created on 13 October 2005

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation on how satellites and space technology are helping, and might help, in the case of big medical emergencies, from earthquakes to Ebola. It’s a slightly different tack for me and perhaps not the usual fare for loose wire blog, but I thought I’d throw it in here anyway.

When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was seen leaving a conference in Geneva in November 2005 clutching maps of the south Asia earthquake disaster, it was evidence that satellites – as a key weapon in humanitarian emergencies – had arrived.

In the hours and days after the October 8 quake struck killing more than 73 000 people and injuring some 150 000, experts from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United Nations scrambled to gather and interpret images data from satellites to assist rescue workers on the ground from local authorities to nongovernmental organizations (NGO), like Télécoms Sans Frontières.

WHO | Space technology: a new frontier for public health

Cellphone Spikes and Disaster Management

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Steven Levitt makes a good point on the Freakonomics blog about the spike in cellphone usage after the Minneapolis bridge collapse which alerted at least one carrier to an emergency before the news hit. His conclusion:

This would seem to hints at strategies that could be useful for coordinating quick emergency response more generally, as well as military/intelligence applications.

One commenter suggests that this may simply throw up lots of false positives, while another says the real problem is in identifying the cause of the spike — disaster, or a radio station offering $1,000 to the 26th caller?

Seems to me that you should be able to tell pretty quickly where the spike originates — lots of people calling from stranded cars on a bridge are unlikely to indicate a phone-in competition. Perhaps if cellphone masts and base stations also included cameras and/or two-way communication devices it would be possible for cellphone engineers to be able to not only assess the situation but open their communications up to rescue services, who could then monitor the situation and convey instructions and information to those in the affected area.

Brain Withdrawal

I’m really getting into using PersonalBrain, the newly launched version of a decade-old program that should have swept the world by now. But there’s a downside to relying on one piece of software so much: When it goes wrong, you’re adrift.

Luckily the guys at PersonalBrain are looking into it, but I had to stop using mine about 24 hours ago when I noticed weird things happening. My brain is now on their operating table and I’m praying I’ll get it back soon because I just have no appetite to do anything meaningful without it.

PersonalBrain fills that hole I’ve often felt existed between having ideas, finding snippets of information or encountering websites, companies, people and books I encounter in my day. Before I would not know quite where to put them so I could find them when I needed them, and invented dozens of systems to try to solve the problem. None worked very well, because they all relied on me remembering what I’d added and where.

As you may have found, most of what we know doesn’t fit neatly into a structure — that PR guy we met last night? Should we put him under PR, or the companies he handles, or the fact that actually he was much more interesting on credit card fraud, and he could definitely be lured out on a date with one of the legions of single females we seem to know?

And what about that idea you had in the bath this morning, where you wondered aloud whether the plethora of news stories on global warming was evidence of a) a sudden increase in global warming, b) a sudden increase in journalists’ interest in global warming, c) a sudden increase in editorial commitment to educate the public about global warming d) a pathetic hope on the part of editors that global warming stories may sell more papers or e) a sort of new tacit agreement between media and public that now we all agree that climate change is happening, we need to be reminded of how clever we are? If you’re not sure, where are you going to put that in your database? Future media? Future of newspapers? Cynical ploys? Global warming? Great ideas you have in the bath that don’t sound so great when you’re not?

The answer: with PersonalBrain you can put it anywhere, and, more importantly, have a higher chance of finding it again. Quickly PB envelopes your processes and shifts them into a different gear. Which is why it’s sooooo hard to function when your file gets corrupted and needs to go in for surgery. (Yes, it’s worrying that software can do this, but we should have gotten used to it by now. I’d much rather there was software that wasn’t perfect but which reached for the stars than some more basic mush that always worked but never transformed how I worked.)

So. I’m brainless, gormless, mindless, whatever you want to call it until the doctors call. Next time I’m going to back up my brain every hour and hope this doesn’t happen again. But I’m excited, too, that I care enough about a piece of software and how it can help me that I feel so bereft. I haven’t felt like this since Enfish Tracker Pro.

Update: An all nighter by the PersonalBrain people and my brain is back, fixed and missing half a dozen thoughts (out of 7,000). I’ve been assured the problem is being investigated and future versions of the software will include an automatic backup option each time the program is closed.

Traffic Rules Part I

Traffic1The difference between a developed metropolis and a developing one isn’t transportation — it’s the rules and discipline about how that transportation is used. A city like Hong Kong flows because everyone follows the rules. A city like Jakarta doesn’t because people don’t. It’s not about building more roads, or more subways, or more bus lanes, but about developing rules that ensure existing transportation is used as it should be. Cars, people, trains and buses flow because they each agree to a set of rules that ensure that flow. In effect it’s like one big sliding puzzle. The bits move around because there’s space for them to move around.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s just people stopping at red lights, or people allowing passengers to alight before they try to embark. The rules can be sophisticated or basic, but they only work if they’re followed: In Hong Kong a taxi driver won’t cross a thick white line even if there’s no traffic around; in Jakarta there are several red lights around the city that cars don’t bother to even stop at. In one city nothing is negotiable; in another everything is. A new buslane in Jakarta that’s officially off limits to all vehicles except buses and emergency vehicles is already awash with ordinary traffic.

Somehow in Hong Kong the rules have become the norm, and no one needs to be around to enforce them. Everyone keeps everyone else in line. In Jakarta, the rules are seen as an obstacle, something to be overcome. It’s not as if drivers in Hong Kong are somehow collaborating in a fit of consideration, but there is a tacit recognition that by following the rules, everyone will benefit. Even in pedestrian overpasses, somehow a rule establishes itself — everyone walks on the left, say, and the two-way flow is optimized. It doesn’t seem hard and fast; the next day everyone seems to be walking on the right. But it works. A self-organizing system.

Jakarta is not. It’s a free-for-all. Or actually, it’s has its own rules. It’s just they’re not optimized for the situation. The bigger the vehicle, for example, the more it will take precedence over other vehicles. And a car in Hong Kong won’t pull into traffic if by doing so it will slow down that traffic. This is what the Stop/Give way/Yield sign is for. A car in Jakarta will do the opposite: It will pull out slowly, inching into the road until the traffic is forced to slow down to accommodate it. In fact the dominance of unwritten traffic rules in a city like Jakarta ensure that traffic will never work efficiently.

Until those rules are replaced with rules that work and the discipline to ensure they’re followed, developing cities will never become developed ones. It’s not about the infrastructure. It’s about the way it’s used.

Loose Bits, Nov 28 2006

From my PR intray, some surprisingly interesting little odds and ends:

LocalCooling is a 100% Free power management tool from Uniblue Labs that allows users to optimize their energy savings in minutes and as a result reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. The software “automatically optimizes your PC’s power consumption by using a more effective power save mode. You will be able to see your savings in real-time translated to more evironmental terms such as how many trees and gallons of oil you have saved.”

Sim CityElectronic Arts Inc. today announced SimCity for mobile, which “lets mobile phone users create and manage the growth of a living city in the palm of their hands. Originally created by Will Wright, SimCity is now available on major U.S. carriers.” Not sure how this works, as there’s nothing yet on EA’s site. It does sound a bit like milking a cash cow or is it flogging a dead horse? 

free spam filterCyberDefenderFREE is “a full internet security suite that can operate  standalone, or complement existing security software to add an existing layer of early-alert security to the desktop.” As far as I can work out, this is a competitor to Windows Defender although it seems to include a collaborative element, where users report either manually or automatically dodgy software and sites they’ve come across. I think.

Google Earth as Harbinger of Doom

Researchers are using Google Earth, the New York Times/IHT reports, to look for evidence of giant tsunamis, signs that the Earth has been hit by comets or asteroids more regularly, and more recently, than people thought:

This year the group started using Google Earth, a free source of satellite images, to search around the globe for chevrons, which they interpret as evidence of past giant tsunamis. Scores of such sites have turned up in Australia, Africa, Europe and the United States, including the Hudson River Valley and Long Island.

Chevrons are huge deposits of sediment that were once on the bottom of the ocean; they are as big as tower blocks and shaped like chevrons, the tip indicating the direction from which the tsunami came. 

I love the idea that academics use a tool like Google Earth to — possibly — puncture one of the greatest myths of the human era: that comets only come along once every 500,000 years.

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every few thousand years.

There are a couple of other quirks to this story. The working group of misfits is cross-disciplinary — there’s a specialist on the structural analysis of myth in there — but only formed when they bumped into each other at a conference. How more efficient it would have been had they been blogging; they might have found each other earlier. (Perhaps they met before the blogging age; there’s a piece on the subject here from 2000.) 

The second quirk for me is that the mythologist (actually Bruce Masse calls himself an enviromental archaeologist) reckons he can pinpoint the exact date of the comet which created the Burckle Crater between Madagascar and Australia using local legends: 

Masse analyzed 175 flood myths from around the world, and tried to relate them to known and accurately dated natural events like solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions. Among other evidence, he said, 14 flood myths specifically mention a full solar eclipse, which could have been the one that occurred in May 2807 B.C.

I love the idea of myths; I see them as a kind of early Internet, a way of dispersing knowledge using the most efficient tools (in those days, this meant stories and word of mouth.) We tend to think of myths as superstition and scare mongering, but in fact in many cases they are the few grains of wisdom that get passed on from generation to generation.  They often get contorted in the telling, the original purpose — to warn — sometimes getting lost. 

Like the Moken sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea, most of whom were spared the 2004 tsunami because they “knew from their tribal lore that this was a warning sign to flee to higher ground”, according to Reuters. On the Acehnese island of Simeulue, similar lore, dating back to the 1907 tsunami, tells islanders that “if the land is shaking and shoreline is drained abnormally, they have to go to very high land.” Only seven people out of 80,000 islanders died. 

Based on this, the idea of trying to pin down the comets, the craters and the chevrons by exploring local myth makes a lot of sense. I like the idea that is being done alongside using something as modern, and as freely available, as Google Earth. I guess I’m just not happy about the implications for us current planet dwellers. 

Source: Ancient crash, epic wave – Health & Science – International Herald Tribune (graphic here)

Indonesia’s Quake

For anyone interested in helping the victims of the Yogyakarta earthquake, in which thousands of people have been killed inside their heavy stone and slate homes, here’s Indonesia Help – Earthquake and Tsunami Victims.

Sadly, this website was originally set up for the tsunami, now 17 months ago, but has been quickly resurrected to provide news and information on how to help. Even the website of the administration of the town of Bantul has updated its site with some news and photos of the quake. More information can be found at the airputih media center. The tsunami has clearly made local organisations and individuals aware of the need for rapid disbursement of information, especially on missing persons and where to give your aid. I noticed Saturday night folk walking around traffic in Jakarta with donation boxes, but we also know from experience the prevalence of scams during such times. Better to give your money to an organisation recommended by one of these sites.

Mobilizing the Bird Watchers

It sounds more like the storyline for a movie, but this piece in the International Herald Tribune by Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Coming Plague”, highlights an area where technology might be able help stem the tide of bird flu:

One of the best untapped resources in this epic battle against influenza is bird-watchers, who are among the most fanatic hobbyists in the world. The major bird-watching organizations and safari clubs ought to work with the World Health Organization and OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, to set up Web-based notification sites, where birders could report sightings of groups of dead birds, and the movements of key migrating species.

This information would then lead to issuing alerts, and, when “carrier species are sighted in a region, swift action should be taken to minimize contact between the wild birds and their domestic kin. In such a way, it might be possible to limit avian deaths to susceptible wild birds, such as the dying swans of Europe.” The picture Garrett paints is a scary one (her book title perhaps reveals her optimism, or lack of it, about what could happen.) So could the bird watcher brigade save the human race?

In some places it’s already happening. Organisations in the UK, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have asked their members to report dead birds, but unless I’m not looking in the right place their websites don’t make much of it. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust had one link to avian influenza but buried the contact number for the public at the bottom of the page (and no email link).

China, too, is mobilizing bird lovers, according to the China Daily but candidly admits its numbers aren’t enough:  “There are more than 100 frequent birdwatchers in Beijing, but the number proves to be far from enough when the people are scattered at wild bird habitats around the city,” [Li Haitao, a birdwatcher in the capital,] said.

It would seem to me that the Internet is perfectly suited to this kind of coordinated “citizen reporting” of migratory patterns and bird deaths. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Plus, it would make a great movie. Leonardo di Caprio as an anorak-wearing bird watcher saving the planet?

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