The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has just officially unveiled its plans to build the world's first carbon-neutral city. Situated on Abu Dhabi's desert outskirts, "Masdar City" is designed from the ground up to be the first completely environmentally sustainable city and a hub for renewable energy research. The UAE's rulers hope Masdar will eventually house at least 1,500 businesses and 50,000 people, powered by solar and other renewable energy sources.
Residents will be able to get by on foot, despite the region's blistering climate, thanks to architectural techniques that promote shading and help generate cooling breezes. Stops for the city's solar-powered "personalized rapid transport pods" will be no further than 200 meters apart. Lord Norman Foster, the founder and head of the architectural firm in charge of the Masdar development, said the project "promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future." Is he right? Is the project even viable?
Ann Rappaport, an urban and environmental policy specialist at Tufts University, spoke with FP about the project a while back. She seems to share Foster's optimism:
[F]or almost everything, it's easier to do it right the first time. That's true of a new building versus renovating an old building, [so] why shouldn't it be true of [building] a new city, [rather] than transforming an old one? ...
[Y]ou can think about spatial patterns, you can think about their notion of creating walkable spaces... shading—all these things that we now understand to be very important to our carbon budget. We just weren't thinking about that hundreds of years ago when our major world capitals were developed. So that's exciting.... [Your first reaction may be that this is] a city in the middle of a place that others might define as a desert. On the other hand, I think that climate change is challenging us all to think about where the good locations are for human development.... When many of the world's foremost cities were developed, we were looking at transportation access by boat, and now that means that these cities are really vulnerable to sea level rise... [T]he prospect looks attractive, and perhaps the devil's in the details, but it’s not a ludicrous concept.
No country needs this type of innovative thinking about the environment more than the UAE, designated by the World Wildlife Fund as the country with the world's worst per capita ecological footprint. Obviously, one project is not enough to exonerate the country's wasteful and unsustainable practices. But at least it's a start.
How do you provide healthcare to citizens in a country where nearly 75 percent of the population lives in the country, and more than 75 percent of the country's doctors live in cities? India's answer: telemedicine.
The Indian government has been investing in the technology to make healthcare accessible and affordable for the country's rural population, according to The Lancet. Telemedicine works like a regular medical consultation—except the doctor is on a computer screen peering through a webcam, and the patient's vitals are monitored by traditional equipment such as stethoscopes hooked up to computers (a more precise explanation can be found here and here). Sometimes a general physician is present, but the specialist reading and interpreting the information is located remotely.
The country's first telemedicine center was established in the state of Andhra Pradesh in 2000, and since then many analysts have come to believe that telemedicine "could be the future for health care in India." Today, there are about 500 telemedicine centers across the country, linked to about 50 specialist hospitals. So far the centers have provided "teleconsultations" to an estimated 150,000 patients—a drop in the ocean in a country of more than 1 billion. According to anecdotal accounts, however, initial skepticism about "impersonal" health consultations is waning and patients who have been treated through telemedicine appear satisfied with the care. Meanwhile, public-private partnerships are continuing to expand the size and the scope of telemedicine facilities.
Telemedicine, like the use of cellphones for health, could be a revolutionary step in medical provision for the poor. Rural residents won't need to travel as great a distance in order to access sophisticated medical treatment, and doctors won't need to move to rural areas. As of now, telemedicine consultations cost around $22—still beyond the reach of most Indians. But the government is promising to provide the consultations free of charge for the poor, though it's not clear if this is entirely feasible since many clinics are operated privately.
But as revolutionary as it might be, the growth of long-distance medicine raises some questions about accountability. What happens if a patient is misdiagnosed, or sent away with a clean bill of health when there is actually an underlying problem? Can anyone fairly be held responsible? Nonetheless, it does seem like the benefits at the moment outweigh the risks. As one surgeon and hospital director argues:
In terms of disease management, there is [a] 99% possibility that the person who is unwell does not require [an] operation. If you don't operate you don't need to touch the patient. And if you don't need to touch the patient, you don't need to be there.
Come to think of it, there's no reason to think Indian specialists and doctors couldn't start treating patients in this manner who hail from anywhere in the world, including the United States. Indeed, Indian doctors are already providing diagnostic interpretation of radiological images, including X-rays, CTs and MRIs, for American patients from hospitals in places as far away as Bangalore.
Today India's Tata Motors unveiled the $2,500 Tata Nano, a tiny four-door "People's Car." Some industry analysts say it could revolutionize Indian society the way the Ford Model T did in the United States 100 years ago. Unsurprisingly, Thomas Friedman has already warned Indians not to follow the first world and turn their country into one filled with even more traffic congestion and air pollution. We'll have to wait and see how many takers there are for the Nano, but meanwhile, here's a Nano vs. Model T comparison:
|Introductory Price||$2,500||$850 (about $19,000 in 2006)|
|Number of cylinders||2||4|
|Top speed||60 mph (97 km per hour)||45 mph (72 km per hour)|
|Fuel economy||50 miles per gallon (21 km per liter)||13-21 miles per gallon (5.5-9 km per liter)|
|Windshield wiper||Just 1||A vacuum-powered wiper could be added to the driver's side of the 1926 model for $3.50|
Photos: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images; INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
Nearly a year ago, Passport noted that Finnish PM Matti VanHanen, ever the classy guy, dumped his girlfriend via a text message. Ha, ha. But in the Muslim world, apparently there's a serious debate going on as to whether divorce by SMS is valid, and some countries have even had to explicitly ban the practice. In Egypt, however, the law remains unclear:
An Egyptian woman is seeking clarification from a court on whether her husband's declaration of divorce by text message is legally valid, a state-run newspaper reported on Thursday.
After missing a call from her husband on her mobile phone, Iqbal Abul Nasr received a text message from him saying "I divorce you because you didn't answer your husband," Al-Akhbar said.
In line with sharia (Islamic law) men do not need to go to court to file for divorce. A unilateral declaration of divorce by a man, repeated three times, formally ends a marriage.
Egypt actually has a hybrid legal system, meaning that contrary to what most people seem to think, sharia law is already in place in many areas of jurisprudence (though Christians have their own religious courts). A return of the caliphate is not nigh, but if you're a woman in a place like Egypt, the growing Islamicization of the country is bad news indeed. Let's hope the judge rejects this divorce-by-SMS nonsense, if he hasn't already.
I never really quite understood the rationale for having to switch off all electronic devices during airplane takeoffs and landings. The stated reason for the ban is that the devices could somehow interfere with the plane's operation or ignite a fire after a crash.
But Boeing apparently has some more serious kinks to work out with its newest jet, the 787 Dreamliner, which already has 800 advance orders ahead of its November launch. The Federal Aviation Administration fears that a new feature on the plane that allows passengers to connect their mobile computers to the Internet may allow a terrorist to disrupt the plane's control systems. This is especially worrisome, as we know that many terrorists have advanced engineering degrees and could be familiar with how to carry out just such an operation. The Web sites of jihadist sympathizers are often very professionally done and have sophisticated encryption features.
With airport security bans as stringent as they already are, I wouldn't be surprised if an outright ban on electronic devices in the cabin were instituted in the near future. That ought to boost the approval ratings of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
The World Bank released a report Wednesday entitled Global Economic Prospects 2008: Technology Diffusion in the Developing World. As the name implies, the report details what kind of technical progress developing countries are making—how many people have computers, access to the Internet, that kind of thing. The report is quite long, so I'm going to focus on a few key points:
The number of people living in absolute poverty in developing countries has decreased from 29 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2004. This is one of the upsides of globalization and the spread of technology. As technology spreads to poor countries, incomes grow. Yet as the World Bank acknowledges, it's very difficult to quantitatively prove a relationship between technology and income growth, so the causation here is murky.
There is a large technology gap between the rich and poor. This is one of the downsides of globalization. A good example of this phenomenon is India. India has a robust high-tech industry concentrated in its cities. However, in poorer rural areas less than 10 percent of people have access to a telephone let alone a computer, according to the Bank's own figures. Such stratification is dangerous and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look at income growth in the United States over the last few decades: the gap between the rich and the poor has grown dramatically. Once this separation starts, it's hard to stop.
Developing countries have difficulty absorbing new technologies and are incapable of innovations. Because of low literacy rates and infrastructure shortcomings in poor rural areas, poor countries have difficulty embracing technology. For instance, computers are great, but are pretty worthless if the person trying to use one can't read. And cell phones are a great way to connect people, but many rural areas in developing countries don't get coverage. These difficulties embracing basic technology make it impossible to innovate.
The spread of technology is inevitable, and it does have enormous benefits. But the second and third points listed above have dangerous implications. Once the fortunes of rich and poor begin to diverge, the trend is nearly impossible to reverse. And problems in developing countries make it very difficult to get technology into the hands of the poor. Hundreds of millions of people are being dug into a technological hole that they can't emerge from. They're being left behind by the global economy.
It might not surprise you to learn that Big Brother looms large in places like China and Russia. But Britain and the United States are near the bottom of the heap too. According to a new study of 47 countries by Privacy International, a human-rights watchdog based in London, those four countries fall in the bottom tier of countries where government surveillance is used extensively. Other locales in the bottom group, labeled "endemic surveillance societies," are Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. The only place where Privacy International considers there to be "adequate safeguards against abuse" is Greece. And the only country where the surveillance situation is improving for citizens is Slovenia.
Granted, the vast majority of Africa is not included in the study, and much of Latin America is overlooked too. Nevertheless, countries where you'd think civil liberties would be the most protected don't do so well. Australia, France, and most of Scandinavia fall in the category where there is a "systemic failure to uphold safeguards." Interestingly, places that were once part of the Soviet bloc perform relatively well. Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia are cited for having "some safeguards but weakened protection." Where does your country fit in? Click here to find out.
Each year, the cyberspace-based Edge Foundation asks leading public intellectuals a simple question. Last year, the foundation wanted to know, "What are you most optimistic about?" This year's query was, "What have you changed your mind about and why?"
The answers are dense, arcane, and often fascinating.
There a few converts to climate change, including Wired's Chris Anderson. One of the most surprising entries is that of Philip Campbell, the editor in chief of Nature, who comes out in favor of "enhancement drugs" under certain conditions. Sacha Baron-Cohen's brainy cousin Simon, a psychologist at Cambridge, has come to believe that "biology has little time for equality." FP contributor Daniel Kahneman has some new thoughts on what makes us happy. And I had never realized that Brian Eno was once a Mao fan, though I'm glad to see he's seen the light.
As for me, I used to be pessimistic about our ability to solve environmental problems but am becoming much less so, with one glaring exception: I don't think we're going to avert climate change. What about you? Email Passport with your own flip-flops.
(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen)
Reducing dependence on foreign sources of energy is a stated policy goal of the United States. You might think, therefore, that the United States would be eager to take part in an international research effort to harness the energy released by fusion reactions like those that occur in the Sun. But you'd be wrong. Congress just cut the U.S. contribution to the $12 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, a collaboration between the European Union, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.
In theory, fusion technology has the ability to provide massive amounts of energy with less radioactive waste and little pollution. Sounds good, right? Of course, the technology is very experimental and rife with such minor problems as, oh, how to heat atomic nuclei to the 100 million degrees required in a fusion reaction and still generate more energy than was used in the process. It may sound like something from Star Trek, but the rewards that could be gained by investing in such technology are astonishing. The United States might someday be able to retire older nuclear fission plants, reduce coal power emissions, and maybe even end imports of oil from unstable regions of the world.
Too bad the U.S. Congress doesn't feel the same way. Along with slashing technology budgets in other areas of crucial R&D research, Congress couldn't be bothered with funding a $149 million commitment to the ITER project for the upcoming year. The 2008 energy and water bill does provide funding for alternative technologies such as solar power ($200 million), ethanol ($250 million) and hydrogen-cell cars ($235.4 million). Fossil fuels managed to grab the biggest piece of the "alternative energy" pie with $708.8 million in funding.
With all the gains that might someday be realized by fusion technology for such a small investment, it makes you wonder where the United States' priorities really lie.
Passport would be remiss this year if it failed to mention that December 2007 is the 10th anniversary of the coining of the word "weblog."
Jorn Barger (the man in the photo) is widely credited with inventing the word "Weblog" on Dec. 17 or Dec. 23 (the exact date seems to vary depending on the source) of 1997 when describing the list of links he had posted on his Web site Robot Wisdom. This list logged sites he stumbled upon while surfing the Web. According to the Wall Street Journal, Barger wrote on his site on Dec. 23, 1997:
I decided to start my own webpage logging the best stuff I find as I surf, on a daily basis.
Barger, who apparently has continued his blogging at this site, seems to be an eccentric character, who purportedly loves James Joyce and who has been accused of being anti-Semitic. Recently, though, Wired magazine was able to track him down and get him to share 10 tips for novice bloggers.
Technically, Barger isn't the first blogger. Justin Hall, for example, chronicled his life online from 1994 to 2005. But Barger is the first to make regular postings using the term "Weblog." (The word "blog" seems to have originated in 1999 when Peter Merholz deconstructed "weblog" into "we blog" in the sidebar of his Web site.) The phenomenon that Barger and others started has today exploded into a cacophony of more than 100 million blogs.
Catholic clergy in Italy have had a lot to get upset about recently. First, Italian Catholics who have a custom of carrying around tiny pictures of saints in their wallets and purses no longer have to worry about their santini becoming worn and tattered. Instead, they can buy a €3 ($4.50 U.S.) weekly subscription from a Milan-based company that lets them download images of three saints onto their mobile phones. (Did Italians ever consider just laminating their santini?) Accompanying prayers cost about 50 U.S. cents, which sounds like a bargain. But a bishop complained to La Stampa newspaper that the downloadable saints are "in really bad taste."
What's really in bad taste, though, is a recent TV commercial for Red Bull energy drink. It was pulled in Italy after a priest complained that it depicted the nativity scene in a "sacrilegious way." The ad shows four wise men, not three, visiting baby Jesus. The fourth wise man offered the infant cans of Red Bull. The commercial ends with fluttering angels in the sky chugging Red Bull and illustrating the company's slogan, "Red Bull gives you wings." You can watch it here:
Of course, Christianity isn't the only religion in which connecting to God via mobile phones has caused a stir. Ring tones that feature Koranic verses and azan, calls to prayer, have had a mixed reception in the Muslim world, as FP noted earlier this year.
Culture almost always takes time to adapt to new technologies. In the 19th century, Muslims were divided about gramophone recordings of their holy book. Saudi clerics denounced the television when it was first introduced to the kingdom. But except for groups such as the Amish, people the world over seem to have found ways to make religion and technology compatible. Some people just need more time to adapt than others.
In India, what was supposed to be a promising "e-government" service has been withdrawn after it became misused as a tool for harassing young women.
Last year, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh started out with an innovative service that was supposed to promote transparency: People could use their mobile phones to text-message a car's license-plate number, and would then receive a message with information about the vehicle, including its date of purchase, the taxes and fees paid on it, and the name, address, and phone number of the owner. The details could assist someone buying a used car or a police officer who quickly needed information about a vehicle involved in an accident, theft, or other crime. (Sounds like it could've also been used to track down someone who cut you off in traffic.)
Instead, it became a way for men to get the contact info of young women drivers and then harass them. The state's Transport Department received a number of complaints from women who were being harassed. Those complaints—along with the fact that the volume of messages sent to the department had jumped "several fold"—caused the texting service to be withdrawn.
The whole story raises questions about how much information should be made publicly available in this day and age. Records of people's births, divorces, house sales, crimes, and, in some cases, even incomes have been publicly available in many places for a long time. But accessing those records usually required a trip to city hall, filling out forms, and paying photocopying and postage fees. Now, in more places around the world, we can access the juicy details of people's lives—such as whether their houses are in foreclosure—all while wearing our pajamas in front of our home computers.
We've all heard about cars powered by wacky biofuels, including switchgrass and leftover French fry oil. Now, two British men who love the environment are trekking from Britain to Timbuktu in a truck whose fuel comes from cocoa butter extracted from waste chocolate (as in, like, misshapen Easter bunnies).
The vehicle is a Ford Iveco cargo truck, and as it travels 4,500 miles to Timbuktu, it will burn 2,000 liters of biodiesel originating from 4,000 kg (8,800 lbs.) of misshapen chocolate. That's enough of the sweet stuff to make 80,000 chocolate bars.
On Friday, the chocomobile crossed the English Channel by ferry, and after a sweet ride through France and Spain, it will hop onto another ferry to Morocco. Once it vrooms through Mauritania, it will plow through Mali's deserts until it arrives at Timbuktu, the city once regarded in the West as being at the ends of the Earth and which today is in a region that is being buried under sand.
The two Brits behind this stunt are, of course, trying to bring attention to biodiesel, a renewable resource that generates lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels. It seems unlikely that fueling vehicles with cocoa butter could be achieved at a large scale—that would require a tremendous amount of chocolate or, perhaps, tanning oil—but if the men's journey makes more people aware of the benefits of biofuels in general, that would be a sweet success.
A new study published Thursday by the American Institutes for Research shows that U.S. students still lag behind their peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan in the critical areas of math and science education. Numerous other reports over the last several years have purported to show the same mediocre quality of the U.S. education system. In 2005, Microsoft founder Bill Gates described the U.S. high schools as "obsolete." President Bush mentioned the need for greater emphasis on math and science achievement in his 2006 State of the Union address. And just last month, an influential group of tech-industry CEOs from such companies as Cisco and Sun Microsystems added their voices to the choir of business leaders demanding changes to the U.S. education system.
But what do these reports, studies, and rankings really tell us? Not a whole lot, according to Vivek Wadhwa, whose recent article in BusinessWeek debunks many of the common misconceptions about U.S. math and science education. Even Singapore's minister of education has downplayed the importance of such rankings, despite Singapore's first-place status:
[The U.S.] is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well--like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America."
The World Economic Forum's recent 2007/2008 Global Competitiveness Report supports that conclusion. In it, the United States maintained its position as the world's most innovative economy despite the shoddy performance of its math and science education, which ranked 45th. Singapore, meanwhile, stayed in first place in math and science education but came in at a disappointing 23rd in capacity for innovation and 22nd for the availability of scientists and engineers—10 places below the United States in the same category.
Even if U.S. math and science education is not completely inadequate, there is still one area in which the United States can vastly improve: geography. Miss South Carolina's less-than-shining moment earlier this year was no fluke; National Geographic's 2006 Survey of Geographic Literacy found that 63 percent of young people in the United States could not find Iraq on a map and 50 percent couldn't even locate New York.
Astronomers may soon discover the ultimate answer to climate change. A NASA-funded team of astronomers in the United States has just discovered a fifth planet orbiting a star called 55 Cancri. So far, 55 Cancri boasts the most number of planets found in a single solar system outside our own. What's got scientists excited, though, is that the planet falls into the "Goldilocks" category—meaning that the planet's area of space is a "habitable zone" that is neither too hot nor too cold to support liquid water.
The newly discovered planet itself is not somewhere anyone would want to live. Dubbed "55 Cancri f," it's a giant ball of gas 45 times the mass of Earth, roughly like Saturn, and orbits 55 Cancri every 260 days. It's really the neighborhood around 55 Cancri f that has astronomers so enthused, because many of them believe that liquid water could exist on the surface of undiscovered moons or rocky planets nearby. Debra Fischer, assistant professor of astronomy at San Francisco State University, explains:
Right now, we are looking at a gap between the 260-day orbit of the new planet and the 14-year orbit of another gas giant, and if you had to bet, you'd bet that there is more orbiting stuff there."
Berkeley astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy believes that a rocky, Earth-like planet could be revealed in this space within five years. But don't count on an Earth substitute any time soon—scientists still don't have the technology to view small, potentially rocky planets within this Goldilocks zone just yet, let alone visit them. It so happens that 55 Cancri is 41 light years from Earth. That could pose a problem, since even distant Pluto is roughly 6 light
years hours from the Sun, depending on where it is in its orbit.
In December, a German and Italian-made laboratory module will be added to the International Space Station. This development raised some interesting questions about the legal frameworks that govern the cosmos during Humans in Outer Space – Interdisciplinary Odysseys, a conference held in Vienna in October by the European Science Foundation.
Dr Frans von der Dunk, a scholar at the International Institute of Air and Space Law at the University of Leiden, rejected the notion that U.S. law applies to the entire station:
It was agreed that each state registers its own separate elements, which means that you now have a piece of the US annexed to a piece of Europe annexed to a piece of Japan in outer space, legally speaking."
But what laws cover other outer space territories? The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits earth-bound nations from claiming outer space territories. The moon, for instance, cannot be claimed by any country. But this ambiguity raises other questions. As conference attendees noted, "It is also not clear what legal nationality a child born on the Moon would have."
(Hat tip: Slashdot)
Remember the case of Shi Tao? He's a Chinese journalist who was imprisoned back in 2004 for supposedly leaking state secrets by writing an e-mail to a New York-based pro-democracy group, describing how the Chinese government planned to crack down on local media covering the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yahoo supplied information about Shi's e-mail address to the Chinese authorities, leading to his arrest and 10-year prison sentence.
Finally, Yahoo is issuing a mea culpa for its role in the case. More specifically, Yahoo's top lawyer is apologizing for failing to tell the U.S. Congress that Yahoo knew more about the case than it claimed in testimony given last year. U.S. lawmakers have been querying Yahoo about its business practices in China for the past couple years. Last year, Callahan said that Yahoo had no information about the Chinese government's wishes for customer information. Lo and behold, it turns out Yahoo was in possession of an order from Beijing seeking information about Shi. Callahan's apology comes in advance of another Congressional hearing next week about the challenges and moral quandaries that U.S. companies like Yahoo face in doing business in authoritarian places such as China. It's great that Yahoo is starting to come clean, but that's undoubtedly little comfort to Shi Tao, who still has at least another seven years to go in prison.
Starting tomorrow, the United States will experience "Movember," a month when men from all ages and walks of life will sport a distinctive mustache, ranging from a little fuzz to an outright walrus look. Don't worry, it's all for a good cause: to raise awareness about prostate cancer, a disease that affects one in six men in the United States.
Since it started in Australia in 2003, Movember—which combines the Australian slang for mustache (mo') with the designated mo-growing month of November—the annual event has raised more than $8 million. Participants, known as "Mo Bros," take donations in exchange for not shaving their upper lips for a month. The money then goes to the main prostate-cancer charity in the home country of the participant. Movember now has official Web sites for six countries, and people from other countries are still able to register and participate.
The Wall Street Journal's Sarah Needleman seems skeptical. She writes, "Convincing... business professionals... to grow mustaches -- even for a cause -- may be tough in the U.S., where mustaches aren't currently in vogue and facial hair runs afoul of corporate grooming norms." But, um, it's not exactly a fashion statement in Australia either—which, of course, is kind of the point. As Adam Garone, one of the three co-founders of Movember, puts it:
The mustache is a vehicle to get [men] talking... What we say is you're essentially donating your face for a month. You become a walking billboard because you walk into a meeting and you're forced to explain yourself."
Indeed, the success of Movember largely depends on men in the corporate world taking a risk to grow a mo'. During the past few years, the competitive spirit in the world of finance has translated into big bucks for prostate-cancer research—around 25 percent of the total Movember money raised, according to Garone. It will be interesting to see how Movember does in its first year in the United States. And it will be almost as interesting to see hordes of Wall Street bankers with their new looks. Good luck, Mo Bros!
UPDATE: Passport reader Arjew Tino writes in with a hard-hitting report from the Movember crowd in DC.
Digerati and creative minds of all stripes and backgrounds are gathered in Maine this week for Pop!Tech, one of the coolest conferences around. (You might call it TED before it got too focused on established celebrities at the expense of bold new ideas.)
This isn't just some talkfest in which smart, important people meet other smart, important people, exchange business cards, and pat each other on the back. Today, Pop!Tech launched a carbon offset initiative with eBay. At a special eBay online store, you can calculate the rough amount of carbon you put into the Earth's atmosphere and then choose between three projects that will not only compensate for your pollution, but also do some good in their own right. Learn more about the initiative here or just head straight to the checkout counter.
For the past several years, visitors to Google search page have smiled at the scribbles of Dennis Hwang, the graphic designer who comes up with the creative sketches that are incorporated into the Google logo on special occasions. The first doodle Hwang created for Google was on Bastille Day back in 2000, when he incorporated a French flag and some fireworks into the company logo. Other notable Google doodles have been the double helix to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, a sketch of Einstein to commemorate the scientist's birthday, and "Google" spelled out in dots in honor of Louis Braille's birthday.
For the most part, Hwang's doodles have been viewed as a public expression of Google whimsy, a way to have a little fun and inject some levity into what would otherwise be a dull, minimalist home page. But last week, this seemingly harmless logo offended some people:
The doodle was intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. But some conservative bloggers are angry that Google honored an achievement of the United States' totalitarian archenemy during the Cold War, the Los Angeles Times reports. They're especially pissed that Google has never posted a doodle to honor American troops' achievements on Veteran's Day or Memorial Day. (Never mind that Google regularly drapes its logo with the American flag every July 4.)
It's actually not the first time that Google has come under fire for its doodles. On past Thanksgivings, Google's incorporation of a turkey into its logo has drawn criticism from Brazil, Australia, and other parts of the southern hemisphere, with claims that Google is too focused on the north. Google has altered its logo for non-Western holidays like Persian New Year and Chinese New Year, but I'm afraid we're getting to the point where Google will be scrutinized for every single doodle it publishes. It's a pity that this politicization of the Google logo will only work to dampen down the tiny bit of creativity we have left in the corporate world.
I'm in Brussels this week, making the rounds at the EU and NATO. Yesterday, I had a meeting with Franco Frattini, the European Commissioner for Justice, Peace, and Security. Turns out he's getting ready to introduce a series of counterterrorism proposals to the European Parliament next month. His action plan, which he plans on officially introducing on November 6, will have three parts:
1. Tracking explosive materials: Frattini will make a series of recommendations for public institutions and private companies to work together to better track explosive materials. He also thinks that there needs to be a more specific definition of "conspiracy."
2. Creating a register of non-EU visitors: Frattini wants to create a Passenger Name Record (PNR), similar to the one that the United States has, with information about non-EU citizens on flights in and out of the EU.
3. Blocking certain Web sites: Frattini thinks Internet providers should shut down sites that provide information about making bombs or otherwise incite violence.
Get my take after the jump.
One fascinating aspect of Israel's mysterious September 6th airstrike on Syria is just how Israel's jet fighters evaded Syria's Russian-made radar system. David A. Fulgham at Aviation Week's defense technology blog has an informed guess: The Israelis hacked it (perhaps it was these guys).
U.S. aerospace industry and retired military officials indicated today that a technology like the U.S.-developed “Suter” airborne network attack system developed by BAE Systems and integrated into U.S. unmanned aircraft by L-3 Communications was used by the Israelis. The system has been used or at least tested operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last year.
The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can’t be seen, they say. The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading messages algorithms that allow a number of activities including control.
Fulgham relays a report in a Kuwaiti newspaper saying that the Russians are scratching their heads trying to figure out just what the Israelis did, while the Iranians, who use the same anti-aircraft systems, are equally befuddled. Fulgham's post suggests that the real mission of the Israeli raid wasn't knocking out North Korean nuclear supplies (and obviously, speculation about that didn't derail the six-party talks), but making clear that Iran's air defenses won't protect its nuclear sites from Israeli bombs.
(Hat tip: Danger Room)
Russians must be feeling a tinge of nostalgia today, the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. But while the days of immense public curiosity and excitement for space exploration are about as over as the Soviet Union, the space race is still alive and kicking. In this week's list, FP takes a look at some of latest frontiers in space research and the unexpected cosmic challengers who are gearing up to take on American space dominance. From Mars to space weapon, the race is on.
But we left off a few out-of-this-world ideas that might just belong on the pages of a science fiction novel:
Going up? Forget loud, jarring rockets. Imagine taking a smooth ride up a 62,000-mile cable into space on a cosmic elevator. Although I couldn't explain the physics behind it for the life of me, scientists have been looking at possible plans for a space elevator constructed of carbon nanotubes. NASA and the Spaceward Foundation are holding a competition in Utah this month for the best design.
Greening outer-space Despite the rush to wean the world off dirty energy sources, space-based solar power is still waiting on the sidelines. The vision is quite simple: Platforms that capture sunlight are put in space and the resulting energy is then beamed down to Earth. Col. M.V. "Coyote" Smith, space-based solar panels' biggest fan, spearheaded a study (without any funding) for the National Security Space Office in an attempt to convince the Pentagon of the technology's feasibility. To add to the geek appeal, he then gave his presentation in Second Life.
Five-star accommodation $4 million for a three-night hotel stay? Only if it's in orbit. Xavier Claramunt plans to have Galactic Suite, the first space hotel, up and running by 2012. Of course, there is a lot of planning that goes into accommodating people in a zero-gravity atmosphere, like figuring out how guests can shower. Claramunt's solution: a spa room where bubbles of water will float around you.
Of course, we can debate whether spending millions of dollars and unquantifiable amounts of brain-power into these kinds of space endeavors is really the most prudent use of our resources. And for countries like China and India, there are countless terrestrial causes that could benefit from the investment otherwise going into establishing massive space programs. But if anyone is offering a free ride on a space elevator and a stay at the nearest galactic hotel, sign me up.
A clever entrepreneur in India is selling plane tickets for just $4. The catch: The Airbus 300 never takes off!
Passengers just get to experience what it's like to sit on a plane. They get to fasten their seat belts, watch the safety demonstration, be waited on by stewardesses with drink carts, and hear announcements such as, "We will soon be passing through a zone of turbulence." The plane, by the way, has only one wing; a chunk of the tail is missing; and the bathrooms are out of service.
The "virtual journeys" are turning out to be a success in a country where only 1 percent of the population has ever experienced real off-the-ground air travel. Commenters have pointed out that it's not much different from city folks who take their kids for pony rides (or to petting zoos, for that matter) at county fairs, or people who pay to spend the night in a cabin of the Queen Mary ship docked in Long Beach, California. People will pay for simulated experiences; just look at some of the most popular video games.
The "virtual journeys" could serve a practical purpose, though. With India's rapid economic growth, more people are flying for the first time. A report about unruly Indian passengers quoted an airport manager as saying that many are first-time fliers who don't understand airplane etiquette. One tried to open the door right before takeoff, for example. The report recommends that Indians be taught the do's and don'ts of plane travel. "Virtual jouneys" may be the place to start.
There's no word yet, though, on whether long security lines, lost luggage, and getting bumped for a free ticket later will be added to the experience.
In an effort to kick-start its nascent space program, Malaysia is set to launch its first space-bound national into orbit on Oct. 10. In addition to the usual scientific studies and research assignments, the government of the predominantly Muslim country wants to make sure that its novice angkasawan (Malay for astronaut) does not forgo his duties as a devout Muslim. Thirty five year old Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor (who is a doctor and part-time model), was chosen from among 11,000 eager hopefuls to accompany two Russian cosmonauts on a ten-day mission in the International Space Station. While he has been fasting for the month of Ramadan throughout his training, the strains of a zero-gravity environment might mean our astronaut will have to adjust his daily rituals during the mission. For a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day, would he have to pray 80 times every 24 hours, since the ISS will be circling the Earth 16 times each day? Plus, figuring out where Mecca is while you are in space must be no easy task.
In order to avoid confusion, Malaysia's Department of Islamic Development laid down some guidelines on how to observe Islam correctly while in space. For example:
During the prayer ritual, if you can't stand up straight, you can hunch. If you can't stand, you can sit. If you can't sit, you should lie down.
The guidelines also include useful tidbits on what to do if there is no water for washing rituals, or on the ill-fated chance that there is a death on board. And Malaysian Science Minister Jamaluddin Jarjis recently declared that Muszaphar is allowed to postpone his fasting until he returns back to earth.
So as he prepares to be his country's first galaxy representative, the thoughtful Muszaphar plans on bringing Malaysian food on board to share with his Russian shuttle cohabitants. But don't worry, he says:
We've made sure it's not very spicy so the Russians can eat it very well.
Visions of the future generally reveal more about the time in which they are created than the time they are predicting. Take for example this film of rocket pioneer Werner von Braun describing humanity's space-bound future, made during the early days of the space race. Or this article from the rapidly industrializing America of 1900 predicting that all wild animals would be extinct by 2000 and that Nicaragua and Mexico would join the union after the completion of the Great Nicaragua Canal. (Both of these examples can be found on the fantastic Paleo-Future blog, which specializes in this sort of thing.)
It is with this history in mind that I approach the World Future Society's just released Forecasts for the Next 25 Years. The predictions are quite interesting, and about as plausible as the ones above probably seemed when they were made. Not surprisingly, wariness about the rise of China is prevalent. The WFS predicts that a water shortage in China will cause the price of commodities around the world to increase. They also believe that India's future development is more viable than China's because of its greater political transparency and democratic institutions. All this reflects traditional wisdom in political economy, but I'm not so sure. For the past few years, China has specialized in disproving the traditional wisdom. The WFS also reflects current fears about global warming in forecasting, "The costs of global-warming-related disasters will reach $150 billion per year." As the Times pointed out this week, 20 years ago, the depletion of the ozone layer was leading scientists toward similarly gloomy predictions. Admittedly, global warming will be a much tougher problem to address, but the future may surprise us.
Here's the best prediction, though:
Forecast #4: We’ll incorporate wireless technology into our thought processing by 2030. In the next 25 years, we'll learn how to augment our 100 trillion very slow interneuronal connections with high-speed virtual connections via nanorobotics. This will allow us to greatly boost our pattern-recognition abilities, memories, and overall thinking capacity, as well as to directly interface with powerful forms of computer intelligence and to each other. By the end of the 2030s, we will be able to move beyond the basic architecture of the brain’s neural regions.
As I sit here using this primitive input system to create this post, the thought of being able to use my vastly improved interneuronal connections to research foreign policy and find links for blog posts (I imagine it would look something like the above postcard from 1910) gives me a supremely nerdy glimmer of hope about an otherwise bleak-seeming future. And maybe that's what futurism is really about.
Over the weekend, people in a Peruvian town near Lake Titicaca saw a fireball fall from the sky. When they went to investigate, they found what appears to be a crater that is 65 feet wide and 22 feet deep. Check out the video:
They also found themselves becoming ill with vomiting, headaches, irritated throats, and itchy noses. Around 600 people sought medical help, and animals have reportedly become sick as well.
The supposed crater, which may have been created by a meteorite, seems to be passing some fetid, noxious gases. One geologist said a chemical reaction between a meteorite and elements in the Earth's surface could have unleashed noxious gases.
Geologists from Peru's Geophysics Institute are planning to present a report about the mystery meteor later today, but meanwhile, Peruvians near the apparent crater are crying foul.
NASA is seeking astronaut candidates to staff up the International Space Station and to carry out future missions to the moon (and beyond). Here are some highlights from the want ad posted on USAJobs.com:
In what sounds like a breakthrough in the diagnosis of genetic disorders, British scientists announced this week that they would be able to forgo expensive genetic testing in favor of simply looking at patients' faces for signs of disorders like Asperger's, fragile X syndrome, and others.
Hundreds of documented genetic disorders result in subtle alterations to facial features. Doctors, using 3D mapping imagery for a handful of these, will be able to spot tell-tale features in patients as young as two years old. One of the disorders they've been able to map is Williams syndrome, which causes those afflicted to be uncommonly friendly toward strangers and was the subject of a fascinating NYT Magazine piece this summer. Williams is "characterized by a short, upturned nose and a small jaw," and with the new facial mapping program, doctors were able to accurately diagnose 98 percent of cases.
There will no doubt be some who call this phrenology for the 21st century. But with 25,000 different facial points mapped on each child for comparison, the new technology hardly sounds like the pseudoscience of yore. What's crucially important for the testing—if it indeed is as accurate as is being claimed—is that children can be diagnosed younger and at far lower costs.
Last week, the Pentagon admitted that a B-52 had mistakenly flown nuclear-armed cruise missiles across the United States. And worse, for almost fourteen hours no one—at the base of departure, on the bomber itself, or at the base of arrival—had any idea something was wrong. Officials have assured the public that there was no danger of a nuclear explosion, even if the plane had crashed.
The specific warheads carried by U.S. cruise missiles belong to the W80 family, in this case the W80-1. (Other versions of the W80 are designed for use with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are launched from submarines.) There are about 1,450 of these warheads in the active stockpile, with another 360 or so in the inactive stockpile. They have "dialable" (variable) yields of up to 150 kilotons, or about 10 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. And, as mentioned by the Pentagon, they have several safety measures built in to prevent accidental detonation.
First, the actual detonation system is physically protected by an "exclusion zone," which isolates it from electric (and to some extent physical) shocks. The exclusion zone can be connected to the rest of the warhead’s electronics by a "strong link," which does not physically connect until the warhead is armed.
An accident—fire, lighting strike, crash, etc.—could breach either or both of these safeguards, so the electronics inside the exclusion zone also contain safeguards, called "weak links." These are electronic links designed to fail under lower stress than either the exclusion zone or the strong link. This ensures that, for instance, if the exclusion zone collapses, the weak links will as well and the nuclear core will remain inert.
And beyond those nested safety systems, most U.S. warheads have other safeguards, including insensitive high explosives that will not detonate easily due to mechanical shock. The biggest worry with this incident was not technical, but organizational: How did nuclear warheads get loaded onto a plane and flown across the country before anyone even noticed they were gone?
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