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July 18 2013

TERRA 815: WildFIRE PIRE: The Core of the Problem

WildFIRE PIRE is a National Science Foundation five-year project that is an international partnership coordinated by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and Montana State University that focuses on the causes and consequences of fire in the past, present, and future. Scientists from research universities and agencies in the United States, Tasmania, and New Zealand have combined efforts to compare how past fire occurrences have influenced climate change and what these patterns can tell us about the future. With the primary areas of study in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, Australia’s Tasmanian conservation areas, New Zealand’s forests, and Patagonia’s wild places, the project is exploring how wildfires, which are often devastating, are related to climate change. What is the fire history of New Zealand's unique landscape? Fire scientists from around the globe converge on New Zealand's many lakes extracting sediment cores that tell the story of New Zealand before and after the arrival of Maori and European settlers.

May 10 2013

TERRA 810: WildFIRE PIRE: A Ring of Fire

WildFIRE PIRE is a National Science Foundation five-year project that is an international partnership coordinated by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and Montana State University that focuses on the causes and consequences of fire in the past, present, and future. Scientists from research universities and agencies in the United States, Tasmania, and New Zealand have combined efforts to compare how past fire occurrences have influenced climate change and what these patterns can tell us about the future. With the primary areas of study in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, Australia’s Tasmanian conservation areas, New Zealand’s forests, and Patagonia’s wild places, the project is exploring how wildfires, which are often devastating, are related to climate change. Produced by: WildFIRE PIRE
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February 16 2013

Science Podcast – Designing Bio-Friendly Plastics - AAAS Meeting [Feb 16, 2013]

Stephen Miller discusses some biomass-derived and biodegradable alternatives to synthetic polymers.

February 07 2013

Science Podcast - Mercury-methylating bacteria, vultures and public health, climate-adaptable crops, and more (8 Feb 2013)

Liyuan Liang answers the question of how methylmercury accumulates in the environment; Andrew Balmford describes the resuscitation of vulture populations in India; Christina Larson discusses the urgency of climate change research in China; and more.

February 16 2012

The Falling Man and a center that cannot hold

This post originally appeared on The Question Concerning Technology ("Falling Man"). It's republished with permission.

AMC's "Mad Men" returns in March, but already the advertising for this show about advertising has successfully stirred a bit of controversy.

I refer to the video teasers and posters that exploit the Falling Man motif of the show's opening title sequence. The vertiginous imagery is controversial because it evokes, intentionally or not, one of the most harrowing news photographs ever taken: that of the "falling man" plunging to his death from the World Trade Center on 9/11.

I'm a fan of "Mad Men," but I'm also among those who finds the title sequence disturbing. That's not because of any personal connection to 9/11, I don't think, although as a longtime resident of New York, it hits close enough. The source of my reaction is the power of the Falling Man photograph itself.

I'm not the first to observe that the Falling Man image is evocative on at least two visceral levels. It captures, in an excruciatingly personal way, the literal terror of 9/11. It also captures what it feels like, existentially, to be living in a world of radical uncertainty. The source of our anxiety isn't only terrorism, although that's part of it now. It's about a loss of psychic footing in a world of overwhelming change.

Critics have noted an infatuation in contemporary culture with nostalgia. This isn't surprising, given the degree of change that's subsumed us lately, and that's subsumed us ever since Watt introduced his steam engine. The past, unlike the present, offers something to hold onto. No accident that even as the Industrial Revolution raged around them, Victorians celebrated medieval chivalry and piety, lounging in drawing rooms that excluded, as Lewis Mumford put it, "every hint of the machine." World War I brutally ended any illusion that the machine could be kept at bay, an awakening depicted on the current season of PBS' "Downton Abbey."

"Mad Men" gets terrific mileage out of nostalgia, but we also enjoy knowing a secret the show's characters mostly don't: that their world is about to be turned upside down. Executive producer Matthew Weiner suggested in a recent interview that the dislocating effects of change may be "Mad Men's" most important underlying theme. Specifically he noted the plaintive question asked by a character in the third season: "When is everything going to get back to normal?"

We know that change has been a constant of human affairs, of course, but we also know that technology has amplified the pace and scale of change exponentially. It's interesting that Alvin Toffler's concept of "future shock" doesn't get talked about much any more, despite the fact that the acceleration of technological change responsible for that state of psychological dislocation has, as he predicted, only increased in the decades since he coined the phrase. Would-be tech billionaires are fond of bragging that the application or device they're selling promises to be the most truly "disruptive" technology to come along since Google and Facebook, but even if they succeed they'll soon be looking over their shoulders for the next disruptive technology coming round the bend, as Google and Facebook already are.

In one form or another, the Falling Man has become the archetypical figure of the technological era, spinning his way into space from a center that cannot hold. A standard-bearer of Gilded Age displacement was Henry Adams, who in the opening pages of his autobiography described himself wondering:

"What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth? ... No such accident had ever happened before in human experience. For him, alone, the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created."

Adams was far from alone, but it was no surprise he felt that way. Isolation is another symptom of the psychology of modernism — and another primary theme of "Mad Men," according to Matthew Weiner. The 19th century versions of "future shock" were Marx's "alienation" and Durkheim's "anomie." In 1897 Durkheim published a study on the alarming rise in the number of suicides across Europe, a rise he attributed to the "morbid disturbance" caused by "the brilliant development of sciences, the arts and industry of which we are the witnesses." The work of centuries, he said, "cannot be remade in a few years."

We're often told that in order to maintain some semblance of balance in the world technology has made, we have to get used to the fact that everything is never going to get back to normal. So it is that the nostalgic appeal of "Mad Men" is precisely equivalent to that of "Downton Abbey": We get to watch complacently as complacency is overturned.


June 29 2010

Creating Cultural Change

At Velocity 2010, John Rauser presented four funny & powerful examples of cultural change, from a campaign at his office to get people to fill the coffee pot after taking the last cup, to an award winning advertising campaign. This talk explains how to "sneak past people's mental filters" and make things happen.

May 21 2010

The solutions to our big problems are in the network

Massive issues around the environment, social change, and worldwide economies feel intractable. Where do we even begin?

"Sustainable Network" author Sarah Sorensen sees things differently. She believes solutions to our biggest problems can be found in something many of use every day: the global communications network. In the following interview, Sorensen explains how the network shapes connections and opportunities far beyond technology.

What is a sustainable network?

Sarah SorensenSarah Sorensen: Every network can be a sustainable network because it has the ability to be a sustainable platform for change. Unlike any technology that has come before it, the network is able to permeate all parts of the globe and establish new links and relationships between people, governments and economies.

Every network is also self-sustaining. In the book I call this the "The Sustainable Network Law," which states that: the more broadband that is made available, the faster network innovation occurs, the greater the opportunity is for creating change, and the greater the need is for even more bandwidth.

Is "network" synonymous with "Internet," or are you talking about something larger?

Sarah Sorensen: When I say the "network," I'm talking about the world's global communications infrastructure, which supports connections from all types of computing devices. It:

  • Establishes relationships between people, things, governments and economies.
  • Provides a capacity to build and develop relationships, which perpetuates its growth. The more we use it, the more uses we find for it.
  • Represents the best platform we have for sustainable progress and action.

In a broader context, the network is a part of the information and communications technology (ICT) industry, which is the full range of devices and applications that play a role in digital communication. This goes from monitors and cell phones to PCs, storage devices, and all the different applications and hardware that enable the sharing or use of information. It stretches from the smallest home office to the largest global network.

Can you point to examples of the network creating positive change?

Sarah Sorensen: The network can create a lot of connections that create positive change., which connects micro-lenders with entrepreneurs, is a great example of the network providing resources that can improve the opportunities of an individual, business or community.

Also, look at the role the network plays when disaster and tragedy hit. In Haiti, after the earthquake, within minutes we saw photos and news of the devastation and calls for aid from philanthropic organizations. The network served as the main source of information, providing critical links to family and friends around the world. Of course, this is nothing new. Relief and aid organizations have been using online sites to link people to humanitarian needs for years, but the use of social media to mobilize groups is becoming more sophisticated and effective.

This is the promise and hope of the network. If it can help people band together and get involved, even in small ways, there's the opportunity to ultimately make a big difference or solve big problems.

What should be done to protect and grow the network?

Sarah Sorensen: We need to roll out broadband to as many people as possible. This not only takes real investment in the infrastructure, but also a political environment that recognizes the link between broadband and economic prosperity. Restrictive regulation could hinder the roll out, which is one reason why there is concern about the FCC's potential proposal to reclassify broadband as a Title II service.

How does the network affect individuals?

Sarah Sorensen: The potential is limitless, which is critical since we are facing some of the toughest challenges yet. Collectively, we need to make changes to our consumptive habits, adjust our resource dependencies, and create more sustainable social, economic and political models. On an individual level, we can use the network to be more efficient, reduce waste and get involved.

It will take everyone, so we all must understand it. This is where the book comes in -- it strives to help people recognize the network's role in the world around them, replacing vague notions of 3G, 4G, broadband and malware with a concrete understanding of how the network is relevant to their personal, business and civic lives.

Just look at recent headlines: U.S. lags in high-speed broadband access; Google pulls out of China; Court ruling on the FCC's ability to regulate net neutrality. These highlight the broadband investments, cybersecurity risks, privacy issues, and political and ideology battles taking place right now that will affect the ability of the network to improve our lives in the future.

We need everyone to understand what's at stake and participate in the dialogue to shape the changes we want to see. We are just at the beginning -- we can't even imagine the innovations to come -- and it necessitates a base understanding of the network by all to ensure no one is left behind.

This interview was condensed and edited.

May 14 2010

Disintermediation: The Disruption to Come for Education 2.0

On the largest of scales, we rarely have the luxury of designing technological systems. Instead, technologies happen to us - our experience of them being ragged, volatile, turbulent and rife with unexpected interactions. Tim’s posts about the emerging internet operating system (here and here) describe a great example of this - the winner of that particular fight being very much TBD and the factors determining victory or defeat being themselves the subject of lively debate. When we talk about Education 2.0, though, we are prone to think that we can design it - that we can consciously and deliberately lay the groundwork for its effective implementation. Our deliberation, though, may be less powerful than the larger forces driving its rapid evolution. One such force will certainly be disintermediation.

Disintermediation is a process in which a middle player poised between service or product providers and their consumers is weakened or removed from the value chain. Disintermediation is driven by the fact that middle players consume resources and in removing them from the chain, these resources are recovered to enable either lower cost for the consumer, better value from the provider, or both. Disintermediation can be total, in which case a middle player is removed entirely. It can also be partial, in which case an intermediary is carved up and the different ways in which they formerly added value are segmented, replaced, or done away with as circumstances permit. Understanding the process of disintermediation is critical to understanding the ways in which Education 2.0 will evolve.

An example of what disintermediation looks like is what happened to travel agencies. Before the Web, travel agents served as direct points of contact to facilitate travel arrangements between customers and service providers (airlines, hotels, rental car agencies, etc.) . In 1980, for example, a travel agent might meet with a family who wanted to travel to Europe. The agent contacted TWA, arranged for lodging and tour bus service within the European vacation, served as a vendor for “traveler's checks” and provided a “one stop shop” for the traveling family. The value proposition for the travel agent was that he or she was the retail outlet for knowledge about travel - in this case European travel. Dealing with the producers of this knowledge (the Airlines, French Hotels and the Italian tour bus service, for example) was cumbersome and required significant subject-matter expertise.

Disintermediation of travel agencies occurred in two distinct phases: an initial phase in which technology enabled travel agents to do their job better and a “terminal” phase in which these same agencies were disintermediated. Phase one of the process began with the shift to computerized reservation systems within the service providers - American Airlines and their Sabre system, for example. This was initially greeted by travel agents as a positive development. Sabre made their jobs easier - they could help more clients faster and with more comprehensive service. As the Web matured, though, services like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire and, allowed the end user - the consumer - to make travel arrangements directly and with far greater transparency regarding price and available services than the travel agents had been able to provide. First the savviest of the travelers, the “road warriors” who flew hundreds of thousands of miles a year, but soon “mom and pops,” came to use the electronic services instead of their local travel agent. In a single decade, the number of US travel agents declined by 45%.


The lessons of this example apply rather directly to Education 2.0. Teachers, schools, and districts occupy ground not too different than the travel agents of 1998. Specifically, the value proposition of the current educational system is that it understands the landscape of human knowledge and that it can plan and enable the exploration of this landscape in a way that is cost and time effective. Learning is educational travel.

But we now see the rapid development of Web 2.0, with devices like this:


and an application environment that will do for the landscape of human knowledge what Expedia did for physical travel - organize it, connecting the consumers of information directly with the information itself - classic disintermediation. We don’t know who the Travelocity of human knowledge will be, the of learning. Google is obviously the player to beat. Niche players will abound, though, - specialists in particular kinds of “intellectual travel”, for particular age groups or particular subjects.

How deep could this disintermediation go? Deeper than we would expect. If we take the primary function of school to be the dissemination of knowledge, the disintermediation could be near total. As a thought experiment we can imagine the following: The student’s experience may be ad hoc and fluid - with constantly shifting and boundary-less “classes.” It may be much more spontaneous and self-organizing - and all the more engaging for its voluntary essence. We may see the emergence of services that check a student’s progress against algorithms of likely educational success - simple AI versions of the 20th century guidance counselor. There may be tests that check for subject progress or mastery that any student is free to take whenever they are ready - no need to wait for “test day.” Self-paced, self-directed, self-driven. There may be constant and direct input from industry and Gov 2.0 about what students need to know: If it looks like there’s a glut of chemical engineers coming up, for example, students might be advised to shift to a track more consistent with electrical engineering. They might get this information right about the time they're learning to ride a bike. There will always be physical schools - students need to go somewhere during the day to enable the engine of modern economic progress: two parents working. But these schools will evolve into things that look more like civic centers - hubs for community involvement and rich relationship-building, augmented by more spontaneous micro-communities that span the globe, forming and bursting like soap bubbles. None of these things are certain. What is certain is that disintermediation rarely has a delicate touch. It will change the way we teach and change the way we learn in the decade and decades ahead.

February 11 2010

Tuesday February 9, 2010 GRITtv

President Obama promised change in Washington, but one year in we’ve got nothing but gridlock. Professor Lawrence Lessig has known Obama for years, and in this video from our friends at The Nation, Lessig calls on Obama–and all of us–to push for real change: change in Congress. We’ll be discussing this issue with Lessig and others on the show soon!
Reposted bySigalon02 Sigalon02

February 03 2010

TERRA 530: Shifting Sands

How will climate change affect desert environments and ecosystems?
TERRA 530: Shifting Sands

How will climate change affect desert environments and ecosystems?

March 24 2009

Play fullscreen
Engineering Our Way Out of a Climate Catastrophe

February 28 2009

Play fullscreen
Will Obama's stimulus solve the crisis? Pt.1

January 12 2009

October 30 2008

TERRA 452: Cascading Effects PART TWO

Examining the sublime landscapes of North Cascade, Mount Rainier, and Olympic National Parks, researchers shed light on emerging indications that climate change is real and predict how warming temperatures will affect the natural resources and timeless beauty of the region. As glaciers melt and the winter snow-pack decreases, what is the fate of the aquatic ecosystems and cold water fish that depend on runoff during the hottest and driest parts of the year? How will enormous amounts of unstable sediment exposed by retreating ice-sheets on Mount Rainier affect the roads and infrastructure of that park and beyond? Will pine beetle infestations and larger forest fires become widespread in the approaching future?

July 09 2008

TERRA 436: Global Warming from Burning the Future: Coal in America

This week's excerpt from Burning the Future: Coal in America examines the effects of coal on global warming. Coal-burned power plants are the largest CO2 emitters in the United States, and US emissions of carbon represent 25% of the world's contribution to global warming. Is clean coal the answer? Watch and find out!
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