April 5, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that last year a record amount of wind power was installed around the planet. The U.S. set a record, too, and, once again, became the world leader in adding new wind power, pushing China into second place for the year.
You’re not alone in being clueless about this. So was I. After all, this is a subject that gets about as much attention as 17-year-cicadas in a off year. What generally passes for energy coverage in the U.S. these days is the relentless cycle of gas-prices-up, gas-prices-down stories and the occasional foray into the natural-gas-fracking-is-a-blessing-or-is-it-a-curse? debate.
Okay, so wind power had a very good year in 2012. But that doesn’t mean that it’s gone mainstream. Hardly. It accounts for only 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. Plus, a big reason for the spike last year was that companies scrambled to finish projects before a federal tax credit expired at the end of December. (It was renewed as part of the end of the year tax deal, but only for one more year.)
Truth is, wind power still has some familiar challenges, such as the wind’s refusal to blow 24/7 and the not insubstantial death toll inflicted on bird and bat populations by twirling turbine blades–estimated to be hundreds of thousands killed a year. (Although that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions that die from flying into buildings.)
And it has some new ones–”wind turbine syndrome,” for instance. That’s the name that’s been given to the ill effects that some people who live near wind farms have complained about–headaches, dizziness, ear pain, difficulty sleeping. NPR ran a story on it just the other day.
But many scientists and public health experts think the ailment is more psychosomatic than physiological. In fact, a recent study in Australia found that the syndrome was much more prevalent in communities where anti-wind farm groups spread warnings about negative health effects. In short, the research concluded, people were more likely to feel sick if they were told turbines could make them sick.
Lose the spin
That said, the industry could probably use a different approach to capturing the wind, something that didn’t involve huge spinning blades. Which explains why there’s so much interest in an innovation developed at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s a wind turbine that not only has no blades, it has no moving parts, meaning little wear and tear.
It works like this. Instead of generating electrical energy from the mechanical energy of the rotating blades, this device, called a Ewicon (short for Electostatic Wind Energy Converter) skips the whole mechanical energy part.
It comprises a steel frame holding horizontal rows of insulated tubes, each of which has several electrodes and nozzles. The nozzles release positively charged water droplets and they are drawn to the negatively-charged electrodes. But when the wind blows, it creates resistance and that generates energy.
Only a few prototypes have been built so far, but the inventors, Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, think that if their design takes off, it could be a boon to wind power in cities, where massive turbines aren’t an option.
Still another approach is what is known as Windstalk. Again no blades, but in this case, energy is generated by a small forest of more than a thousand narrow, 180-foot-tall poles packed tightly together. Within each hollow, carbon fiber pole, which narrows from base to tip, is a stack of small ceramic disks and between the disks are electrodes.
These discs and electrodes are connected to a cable which runs up the pole. When wind causes the ‘stalks’ to sway, the discs compress, generating a current.
The windstalks have been proposed as one of the sources of energy in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral and car-free city, being built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Catching the breeze
Here are five other recent wind power stories. Chances are you haven’t heard them either.
1) And the wind…cries…chowda: It’s been 10 years in the works, but Cape Wind, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., took a big step forward last month when the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ signed a $2 billion agreement with the project’s developers. The plan is to build 130 turbines, each with blades 50 yards long, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. If it stays on schedule–construction is supposed to begin late this year–Cape Wind could be lighting 100,000 to 200,000 homes by 2015.
2) That “beyond petroleum” thing…just kidding: It wasn’t all that long ago that British Petroleum changed its name to BP and then CEO John Browne made it clear that it stood for “beyond petroleum” and that the company was fully committed to begin shifting to renewable energy. But that was before that messy spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, the one that may cost BP as much as $42 billion. Earlier this week, the company announced that it plans to sell its wind energy interests in the U.S. It has investments in 16 wind farms in nine different states and hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by putting them on the market.
3) That’s because back East anything that big has a video screen: A study done by researchers at Purdue University found that a lot of people in Indiana actually like having wind farms in their communities. More than 80 percent of the people surveyed said they supported wind turbines, even in counties where local governments had opposed them. Some said wind farms gave rural areas a certain charm and one person noted that when friends visited from the East Coast, they couldn’t stop staring at them.
4) The answer, my friend, is bobbin’ in the wind: A new type of wind turbine that floats is being tested off the coast of Japan. Most turbines extend from pylons buried in the seabed, but this model, while anchored to bottom, has a hollow lower core that’s filled with seawater. And that keeps it upright. If it works, this approach could dramatically reduce costs of offshore wind farms.
5) Waste management is so 20th century: And in Italy, law enforcement authorities have seized the assets of a Sicilian businessman suspected of laundering money for the Mafia. The man under investigation, Vito Nicastri, is so big in the renewable energy business in Italy that he’s known as “Lord of the Wind.”
Video bonus: So why do wind turbines have to be so big? Here’s a nice, little video on how a wind farm off the Dutch coast works.
Video bonus bonus: And for a change of pace, here’s a tutorial on how Windstalk would work.
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April 2, 2013
Usually, when we talk about innovation, it has to do with some whizzy new invention, like a robot ant colony, or a novel approach to solving a problem, say a wind turbine that doesn’t wipe out bats and birds.
Rarely does it have to do with something as ancient, or prosaic, as olive oil.
Sometimes, though, research tells us something new about something old and it forces us to view it with fresh appreciation. So it is with olive oil.
In this case, it’s two studies. The first, done by the German Research Center for Food Chemistry, focused on whether it’s possible to lower the fat content of food without making it lose its flavor. The problem with a lot of low-fat food, as the researchers pointed out, is that people tend to compensate for how unsatisfying the meal was by overeating later. Their mission was to see if oils used to flavor food could make people feel full.
So they split up 120 people into five groups and had each of them add 500 grams of yogurt to their diets every day. For four groups, the yogurt was enriched with one of four fats–lard, butter, olive oil and canola oil. The fifth group ate straight yogurt. After three months, the scientists found that the people who ate yogurt laced with olive oil not only had the greatest increase in their blood of serotonin–a hormone that’s been linked to people feeling sated–but also that they tended to eat less other food.
Then the researchers ratcheted things up a notch. They split everyone into two groups. One ate plain no-fat yogurt, the other ate no-fat yogurt with an aroma extract that made it smell like olive oil. And guess what–those eating yogurt with the olive oil fragrance cut back their calories from other foods and also showed better results in glucose tolerance tests.
The aroma made the difference.
The grain in Spain
Another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late February brought us more good news about the Mediterranean diet, the main ingredient of which is, yes, olive oil, along with lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Fish and red wine are okay, but, as doctors like to say, “in moderation.”
Researchers in Spain found that people on a Mediterranean diet had 30 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes or deaths from heart disease than people who followed more conventional diets that included red meat. In fact, the diet’s benefits were so obvious that the research was stopped early–the scientists thought it was unethical not to allow people in the control group to switch to the Mediterranean. It was the first time a study showed that a diet can be just as effective as drugs in preventing cardiovascular problems.
So a toast to olive oil. Make it red wine. In moderation.
Here are eight other recent studies that taught us something new about food and diets:
1) Is there anything bacon can’t do?: If you’re a repeat late-night snacker, you may want to reintroduce yourself to bacon and eggs in the morning. A study just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that people who eat breakfasts high in protein are considerably less likely to chow down on foods loaded with sugar or fat late at night.
2) The Doritos say they’ll make you feel better, but they lie: For all the talk about foods that can put you in a good mood, it turns out that junk food can be quite the downer. Research at Penn State University found that bad eating habits can sink a person’s mood, particularly if that person is woman worried about what she eats. The women in the study almost always felt worse after they munched on junk food.
3) Your mother was right–spit out the gum: Here’s one more reason to lose the gum–although it’s one your mom didn’t know about. It seems that the minty flavor that keeps your breath feeling fresh can discourage you from eating healthy fruits and vegetables because it makes them taste bad, the same way orange juice can taste funky after you brush your teeth. In fact, researchers at Ohio State University determined that people who chew gum eat more high-calorie sweet foods.
4) Hold the latte: For those looking for a reason to cut back on the coffee, here you go: Scientists at Johns Hopkins say that coffee, black and green teas and the flavoring known as liquid smoke can damage our DNA. Specifically, they found that they tend to make a certain “repair” gene become highly activated, which usually means a person’s DNA is in some distress.
5) And in case you hadn’t heard, eat more veggies: There’s even more evidence that if you increase the fiber in your diet, you’ll be doing your health a big favor. In the latest research, an analysis of eight other studies, completed at the University of Leeds, scientists determined that a person’s risk of having a stroke dropped by 7 percent for every additional seven grams of fiber he or she ate every day. They recommended consuming 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily. Most Americans eat only half that much.
6) You eat what you are: If only you knew this when you were a kid: You’re a picky eater mainly because of your genes. That’s what researchers at the University of North Carolina concluded after finishing a study of 66 pairs of identical twins. In fact, they go so far as to say that 72 percent of a child’s avoidance of certain foods can be blamed on their genes.
7) Here’s to more, longer-living fruit flies: Okay, so there’s still debate over the nutritional value of organic food, at least for humans. But fruit flies love the stuff. And it’s apparently really good for them. Scientists at Southern Methodist University say that based on their research, fruit flies that eat organic treats tend to live longer and lay more eggs.
8) What a piece of work is man: And finally, a study reminding us that sometimes we humans are about as smart as fruit flies. A researcher at Cornell has found that when people see a green calorie label on food packaging, they tend to think the food inside is healthier than it would be if it had a red or white label. That’s even if the number of calories are the same. Ah, the Dumb Diet.
Video bonus: Dieting can be funny, at least in commercials.
Video bonus bonus: A food classic: When dogs dine.
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March 29, 2013
Depending on who you’re listening to, Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, are either the greatest boon to the spread of knowledge since Gutenberg cranked his first press or the biggest threat to learning on campus since the coming of cheap beer.
No question that they are the most disruptive innovation to come out of universities in a very long time, although it’s still too soon to say if that’s “good” disruptive or bad. A quick refresher: Though free online courses, notably through Khan Academy, were already starting to build an audience, the first MOOC by a university professor popped up at Stanford in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun, also head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and his colleague, Peter Norvig, would offer online–and free–their course on artificial intelligence. About 160,000 people around the world signed up.
The following semester Thrun left Stanford–which didn’t particularly like the free part of his grand experiment–and started his own online education service called Udacity. A few months later, two more Stanford computer scientists, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, got venture capital backing to create another online company named Coursera, built around the model of signing up professors from top universities to teach classes. And then last fall, MIT and Harvard anted up, jumping in with a MOOC service they called edX.
A lot of professors who taught in the first wave of MOOCs were effusive about the experience, especially about having the opportunity to reach more than 100,000 people all over the world with just one class. But plenty of others wondered what really had been let out of the bottle, and whether once people got used to the idea of free college courses, how would they feel about the old model, you know, the one involving payment of tens of thousands of dollars.
Views from the front line
So, more than a year has passed since Thrun went to the free side and MOOCs–and the philosophy they promulgate of valuing competency more and time in the classroom less–are clearly gaining momentum.
Last week the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees approved an ambitious program of online education, including MOOCs designed to help students finish their degrees in less time for less money. The week before that, Darrell Steinberg, a leader of California’s State Senate, introduced legislation that would allow students to get full credit for a class by taking a MOOC if he or she was shut out of a course and unable to find a comparable one.
Also, the National Science Foundation has kicked in $200,000 to study a free online course in electronics offered through MIT last year, with the goal of comparing data and feedback from students who took the class online with what was gathered from those who took the same course in a classroom setting.
But a bit of analysis already has been done, in the form of a survey published by The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. More than 100 professors who have taught MOOCs responded to an online questionnaire. Among the highlights of their feedback:
- Almost 80 percent said they think MOOCs are worth all the hype–although the Chronicle did point out that the professors most enthusiastic about the experience were more likely to respond.
- Eighty-six percent said they thought MOOCs would eventually reduce the cost of getting a college degree (45 percent said it would significantly, 41 percent marginally.)
- But 72 percent said they didn’t think free online students should receive full credit from their universities.
The dark side
It is a noble notion, this idea of first-rate professors sharing their wisdom with knowledge-hungry students around the world, playing the role of “sage on the stage,” as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman put it recently.
In practice, it hasn’t been such an idyllic model. The large majority of people who sign up for free online courses are what Phil Hill, an education consultant who has analyzed some of the MOOC data, refers to as “lurkers.” These are people who perhaps watch a video or two, but then drop out–a lot never get beyond registering. Hill says as many as 60 to 80 percent of MOOC students never make it past the second week of a course.
It’s apparently not unusual for as many as 90 percent of those who sign up for a free online class to drop out before they finish it. In one case, a bioelectronics course offered by Duke University through Coursera, only 3 percent of those who registered made it to the final exam.
Proponents of free online classes acknowledge that a lot of people who sign up for MOOCs are more curious than committed, and with neither a financial investment nor the option to earn credit, they don’t feel a compunction to stick it out to the end. More often now, universities are providing certificates to students who finish a course, for a nominal fee, generally under $100.
For professors, a big part of the motivation to teach MOOCs, according to the Chronicle survey, was the sense that mass online education is inevitable and that it would be wise to get ahead of the curve. Many also said they thought the experience made them better teachers.
But some believe the trend doesn’t bode well for many universities, particularly smaller ones and community colleges. Michael Cusumano, a professor of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, sees a troubling parallel with what happened with newspapers. “Free is actually very elitist,” Cusumano wrote recently in the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery. The result, he warns, could be a “few, large well-off survivors” and far more casualties.
His worst case scenario is “if increasing numbers of universities and colleges joined the free online education movement and set a new threshold price for the industry–zero–which becomes commonly accepted and difficult to undo.”
Adds Cusumano: “Will two-thirds of the education industry disappear? Maybe not, but maybe! It is hard to believe that we will be better off as a society with only a few remaining megawealthy universities.”
Here are other recent developments in open online learning:
- “Like” us if you’d rather not have a mid-term: The first MOOC service based in the U.K., called Futurelearn, launched in December and will be offering classes later this year. Its CEO says that one day people may congregate around online learning courses the way they now do around Facebook.
- Engineering can be fun! No, really: Brown University has begun offering a free, six-week online course designed to encourage more kids to consider careers in engineering.
- All MOOCs, all the time: And in Rwanda, a non-profit called Generation Rwanda is moving ahead with a creating a “university” for which all of the courses are taught online by professors elsewhere.
Video bonus: Here’s a bit more on MOOCs in a New York Times video report.
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How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education
March 25, 2013
I committed my first texting heresy a few years ago when my son was away at college. I had asked him about a class he was taking and had needed three, maybe four sentences to express myself.
He responded with bemusement. Or maybe it was disgust. Who could tell?
But his message was clear: If I continued to be so lame as to send texts longer than two sentences–using complete words, no less–he would have little choice but to stop answering.
I was reminded of this less-than-tender father-son moment recently by a post by Nick Bilton for The New York Times’ Bits blog in which he railed against those who send “Thank you” emails, among other digital transgressions.
His contention is that such concise expressions of gratitude, while well-intended, end up being an imposition for recipients who have to open up an email to read a two-word message. Better to leave the sentiment unexpressed–although he does concede that it probably makes sense to indulge old folks, who are much more likely to appreciate the appreciation.
Bilton’s larger point is that as technology changes how we communicate and gather information, we need to adapt what we consider proper etiquette. Why should we continue to leave voice mails, he argues, when a text is much more likely to be answered? And why, he asks, would anyone these days be so rude as to ask for directions?
Not that this is the first time that tech is forcing an etiquette rethink. Bilton harkens back to the early days of the telephone when people truly didn’t know what to say when they picked up a ringing phone. Alexander Graham Bell himself lobbied for “Ahoy,” while Thomas Edison pushed for “Hello.” Edison ruled, of course, although now that our phones tell who’s calling before we have to say a word, the typical greeting has devolved to “Hey” or the catatonically casual “‘S up.”
Sure, some of this is a generational thing–The Independent nailed that in a recent piece on how members of three generations of one family communicate–or not–with each other.
But it’s also about volume. Email never sleeps. For a lot of people, each day can bring a fire hose of digital messages. Imagine if you received 50 to 100 phone calls a day. You can bet you’d be telling people to stop calling.
If the purpose of etiquette is to be considerate of other people, Bilton would contend that that’s the whole idea behind cutting back on emails and voice mails. And he’d have a point.
Me, my phone and I
But then there’s the matter of device isolation. I’m sure you know it well by now–the person who starts texting away during a conversation, or a meal, or even a meeting, which is one of those things bosses tend not to like (not to mention that it probably also means the death of doodling.)
It’s hard to put a positive spin on this since it does send a pretty clear message: I’d rather focus my energy on connecting to someone through a device than in person. Maybe it’s just me, but that, I’d say, reeks of rude.
If anything, it’s going to get worse, especially with wearable tech about to go mainstream. Some think this is the year the smart watch could start to become the accessory of choice, which means people will be looking at their wrists a lot more in the future–not so much to check the time, which is rude enough, but more to see who’s sent them emails and texts.
And what about when Google Glass goes on the market later this year? They’re glasses that will enable you to check emails, go on the Web, watch videos, even take pictures, all while feigning eye contact with the people you’re with. And the Google Glass camera raises all kinds of issues. Will wearers have to make pre-date agreements not to take stealth photos, particularly any involving eating or drinking? Is anyone fair game in a Google Glass video?
But beyond questions of privacy and social boorishness, the impact of our obsession with digital devices, especially when it comes to the loss of personal connections, could go much deeper. In a piece in Sunday’s New York Times, Barbara Frederickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, cites research suggesting that if you don’t practice connecting face-to-face with others, you can start to lose your biological capacity to do so.
“When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.”
Here are other recent developments in how technology is affecting behavior:
- Yeah, but can I text while I meditate?: A course at the University of Washington is focusing on helping students improve their concentration skills by requiring them both to watch videos of themselves multitasking and to do meditation.
- And it really cuts down on shuffleboard injuries: A study at North Carolina State University found that seniors–people 63 years or older– who played video games had higher levels of well-being and “emotional functioning” and lower levels of depression than old folks who didn’t.
- Does loyalty go deeper than latte?: This May Starbucks will break new ground when it allows its loyalty cardholders to earn points by buying Starbucks products in grocery stores.
Video bonus: All kinds of embarrassing things can happen while you’re texting.
Video bonus bonus: More evidence of the obsession that is texting: Here’s a clip of a bride firing off one last message before she says her vows.
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March 14, 2013
Last week, for the first time in 75 years, the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland, made the Golden Gate seem like just another bridge.
Kudos to Leo Villareal. He’s an artist who works with lights, but also with algorithms. And his latest project, The Bay Lights, is probably the most spectacular example of that mix of art and tech that most of us have ever seen.
Under Villareal’s direction, teams of electricians spent the past five months stringing 25,000 LED lights a foot apart–from the top of the bridge’s towers down to the deck–for the full length (almost two miles) of the bridge’s western span.
Drivers crossing the bridge aren’t distracted by the spectacle of all the white dots. They can’t see them. But from the shore, it’s a very different view. Sometimes the light seems to drip down like a steady San Francisco rain. Other times it looks like shadows of clouds moving over the bay. That’s the point. Villareal wants the lights to mirror the natural elements around them. And like nature, the bridge’s lights will never look exactly the same for the next two years. That’s the algorithms at work.
There are no cheap tricks–no splashes of color, no words spelled out, no images–in fact, nothing clearly identifiable. Just constantly shifting abstractions so people can see what they want to see.
Says Villareal: “My goal is to make it feel alive as possible, as alive as a sequence of numbers can be.”
Public art has come a long way from statues of white guys on horses. And it’s not just about the scale of something like The Bay Lights. It’s what technology has made possible–art that’s dynamic, that shifts mood and shape and sometimes augments reality. Some, of course, are not impressed, seeing art by algorithm as not much more than a 21st century version of parlor tricks. So be it.
But there can be little question that digital technology is now the driver in not just how we interact with our environment, but also in how we view it. And whether its method is to enhance the world around us or to change entirely how it appears, this is where public art is headed.
Like Leo Villareal, B.C. Biermann is a digital artist who wants to provide fresh visions to city life. But he does it by offering slices of an alternative reality. His art projects involve adding a new interactive layer to public spaces.
A few years ago, he co-founded an organization called RePublic and one of its first augmented reality projects, in July 2011, allowed people to point their smartphones at specific Times Square billboards and instead of viewing massive, flashing ads, they were able to see original pieces of urban art. Next came a project in which people aiming a digital device at a fading mural in Norway could see what it looked like when its paint was fresh. And then came the augmentation of buildings in Los Angeles and New York, which were were transformed into fanciful virtual murals on the small screen.
Biermann is now looking at refining his augmented reality concepts so that people could have choices of what “surface” of a building they want to see. Maybe they get an image of what it looks like inside the walls, maybe how it might look 20 years from now. He’s also working with an architecture professor at Washington University in St. Louis to develop a version of his app that would digitally revitalize several of the city’s buildings, with the goal of showing how better urban planning can profoundly change a streetscape’s looks.
As Biermann sees it, one day we may be taking virtual tours of cities, but what we see on our smartphones could be a very different-looking place than the one before our eyes.
That is, if we’re still paying attention to the one before our eyes.
Here are a few other public art projects built around digital technology:
- But the lights will not spell out, “Hi, Mom: Now that Bay Lights is in play, a little of the glitter is gone from Luminous, the light spectacle covering the front of a four-story building in Sydney, Australia. When it was unveiled last year, it was described as the world’s largest permanent interactive light display. And one big difference between it and the light show on the Bay Bridge is that it comes with touchscreens that give people in the restaurant down below the chance to become LED programmers.
- However, they refuse to dance to “Gangnam Style”: And in Winnipeg, Canada, they now have their own interactive art piece that makes up in whimsy what it lacks in grandeur. It’s a collection of 68 LED lights that react to sound, specifically whistling. Called Listening Lights, its inspiration is a Canadian legend that when a person whistles, the Northern Lights become more intense and dance towards the person doing the whistling.
- Finding their inner building: While it lasts for only a few days in January, the Ghent Light Festival in Belgium is worth a mention if you’re talking about doing digital magic on buildings. Here’s a video from the dazzling 2012 version of the event.
- And they should know at least a few insults: And here’s one that’s a work in progress. Believe it or not, New York City still has 11,000 payphones, which actually came in pretty handy during Superstorm Sandy. But clearly they need a 21st century facelift and now the city has just announced six finalists in a competition to reinvent the payphone. The entries will be judged on what their reinventions can do. Are they wifi hotspots? A gatherer of data, such as street level pollution levels? Or a true urban kiosk, one that can wirelessly call a cab and be able to tell you what food trucks are where that day? And they have to look good. This is New York, after all.
Video bonus: See for yourself the spectacle of the new Bay Bridge and get an explanation of how it works from the artist himself in this New York Times video report.
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