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Invest Your Green in Green: Earth Day 2008

April 21st, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

In Washington DC today, an Earth Day festival on the National Mall was almost rained out by heavy thunderstorms, leaving many concert-goers dripping from head to toe.

solar_cell.gifThe concerts may be over, but Earth Day is not actually until Tuesday. The Washington Post featured a number of editorials giving opposing views on the cost and viability of solar power and other alternative energies. Many of these are aimed at supporting or debunking the claims of various interest groups that plan to introduce new legislation this week aimed at limiting U.S. carbon emissions.

That’s a fine goal in its own right, but in the long term we need to restructure our approach to serving the world’s energy needs. In debating the finer points of legislation it is too easy to forget the role that technological innovation can play in problem solving. It is difficult to predict which technologies will win the day, but encouraging green-tech investment now could have a payoff much larger than we can image. There is a bewildering array of research underway, ranging from growing bio-diesel fuel from algae to replacing cell phone batteries with water-powered fuel cells.

As these examples suggest, there probably will not be one single replacement for traditional energy sources, but rather a whole variety of approaches that together will help to reduce our impact on the environment. One thing that is almost certain, however: we are not spending nearly enough on green tech investment.

On that note, here are some ideas for using your dollar to promote green investment:
- Calculate your carbon footprint and buy carbon offsets.
- Consider mutual funds or ETFs that track “green” companies or alternative energies.
- Buy a hybrid car (and no, not the SUV variety, which takes a lot more steel to produce).

If you have any other suggestions, please let us know in the comments.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Appropriate Technology · Energy

The (Slow) Race to Put Movies Online

February 25th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

onlinemovies.gifThe Academy Awards were on TV last night, and the many retrospective montages showing 80 years of film made me want to write something about why few of those movies are available legally online today. Remember all those promises back in the late 1990s about how the Internet would soon allow people to watch any movie they want from anywhere at any time? We’re still a long way from that goal. Here’s why legal online movie distribution has been so difficult to achieve.

The first hurdle has been getting the rights to distribute movie content online. The Hollywood writers’ strike forced this issue into the public eye; the main obstacle to a deal was the proportion of revenue that the writers are entitled receive for digital distribution of movies and TV shows. Now that the writer’s strike has ended, the issue seems to be resolved — at least for new movies produced in the U.S. — but the studios may still have to negotiate rights for older movies produced in an era when contracts did not anticipate online distribution. And don’t forget the studios will also need to procure similar rights from actors, musicians, directors, and other rights holders, if they don’t already have them. The process is long and cumbersome, sometimes requiring case-by-case negotiations with each artist involved in each movie.

The second hurdle is getting the content across the Internet. Broadband speeds in the U.S. and Europe are just starting to reach the point where a standard definition movie can be easily downloaded in one sitting. HD will take longer, although and others are proving that reliable real-time HD streaming is possible across a 2 Mbit downlink. In Japan, where a recent push to deploy 100Mbit fiber optic connections to most homes has been extremely successful, HD movies should download in a matter of minutes, and (Japan-only) services such as seem to be taking off. Yet people there mainly seem to watch Internet video (and live TV) on their broadband-speed mobile phones, and NTT (the telecom giant responsible for the fiber deployment) has yet to launch its video-on-demand service.

The third hurdle — more important for full length movie viewing than for TV shows — is getting the content from the Internet to the living room television. In the U.S., the major players seem to be Netflix, Apple, Xbox, and Amazon. None of these seems to be a great solution yet. Netflix offers a thousand or so titles, but they aren’t in HD and you have to figure out your own way of getting the movies to your TV and streaming doesn’t work on the MacOS. Apple has only just released a new version of its Apple TV, which does offer HD, but you have to buy their box and connect it to your TV. The Xbox is already connected to your TV and has HD titles but uses a confusing “point system” for online purchases, which may be a deterrent for people who do not already use Xbox Live for online gaming. Finally, Amazon Unbox offers a large library online, and if you have a Tivo you can download them directly from your remote, but Amazon is not yet offering HD. Of these four, no clear frontrunner has emerged. Although some argue that there needs to be a common standard before consumers will link up in droves, this is not necessarily true. Online rentals, which seem to be more popular than purchases, typically “self-destruct” after a month or so anyway, so portability between formats is not necessarily as much of an issue as it was with Betamax and VHS or HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.

These hurdles are not insurmountable. The TV studios have proven that the first two can be overcome. In fact, all of the major U.S. TV studios have now jumped on the online bandwagon. Many people in the U.S. are now in the habit of catching missed episodes of “Lost” and other shows by watching them on my laptop, and don’t really seem to mind the occasional ads.

Meanwhile, by most accounts, unauthorized services such as and account for the vast majority of online movie downloads. Megabit-connected users willing to take on the legal risk have access to a wide array of pirated movies from South Korea to Bollywood. So far, it is only in this black market that the promise of ubiquitous movies-on-demand appears close to realization. It should, however, only be a matter of time before the cost and availability of legal downloads reach a level where they can successfully compete with the pirate sites.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Broadband · Copyright · Fiber · India · Japan · TV · U.S.

Automatic Beer Glass Tilter

February 10th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

The Japanese love beer and they love automatic vending machines. So, naturally, beer can vending machines are plentiful. But what if you want draft beer? The Japanese also have that covered: This little gadget automatically tilts your beer glass to the perfect angle while dispensing beer with just the right amount of head. Check it out in this video:


You can find these machines in all the major airlines’ business-class lounges at Narita airport.

If you want a clearer view, check out the photos of a similar machine over at CrunchGear.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Fun · Gadgets · Japan

Cambodia Transport Tech: Elephants and Motorcycles

February 5th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

elephant.jpg  The architecture of Angkor (in Cambodia, the seat of the Khmer empire from the 9th to 14th centuries) reflects the unique sophistication of the Khmer culture.  For example, there are the “elephant gates” of Angkor Wat, the main temple of Angkor, which are built to accommodate royalty that traveled on… well… elephants. angkorelephantgate.jpgMy personal favorite, shown in the picture (at right), is an elephant “loading zone” of sorts — a hallway that ends abruptly about eight feet (maybe three meters) above the ground, which is apparently the perfect height for unloading bricks, or people, from elephants into the complex.

cambodiapitstop2.jpgToday, of course, times have changed, and the vehicle of choice in Cambodia is the motorcycle. Rides are frequently a family affair; it is not uncommon to see 3 or 4 people piled on to one bike. Catering to the motorcycle culture are fueling stations that are basically miniature versions of the petrol/gasoline stations seen in many other countries — except that the fuel is stored in reused glass bottles. (For some reason, Johnny Walker Whiskey bottles are popular for this use.)

For larger images, follow the link below.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Anthropology · Archaeology · Cambodia · Uncategorized

All World’s Internet Users Aren’t American

February 4th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

One of Intel’s anthropologists, Genevieve Bell, gave the keynote speech at the Australasian Computer Science Conference last year. After the conference, she was asked if it would be fair to characterize her job as reminding American technology experts that all Internet users aren’t Americans. Her frank reply:

“[T]hat’s certainly one way of thinking about it. . . . One of the jobs for most anthropologists is to tell stories of the people we spend time with, and to really do justice to their aspirations and desires and frustrations by telling their stories back to other people who wouldn’t listen to them otherwise. Often that means yes, I am talking to Americans about the rest of the world . . . .”

The question was obviously tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless worth asking. U.S. companies frequently set the standards for technology used all over the world, but they sometimes (often?) fail to take into account socioeconomic differences beyond simply translating the project into another language. Bell gives the example of the phone system in Ghana where many people, fearful of large phone charges, rarely complete a call and instead make an agreement in advance to ring once and hang up (a practice known as “flashing” or “peeping” which was also once common even in the U.S.)

Engineers also can build much more useful tools by taking the time to learn about the lives of users. By doing so, the tools enhance rather than hinder the users’ lifestyles. For example, Bell explains that in Malaysia, Indonesia and much of the middle east, mobile phones have become an important part of religious ritual by incorporating software that allows you to orient the phone towards Mecca and remind the user when to pray.

Read the full article here.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Anthropology · Asia · Australia · Ghana · Indonesia · Malaysia · Middle East · Mobile · U.S.

Beijing Olympic Venues

February 1st, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

During the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, China will be presenting itself to the world in part through the architecture of the Olympic venues. Many of the buildings are now nearing completion, and I’ve put together a small collection of my favorite publicly available photos from Flickr.

1. Beijing “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium
Photo by CATIC-TEDer

The most recognizable building to date is the Olympic Stadium itself. Also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” the stadium was designed by a Swiss architecture firm with guidance from Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who was originally quite proud of the design: “In China, a bird’s nest is very expensive, something you eat on special occasions.” (Source) However, Ai has since, rather famously and publicly criticized the Chinese Olympic committee for putting together a ‘pretend smile’ to the world, in the YouTube clip below:


1. The “Water Cube” Aquatic Center:
Photo by angus_mac_123

The Olympic Committee has been criticized for awarding so many of the contracts to foreign rather than Chinese firms. For example, the above National Acquatic Center a.k.a. “the Water Cube” seems to have been designed and built entirely by European firms. However there are at least some characteristically Chinese aspects to its construction; the joints between each of the ETFE “bubbles” are not just bolted on but also welded together — a labor-intensive process that has surely kept a large number of Chinese employed during its construction.

3. The National Gymnasium (Basketball venue)

Photo by Wolfiewolf

The National Gymnasium has not received as much press as the stadium and the aquatic center, but its design appears to have some intriguing elements. In the above poster, the building looks like a giant circuit board (perhaps something the Borg would have built?). I cannot find much information on this design, so if you have some insight into it, please let me know in the comments!

Photo by Wolfiewolf

You can find more photos on the Beijing Olympics’ official site, here.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Architecture · China · Photo Fridays

The New Space Race, Part II: Lunar Photos or Hoax?

January 30th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

china-moon.jpgSome Chinese bloggers are questioning whether a lunar photo taken by a Chinese satellite is real. The doubters claim that the photo was copied from an old NASA shot. The Chinese government has been quick to rebut the claims, pointing out moon craters that appear only in the Chinese photo and arguing they must have been formed after the NASA shot was taken.

The incident is reminiscent of the U.S. experience with its space program. There have always been some Americans who doubted whether the Apollo space program was a reality or merely pro-American propaganda. It is interesting to note that the societal function of the space program in both cases tends to be closely tied to government’s desire to boost the national pride in each country. When I wrote about India’s space program, I argued that, despite a Wired magazine article’s claims to the contrary, the tone of the world’s new India/China/Russia space race is more congenial than the space race of the U.S./Russian Cold War era. However, at least with respect to the issue of national pride, the Chinese and American experiences clearly have some similarities.

lro-102007-tn.jpgThe launch of a new U.S. satellite promises to add another piece of evidence. The camera on NASA’s new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is said to be good enough to be able to capture pictures of the leftover pieces from the Apollo mission (… assuming, of course, that the Martians haven’t already run off with them…). And it should also be able to take new pictures of the same area shot by the Chinese satellite, helping prove (or disprove) that China’s lunar photo is an original and not a hoax.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: China · Fun · India · Japan · Space · U.S.

The News is Brewing….

January 29th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

newsbrewsJust when it seemed I was getting tired of the same old daily grind, I came across this odd gadget that purports to distill the day’s news into your morning cup of coffee. News Brews “connects to internet news feeds and . . . brews a cup of coffee from freshly ground whole beans which contains relative proportions of beans grown in the regions in that day’s news.”

Definitely be sure to check out the video of the commercial for News Brews over on the web site of inventor/grad student Benjamin Brown. It’s a whole latte fun (sorry… couldn’t resist)…

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Fun · Gadgets

The Coming WiMax Revolution May Start in India

January 27th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

India’s incumbent telecommunications company BSNL has just announced plans to deploy a mobile WiMax broadband network covering a region with a population of over 200 million people. Mobile WiMax (a.k.a. IEEE 802.16e-2005) is a technology for delivering very fast wireless data communications over long distances. Download speeds on BSNL’s network are expected to be approximately 1.5 Mbps, roughly equivalent to the speed most users on DSL connections get over copper wires.

WiMax promises cheap, ubiquitous Internet access that could add a new dimension to the experience of using the Internet. First, wimax-speed.jpgWiMax can theoretically be fine-tuned to deliver speeds much faster than the fastest cable modem connections. Second, it is relatively cheap to deploy (especially compared to the cost of running wires to distant rural
areas) and, because it only requires one base station every few miles, it should prove cheaper to deploy than current GSM mobile phone networks. Finally, because WiMax offers “always on” connectivity much like Wi-Fi (a.k.a. 802.11), there should be little or no lag for devices to connect to the network. As a result, WiMax heralds an era when Internet access will truly be pervasive.

It will be interesting to see how India’s people make use of a WiMax network. Because the network could be used by computers as well as mobile phones and all kinds of other devices, the potential for creative Internet-connected applications is enormous. BSNL’s decision to deploy WiMax was in part a response to a government-set goal to have 20 million broadband lines in service in India by 2010. Meeting that goal would be nearly impossible by relying on “traditional” wireline connections, but if BSNL’s network is a success, then India could surpass its target.

Meanwhile, WiMax network deployment in the U.S. has recently stalled. Sprint has been working on deploying a WiMax network and has test services available in some U.S. cities already. But financial troubles, and a failed partnership with Clearwire, appear likely to delay the project. Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Soma Networks is providing the hardware for BSNL’s India rollout.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Broadband · India · Mobile

The Cultures of Social Networks

January 16th, 2008 by admin · no comments yet

socialnets.jpgOnline social networks have their own cultures. Erica Naone of MIT Technology Review (TR) writes that social networking sites’ growth outside the U.S. has exploded recently, but different regions have adopted different sites as their favorites. I find it interesting how each site has developed and grown in its own way. The language (and language flexibility) of the sites seems to play a huge role in how wide their networks have spread.

  • MySpace (#6), popular in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, began as an independent music exploration site.
  • Facebook (#7), recently growing very quickly in the U.S., has accomplished this partially through allowing third parties to create new plug in applications. These add-ons effectively create new dimensions to the network, helping users find shared interests in travel, movies, music, etc.
  • hi5 (#8), is popular in Peru, Thailand, and the Dominican Republic.
  • Orkut (#10), owned by Google, is the most popular in Brazil, possibly because the creator had many Brazilian friends. For a long time the site did not allow new users without invitations, so perhaps that explains how it has stayed rather exclusive.
  • Friendster (#15), one of the earliest sites to appear, has taken off most in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, where, according to TR, the ability to see who has viewed your profile is one of its big selling points.
  • Skyrock (#20), by maintaining a French-language focus, has reportedly managed to oust MySpace from the top spot in France.
  • Netlog (#68), by sensing the user’s location and presenting a language-appropriate interface, has scored 31 million members so far, from around the world.

In case you were wondering just how popular these sites are, the numbers in parentheses() above are the latest site traffic rankings from Alexa. As you can see, social networking sites are really dominating the top 20 most visited sites on the Internet.

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→ no comments yet - add one heretags: Brazil · Canada · France · Google · Malaysia · Philippines · Singapore · Thailand · U.K. · U.S.