Friday, September 01, 2006

Friday Hope Blogging

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed a biomimetic building based on termite mounds. This week, the Guardian has an entire article on biomimesis. It discusses wind turbines based on sycamore seeds, and a low-energy desalinization plant based on the habits of the Namibian fog-basking beetle, which can double as an open-air theatre (the plant, not the beetle). This design has other applications, too:

The idea has been used in three commercial greenhouses in the Middle East to grow food using salt water. Seawater cools and humidifies the air in the greenhouse and sunlight distils fresh water.
Speaking of greenhouses, Tom Philpott explores the possibility of using Terry Carroll's passive-solar greenhouse design to grow vegetables year-round, which, in addition to improving the availability of local produce in winter, could help to cut food transportation costs:
Known as "passive-solar design," Carroll's work involves building greenhouses directly into south-facing hillsides. Along the rear wall -- backed by a hillside's robust insulating power -- Carroll packs steel drums filled with water. As the sun streams in by day in the winter months, those drums store heat, which is released as temperatures fall at night.

Carroll's test projects have proved that his design can support vegetable production all winter, with little or no fossil-fuel energy burned and no costly solar panels.
There are obstacles to the widespread adoption of this technique, but as Philpott notes, there's no reason to believe they can't be overcome.

Many students in the developing world can't afford textbooks, even when publishers reduce the price. Here's a logical solution:
To make education more accessible, a professor in the University of Georgia Terry College of Business is spearheading an effort to produce free online textbooks using a modified version of the Wiki software that powers the Web site Wikipedia....

Through what he's dubbed, "The Global Text Project," Watson and an international team of professors aim to create a free library of 1,000 electronic textbooks covering subjects typically encountered during the first two years of college. A prototype text is already complete, and work is underway on the first book in the series.
California has passed a landmark emissions bill. As usual, "business leaders" complain that it will cripple the economy. Not to be outdone, the CEI shrieks that California has voted "to join the Third World." These adherents of the conservative precautionary principle have predicted economic devastation more times than we've turned the corner in Iraq, but their dire scenarios have a tendency not to materialize. It's odd how the people who slavishly worship market forces seem to have absolutely no faith in American industry's ability to generate innovative ideas or adapt to changing circumstances.

Wal-Mart wants to sell each of its 100 million regular customers at least one compact fluorescent bulb. The energy (and PR) benefits are obvious, but Treehugger explains what makes this decision so remarkable:
Wal-Mart's push into swirls won't just help consumers and the environment; it will shatter a business -- its own lightbulb business, and that of every lightbulb manufacturer. Because swirls last so long, every one that's sold represents the loss of 6 or 8 or 10 incandescent bulb sales. Swirls will remake the lightbulb industry--dominated by familiar names GE, Philips, Sylvania--the way digital-music downloads have remade selling albums on CD, the way digital cameras revolutionized selling film and envelopes of snapshots. CFLs are a classic example of creative destruction.
Disposable chopsticks, by contrast, are an example of destructive creation. Japan's chopsticks come from China's forests, or what's left of them. In November, Chinese exporters imposed a 30-percent tax on importers, due in part to China's deforestation crisis. Amazingly enough, Japanese restaurants are responding by switching to reusable chopsticks, which also reduces the amount of garbage. (Japan previously ran through about 26 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks per year.) For its part, China will be able to use its wood and bamboo in more sensible ways.

Japan's Sharp Corporation, which is the world's biggest manufacturer of solar cells, sees the price of solar power generation dropping fifty percent by 2010. That'll be welcome news for Adelaide, which hopes to become Australia's first solar city:
Mr Howard said the Federal Government would provide $15 million for the trial project which would involve installing solar panels and smart electricity metres in about 1700 homes in Adelaide's northern suburbs. The trial would save about $5 million in energy costs and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30,000 tonnes each year.
While Western cities debate solar power, Chinese nomads are embracing it:
Sitkan and her husband were called to a meeting where 100 villagers waiting for a transmission line learned of an alternative to burning coal. After government subsidies, 500 yuan - a tenth of what Sitkan makes each year selling sheep's wool and meat - buys a photovoltaic solar unit that would provide enough electricity to power a small heater, a radio, a television, or a couple of light bulbs.
Most of these nomads have never had electricity in their lives.

You can now offset the impact of your own nomadicism by making a donation when you book trips through Travelocity or Expedia. Travelocity has formed a partnership with Go Zero, which reportedly estimates that planting two trees "compensates for a trip that includes air travel, one night in a hotel and a rental car for one person." Without doing the math, that sounds pretty dubious. Still, there's nothing wrong with aiding reforestation. Expedia favors TerraPass, which uses donations to fund clean-energy projects.

Who among us does not love selective catalytic reduction?
From a remote site in the heart of Bavaria, in southern Germany, the modest Solnhofen cement plant is a model for reducing pollution. Once a dirty industrial facility, the plant has dramatically slashed lung-scarring emissions with a cutting-edge technology that converts pollutants into water vapor.
The plant reportedly reduces ozone-forming emissions by almost 70 percent, and may soon be used to reduce emissions at three disastrous cement kilns in Texas.

A marketing group called the Future Laboratory proclaims that "overconsumption is no longer a signal of success," and predicts a new age of "conspicuous abstention." I'm not particularly impressed by this sort of trendwatching triumphalism, but it's interesting to read about how they came to this conclusion.

Sixteen endangered bird species were saved from extinction in the 1990s:
Scientists say the rebounds in populations of the Norfolk Island green parrot, the Mauritius parakeet, and 14 other species show there's hope of slowing the trend toward human-caused bird extinctions.
Apropos of which, I mentioned the destruction of the dam at southern California's Bolsa Chico wetlands last week. It turns out that the wetlands - which were previously slated to be destroyed by an oceanfront development comprising thousands of homes - will increase the habitat for a number of rare birds:
The wetlands already are home to roughly 200 species of birds, including threatened ones, such as the California least tern and the light-footed clapper rail.
In other conservation news:
An article in the September 2006 issue of BioScience...provides some rare good news for conservation biologists. Authors L. J. Gorenflo and Katrina Brandon used GIS (geographic information system) technology to study some 4,000 "gap" locations worldwide identified in previous research as harboring animals vulnerable to extinction yet unprotected by conservation regulations. Gorenflo and Brandon concluded that many of the gaps, which tend to occur disproportionately in the tropics, on islands, and in mountains, are locations where conservation measures appear feasible, because they include large tracts of conservation-compatible habitat and have a sparse human population, yet are not attractive for agriculture. Most of the gap locations did not feature high levels of threat from humans.
Today is a good day in Delaware, where the state has started fining trucks and buses for extended idling; evidently, months of surging gas prices weren't sufficient to end the practice. In another victory for common sense, Del Laboratories is removing dibutyl phthalate from its cosmetics, perhaps out of fear that the spectre of genital shrinkage would detract from their allure. The company's also removing toluene and formaldehyde from its products (which means they put a total of three daggers in Alan Caruba's black heart).

Now, let's talk about x-rays. I've been fascinated for years by Russian music bootleggers' early use of old x-ray sheets as blank discs for recording phonographs. Finally, thanks to Street Use, I can actually see some of the discs.

The article's brief evocation of roentgenizdat - or the "x-ray press" - is fascinating, too. (There's more here.) In an odd symmetry, by the way, x-ray technicians discovered in 2000 that "two sections cut from a vinyl long-playing record can form a spherical aberration-free refractive lens for hard X-rays." Now you know!

Click here to see that 1962 masterpiece of cineradiography, "Why did Ken set the soggy net on top of his deck?"

Back in January of 2005, I posted an unsettling "x-ray" of Betty Boop's skeleton by Michael Paulus. Now, a Korean artist has disinterred the skeletons of your favorite cartoon characters. Take off your hat, friend, for here are the mortal remains of Bugs Bunny (Lepus animatus):

X-Rays of Sword Swallowers wins this week's award for truth in advertising. It offers "the most complete set of x-rays of Sword Swallowers of the past and present." They're all here, from Petur Pokus to The Mighty Ajax. Please don't try this at home, unless you've got nothing better to do.

(Top illustration: "The Dispersal of Maple, Lime, Sycamore and Hornbeam Seeds" by Amanda Willoughby.)


Diane said...

Thanks again, Phila. Fabulous Friday Hope.

I especially appreciated the tip of the hat to California. What the meanies forget to mention is that going green often means bringing in the green as small innovative companies find ways to help with the process.

Phila said...

What the meanies forget to mention is that going green often means bringing in the green as small innovative companies find ways to help with the process.

Absolutely. If any company wants to move to Nevada to get away from this modest bill, let 'em go. Out with the old, in with the new.

Phila said...


Thanks! Will work that in next week.

Anonymous said...

Another great post. I'm still trying to wrap my head around Wal-Mart doing something good.

Those sword-swallowing pics are insane -- particularly as you scroll down the page.