Saturday, December 20, 2008

The exponential rate of technological growth

Sometimes its easy to miss the degree to which our cultural and technological environment is changing when we are participating in it on a day to day basis. I recently ran across a video from NOAA that brings the degree of some of these changes home.

This is a video of all air traffic around the world in a 24 hour period. Really makes an impression.

A friend of mine had an interesting comment about it: "There is an odd thought I sometimes have that some of our problems are due to our evolutionary and cultural heritage in small groups and villages, and a simple inability to comprehend the scale and simultaneity of the modern world. we can intellectually manipulate information on large scale issues, but we don't really comprend things at a gut level. little videos like this seem to make the scale more real, at least for me."

All i can say is that it makes the scale of human endeavor a little more real for me as well.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The curious foci of modern news media

I find it quite interesting to track the kinds of news stories that get national media coverage in the United States against those that get only limited coverage. As far as i can tell, most news coverage consists of truly trivial stories that have little or no bearing on the big picture. How we live, what we understand about the earth and the universe around us, why things are happening in the way that they are. None of these questions seem to be addressed, almost ever.

So a story about how there are two large holes in the Earths magnetic field shows up well below the fold, while stories about assorted minutia accrue top billing. And folks wonder why the world works the way it does ....

Why can't the media exercise some discretion in regard to the stories they promote? Isn't there some measure of abstract importance that could be applied?

Ah well, I suppose the game changes but the story remains the same. C'est la vie.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ongoing Revolutions in High Density Hydroponics

Traditional hydroponic gardening techniques have always been a bit ahead of their time, and generally only competitive with traditional farming for 'high value' crops. The vertical hydroponics movement is beginning to change that relationship by making it easier to grow traditional food crops at high densities in urban areas close to where the crops are sold and consumed. 'Vertical' refers to a class of hydroponic technologies that can be stacked - yielding much higher crop density than traditional greenhousing or hydroponic methods. I have recently been looking at hydroponic technologies suitable for vertical applications, and have found that cylindrical rotating methods appear to have some fairly significant advantages over traditional hydroponics.

Basically, rotational hydroponic methods consist of a cylinder containing rows of a suitable growth medium, a central lighting fixture, a water reservoir, and a chain drive system that rotates the cylinder at very low speed so each row of plants is dipped into the water reservoir a couple of times per day.

The advantages are simple - these rotational units can be stacked vertically, all plants are essentially equidistant from the light source, and rotational growing generates much larger and healthier plants than non-rotational methods. Combined with LED based lighting operating at only those frequencies at which plants absorb light energy, operating costs can be significantly reduced when compared with traditional hydroponic techniques.

One such system is sold by Omega Garden - although construction of something similar from readily available materials should not be a great challenge for anyone mechanically inclined. An international patent is pending on this technology.

The question is, why arent there more of these systems out there, what problems are associated with setting up small urban production facilities to generate various food crops or high value spice and oil crops, and what can be done to improve this technology even further?

After all, local food crops make a great deal of sense - especially when considering the continuing increases in transportation costs. Grow food near where it will be consumed, and I predict that developing technologies to make this feasible in urban areas will be an ongoing area of research over the next 20 years.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Patent Gridlock - The Tragedy of the Anticommons

I ran into an interesting post on Slashdot referencing an article from the New Yorker that fairly succinctly describes some of the issues I have been having with the current systems and methods we have for handling intellectual property here in the United States. For these kind of sentiments to show up in the popular media, especially outside of the community of folks actively involved in intellectual property issues, really demonstrates the severity of the problem.

To quickly summarize the article, the author suggests that the current patent system is causing an innovation 'gridlock' by encumbering new products and innovations with multiple claims of partial infringement by different holders of existing patents. Now in some sense, this is actually how the system in supposed to operate - if I develop a product that relies on some technology you have developed I am supposed to compensate you in some way for using your work. Unfortunately, because the USPTO has made a practice in the last twenty years of granting patents with increasingly broad claim coverage and granting rights to technologies that do not exist and cannot be built at the current time, the claims of partial interest are so complicated and numerous that the new innovation is doomed before it can even be brought to market. Thus the tragedy of the anticommons.

This problem is further exacerbated by the 'patent trolls' who file for patents on technologies they never intend to bring to market in the hope of extorting a toll on any company unlucky enough to actually bring a potentially infringing product to the marketplace.

I have a couple of suggestions to address this problem, none of which is likely to ever see the light of day. My skepticism regarding implementation does not prevent me from sharing them, however:

* require a functional prototype before granting a patent
* disallow business method patents
* restrict the scope of allowable claims to those demonstrated by the prototype
* require companies to enforce their claims in a timely fashion - if there is no claim as to infringement within 6 months of a potential violation that specific infringer and that infringer alone cannot be penalized
* restrict copyright to a 7 year term which can be renewed for another 7 years at a significant cost

These changes would go some way towards patching the current system, but it should be clear that some serious thought needs to be done regarding how we can fairly handle intellectual property issues in an environment that is, after all, very different from the one the current system was built to address in 1790.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Are Software Patents On Shaky Ground?

For those of us who work with the US intellectual property system on a regular basis, it is pretty clear that there are some fairly serious systemic problems. Interestingly enough, it seems that the USPTO may be rethinking its position on software patents, specifically as a way to discourage the 'patent trolls'. A patent troll, I might add, is the ancient and hereditary enemy of the intellectual property gnomes.

It looks to me and some others that there may be fewer, higher quality software patents in the USPTO's future, and from my perspective this is a 'good thing' indeed. The system cannot work when choked by an undigestible mass of low quality software patents, so anything to stem the tide should be applauded. It remains to be seen, however, whether these relatively minor adjustments will be enough to save the system. Patents on gene sequences, software patents, 'futurist patents' (patents on inventions no one actually knows how to build now but may be possible later), and more all raise serious questions about how and if a rational, fair, and efficient intellectual property system can be built.

Monday, July 14, 2008

New Tools for DNA Manipulation

This is a fairly interesting development - it seems that a Japanese company has developed some very small MEMS (micro electro-mechanical systems) designed to improve our ability to accurately manipulate strands of DNA without breaking them. Like many current systems they use optical tweezers to move the DNA strands around, but the novelty here are the micro 'bobbins' and 'hooks' that allow users to hold a strand in place and edit it. Kind of like a DNA sewing machine.

Infrastructure tools for the bio-design revolution - they arent really here yet, but when they are it may have systemic effects as profound as the development of the general purpose computer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

First Solar Thermal Component Plant to go Online in Nevada

Utility scale (>10 Megawatt) solar thermal systems are now poised to go mainstream as Austra plans to open a plant in Nevada to mass produce some of the essential components. Previously, most solar thermal installations (especially for utilities) were one-off 'proof of concept' affairs which had a generally negative impact on the resulting price per watt figures, so a source for standardized components is a fairly significant step.

As far as I am concerned, any efforts to improve the state of the art in thermal or panel based solar systems should be supported vigorously.

The Ausra news release can be found here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

GM Agriculture and Terminator Technologies - Another Blow Against the Third World?

So called 'terminator technologies', at least in the agribusiness world, are essentially those GM or genetic modification technologies that allow seed companies to 'improve' and patent seeds for specific crops. This insures that everytime a farmer wants to plant a new crop, they have to go back to the seed or GM company to get a new supply of seeds. This is partially because most of these GM crops are designed to be sterile in the field, and partially because intellectual property laws preclude unlicenced (non paid) use of any seed products containing one or more of the gene sequences patented by the GM company *even those grown by the farmer themselves*.

Now in the first world agricultural producers have for the most part abandoned the practice of keeping personal stocks of 'seed grain', or grain saved from a previous crop in order to plant a new crop, in favor of purchasing these stocks from commercial suppliers some time ago. So for these customers, the difference between buying GM seeds for the next crop versus buying non-GM seeds is a matter of degree rather than kind.

For farmers in the third world, however, its a different and more disturbing story. Most agricultural producers in the developing world rely on maintaining personal stocks of seed grain in order to minimize the costs associated with planting and harvesting each crop. It turns out that once they buy into the hype associated with genetically modified crops, it is very difficult to reestablish themselves as traditional 'seed grain' producers, and very difficult to make enough of a profit to pay for next years GM seeds. A disturbing prospect, and one reason governments in the third world are pushing modernized versions of traditional methods rather than buying into the capital intensive methods pushed by agribusinesses in the first world.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Water of Life - Bacteria, Nanofilters and Filtration

The importance of clean water to quality of life cannot be overestimated, and as in almost every other area of human endeavor the technology used to filter water is undergoing a continuous process of improvement. Current state of the art continuous water purification is accomplished via reverse osmosis, activated carbon filtration, ultraviolet light, and ceramic and membrane filters. The new generations of nanopore filters which can filter particles as small as one nanometer are an essential part of 'ultrafiltration'. The problem with these filters (and membrane filters in general) is that they become clogged fairly quickly during use and must be replaced or cleaned with some frequency. One way researchers are currently addressing this problem is by inoculating the nanofilters with a variety of bacterial colonies which digest the various types of filtered contaminants, thereby cleaning the filters. It is especially interesting that this process is a closed cycle, meaning that the bacterial colonies are self sustaining and cannot escape through the nanoscale pores on the filters, and that the filters no longer have to be replaced or cleaned.

Hybrid technologies that take advantage of cutting edge nanotechnologies and biotech to accomplish tasks currently beyond the reach of either alone. Rest assured that you will be seeing more of these hybrid technologies in the future.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Aging and Technology

In just over a decade, a quarter of Europe's population will be over 65 - and populations throughout the first world are also aging. This article takes a quick look at how technology is being developed to ease the burdens and risks associated with age. There is a wide range of technologies that could make living longer easier, from robotic assistants (quite actively pursued in Japan) to better interactive communication devices that track location and condition issues and can autonomously notify caregivers of error conditions like falls or low blood sugar.

This is an interesting second order problem - as world populations live longer, healthier lives as a result of developments in geriatric medicine and aging research, technologies will be needed to support active and healthy lifestyles for this older demographic.