the green laptop, ploughs & drugs

By designing for the poorest people in the world, the One Laptop Per Child has developed a green machine with no peers. Radically lower power consumption, much less toxic crap. Here’s Mary-Lou Jepsen talking about it:

I had a conversation last night with my neighbour, who tells me that 80% of food production in the world is still done by bio power: horses, oxen, humans etc. But that there has been no innovation in tools for this kind of farming (ploughs, harrows etc) in about 100 years. Why? At least in part, because big agribiz companies want to control agriculture from seed to sale, and want as few farmers making decisions as possible. So: make farming expensive (machinery), and design farming technology (patented seeds, expensive fertilizers & pesticides) that help big companies control agriculture; not so that farming is better for farmers or people.

In a conversation two nights ago with some other friends, we were talking about the inherent conflict in the pharma business: between: the fiduciary responsibility to increase profits every year; and the public good. These are not mutually exclusive; but neither are the aligned, and making money trumps public good, by definition, in publicly traded companies. That’s how they work – to run them otherwise is actually illegal. So we were just postulating: what if a new kind of pharma “company” came along, with public good as its mandate, rather than profit?

How are all these things related? OLPC is a non-profit project that may have developed the most revolutionary advance in the technology of personal computing we’ve seen in years, and it did so in a non-profit model, by developing for the poorest.

The poorest people in the world use farm technologies no one is spending much time developing improvements to; agriculture R&D goes to: biotech, pesticides, herbicides, and probably a little bit to machinery. What happens if a non-profit effort develops around making ancient farming tools and techniques more efficient?

And for pharma, same question: why can’t we think of organizing our drug system in a way that prioritizes health, rather than profit? What would it look like? What would the results be?

Am I a crazy communist? Well, these guys are pretty good at making encyclopedia, and if you want to buy a tent, I’d send you, without a second’s hesitation, to these guys.

Categories: art, environment

Concept for my next office…

Something like this maybe?

tree house

see more here.

Categories: environment

design for people, not cars

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

BUSINESSES have thrown their weight behind international planner Jan Gehl’s ambition to remodel Sydney’s central business district for walkers instead of drivers and the proposed demolition of the Cahill Expressway has received surprising levels of support.

Property developers and retail businesses said measures that would make the city a more attractive place to market were particularly important to Sydney’s economic future.

Professor Gehl yesterday presented his report Public Spaces, Public Life to the City of Sydney, the result of his commission by the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, to suggest ways of putting life back into the congested CBD… etc

the most famous professor and his students

Michael Wesch of Kansas State University is probably the most famous university prof in the world, or at least he will be soon. Millions have read seen his articles videos in academic journals on Youtube, most famously, Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us, and more recently Information R/evolution.

The latest looks at students and their strange relationship with our academic institutions and models, which were designed before the telephone, not to mention the iPhone.

A Vision of Students Today:

[Link… to class blog; link to French translation]

How new is it, I wonder, that teachers can’t understand the world their students inhabit? It’s always been true to a certain extent, but the disconnect previously was mostly cultural … here it seems to me more environmental, and so fundamental. The mechanisms for communicating are changing, has changed (communicating the big ideas, facts, thoughts, as well as the minutia of of daily lives), and with pervasive computing and constant connection to the web, the way we think is changing too. For better or worse doesn’t really matter, it just will change.

Questions/comments (these have all been kicking around for a while, but still):
1. fact-learning: what is the value of memory when all the facts we might need to remember are available at our fingertips?

2. collateral damage: given the long success of fact-learning, what happens if that fades away as a prime method of educating? what else do we lose (eg, powers of focused concentration, the brain-training that memorizing things does)

3. plagiarism: copying is so easy now. instead of demanding that people not copy, maybe we should raise/change the standards of what we expect work to look like, assume it will be copied and pasted, and require that it be relevant in more important ways (see #1 above) … I see the parallel with with wikipedia/britannica question. if the info itself is free and available on wikipedia, then if britannica wants to be relevant, maybe it’s just going to have to think harder about what it can do better than wikipedia. ditto with schooling. maybe we need to move *beyond* “plagiarism is bad” to something more meaningful.

4. lecture halls: what are big classrooms for? i rarely went to many of my big lectures when I was in university – all that info was in the textbook, so why attend a dry lecture with a bad prof? it didn’t make sense to me then, and it seems crazier now. in the case of small classes I have a different opinion.

5. discipline: here I mean mental discipline. I notice this myself, with online distractions everywhere, I often find it hard to concentrate and apply the long-term discipline needed to Get Things Done. Part of how I have adapted is by trying to harness that lack of discipline, a prime example being LibriVox … which I once joked should have as a motto, “powered by procrastination.” This is the area that “worries” me most, because it’s the thing in my own life that concerns me. maybe we need to start thinking more about how to use unfocused, ambient mental energy for important things?

6. radical changes: while I think the changes in technology mean we need some radical rethinking of education, radical changes are always dangerous, you never know what other side-effects might overtake the initial effects. we need to be careful. if only someone would invent a way to have instantaneous feedback from multiple sources in an open intellectual system, it would make things easier!

7. The most important things an “education” can provide are:
a) critical thinking: ability to think critically about problems, this means ability to see a problem, to understand it’s context and history, and to be able to analyze various options and decide on the one that seems most likely to “work”. this is as true in science as in humanities and arts.

b) clarity: are we becoming less clear in our thinking and writing? losing the discipline of writing clearly, for instance, is bad news. the open web results a enormous amounts of unclear/undisciplined writing … so, are we really losing that skill, or is it just that there is far more writing and thinking being captured than ever before, and hence we see more of the unclear stuff – where before only the clear stuff got into writing? does clarity really matter? (yes). what’s to be done? or does that ask the wrong question?

Just some notes to ponder.

And also, more out of curiosity, I wonder how humans will adapt to these big changes that are only scratching the surface?

Categories: environment

Corn Tumours?

I’ve never seen this before. My corn seems to have tumours. Anyone ever experienced this?

corn tumour4

corn tumour3

corn tumour 2

corn tumour1


Sean tells me it’s a fungus called black soot, aka corn smut (wikipedia):

Corn smut is a disease of maize caused by the pathogenic plant fungus Ustilago maydis. U. maydis causes smut disease on maize (Zea mays) and teosinte (Euchlena mexicana). Although it can infect any part of the plant it usually enters the ovaries and replaces the normal kernels of the cobs with large distorted tumors analogous to mushrooms. These tumors, or “galls”, are made up of much-enlarged cells of the infected plant, fungal threads, and blue-black spores. The spores give the cob a burned, scorched appearance. In fact, the name Ustilago comes from the Latin word ustilare (to burn).

Considered a pest in most of the United States, smut feeds off the corn plant and decreases the yield. Usually smut-infected crops are destroyed. However, in Mexico corn smut is called huitlacoche (IPA /wi.t͡ɬa.ko.tÍ¡É•e/, sometimes spelled cuitlacoche), an Aztec word reportedly meaning raven’s excrement [1]. It is considered a delicacy, even being preserved and sold for a higher price than corn.


Huitlacoche is the fungal, culinary delicacy Ustilago maydis that grows on ears of corn. Inhabitants of Mexico and indigenous people from the Southwestern United States enjoy this rich, smoky ingredient in foods like tamales, soups, quesadillas, appetizers, and ice cream. While farmers treat huitlacoche as an infectious affliction that ruins corn crops, it has a long history in the cuisine of Aztecs, Hopi, and Zuni.

Henrietta’s Herbal Homepage entry makes me more nervous:

“Its use is attended with shedding of the hair, both of man and beast, and sometimes even of teeth. Mules fed on it lose their hoofs, and fowls lay eggs without any shells” (Rowlin). “It is doubtless by its abortifacient power that it causes the eggs of fowls to be extruded before there has been time for a shell to be formed. By what power does it cause the shedding of the hair of man and brute animals, and the casting off of the hoofs of mules long fed upon it?” (Prof. Tully). “In a cowhouse, where cows were fed on Indian corn infested with this parasite, 11 of their number aborted in 8 days. After their food was changed none of the others aborted” (Annal. Med. Netr. Belge, and Rép. de Ph.). The better to be convinced of the poisonous nature of this fungus, the author, after having dried and pulverized the drug, administered 6 drachms to two bitch dogs with young, which soon caused them to abort” (Dr. H. W. Burt, Amer. Homoeop. Obs., 1868, p. 305).

Categories: environment

pledge: reusable grocery bags

A while back I discovered the, and pledged to think of a pledge. I got 10 people to sign up, so that means I have to fulfill my pledge to think of a pledge.

Here is the new one: No plastic grocery bags.… please sign up to make it happen!

Categories: art, environment, montreal

montreal’s ancient sewers



more at controlman, a blog about urban exploration.

[via mtl city weblogs]

Software Licenses & Climate

WordwebPro is, apparently a good dictionary/thesaurus ap for Windows, and it’s free, which is not all that interesting. What is interesting is this provision in their free license:

WordWeb may be freely used only by people who meet the conditions below.

Global greenhouse gas emissions are currently around 1 tonne per person per year, and need to be greatly reduced to avoid catastrophic warming this century. Most computer users are responsible for far more emissions than is sustainable. For example one medium distance return flight can be warming-equivalent to over 1 tonne of emissions: more than an average person should be emitting in an entire year. A typical SUV causes about twice as much warming per mile as a typical normal European car: 10,000 miles of travel in an SUV is responsible for about 5 tonnes of emissions. Offsetting emissions is no substitute for direct cuts.

You may use the program free of charge indefinitely only if
* You take at most 4 flights (2 return flights) in any 12 month period
* AND you do not own or regularly drive an SUV (sports utility vehicle).

Surely not effective on its own as a way of making a difference, but it is a curious and interesting extension of the copyleft mechanisms developed in the free software movement: to stipulate legal/moral obligations to use a particular piece of code, but extending those obligations beyond the normal provisions of software licenses.

I don’t know how legal such things are, but it’s very very interesting, and very creative.

climate: point-counterpoint

With my renewed attention to the climate debate, I’ve been noticing a number of rhetorical tactics in the debate on the Other Side. Here are three of my favourites, offered as point-context-counterpoint:

1. The Political Scientists
“Scientists like David Suzuki are political propagandists” … or: “Al Gore, who is a politician and not a scientist would have you believe …” etc.

David Suzuki has a PhD (in Genetics), but he is not an active scientist, certainly not a climate scientist. He is a journalist and a commentator, with a political agenda. Al Gore is not a scientist, his agenda is purely political. However, both of those people (as non-scientists) are quoting the mainstream scientific consensus. The debate is not about what Suzuki or Gore think – and they are irrelevant. The relevant question is: what do actual scientists think? And the answer, the famous consensus is:
1. climate change is happening
2. climate change is happening at an increased rate as a result of human actions
3. this is bad news
4. we should take action to a) stop the change and/or b) adapt to it

Forget Suzuki and Gore (they are just messengers). Forget, even, the United Nations (which is an considered with distrust by the right in any case). Instead focus on the joint statement signed in June 2005 by the National Academies of Science of the eleven most powerful countries in the world, which says:

The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.

Here is the full text (pdf). Forget the messengers, listen to the scientists.

2. There are still skeptics
There are still skeptics within the scientific community about climate change, and we should wait until the science is “settled” before we undertake any dramatic action.

The details of climate science are complex. Disagreements about one issue or another will always exist, in the same way that it does in any scientific area. But that there are disagreements about some areas of the science, does not mean that the fundamental principles are not agreed. The vast majority of scientists working in the field agree with the consensus view described above. And of course there are skeptics. There will always be skeptics, in any field of inquiry, especially one as complex as climate science. But the question is: how should you make your policy? I would suggest that you make policy on “best available evidence.” The best available evidence is reflected by the consensus view.

There is no such thing as 100% agreement in science. But policy-makers are bound to make decisions based on best available evidence, and the best evidence, supported by the vast majority of active climate scientists indicates we should do something serious right now.

3. Why Bother?
It is too late to do anything about climate change, so we should just go on the way we have been going and not worry about it. It’ll be too hard, too expensive, and too disruptive to do anything, and anyway it’s too late.

This is at once the most pathetic and the most powerful of arguments. If it is indeed too late, and cataclysm is nigh, then at the very least we should be spending some serious time, money and energy thinking about how we’ll deal with the consequences. Governments in Canada and the US have not even done that; so if you take this view you’re either logically obliged to lobby for action, or you are willfully irresponsible.

If you make this statement, you acknowledge that climate change is a massive problem. If you acknowledge that it’s a massive problem, then you acknowledge that something should be done. Plus, it just ain’t true.

For a more complete list, see: How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic. And for the best in-depth analysis of science, visit:

climate, blogging, la presse

A while back (on the old dose), I wrote some climate change posts, that attracted the attention of a couple of commenters, who I suspected of being flacks. We had a detailed exchange.

My theory for which I have zero proof, is that some people are paid to go around making climate-skeptic comments on blogs. I met Nicolas Ritoux (through Evan), and we talked about it. He writes for La Press, did some more digging, and wrote a couple of pieces that are in the paper today:


And here is an article, from NY Review of Books, about where we are on climate.