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Out of Africa: light and dark visions of text-messaging

An article of mine in The New York Times last Sunday on the emergence of underground computer geeks in Nairobi, Kenya, flushed out -- for me at least -- a neglected movement of scholars studying the effect of the mobile on African societies in particular and developing countries in general.

Of the varied research that's been brought to my attention, probably the most striking are a series of studies by two researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Human-Centered Computing Program in Atlanta. The study, comparing how folks in Nairobi and Atlanta use information technology, are funded by Intel Corp. and supported by one of the company's researchers in Berkeley, Calif. Rather surprisingly, the trio of researchers is examining how religious behavior is influenced by new information technologies -- and influences them.

The big idea in the paper, published this spring in an ACM publication, is that in Nairobi, where evalengical Christianity has made deep inroads with middle-class and educated people, the mobile phone and the Internet are viewed as tools that improve the quality of one's religious experience. As the authors write of their Nairobi subjects, "When asked if they used technology to stay focused on their faith, participants answered with stories about using computers, software and mobile phones to do so."

One especially notable finding: text messaging is being used "to send and receive prayer requests."

Who knew that the devout can text message for Jesus or praise the Almighty by tapping on a tiny Nokia keyboard.

The authors -- Susan Wyche and Rebecca Grinter of GIT and Paul Aoki of Intel -- stick too closely to the technological experience in my view. They don't examine the role of Safaricom, the biggest mobile supplier in Kenya, In explaining the attraction of prayer through text messaging, they don't examine the role of Safaricom, Kenya's leading cell provider, in promoting the mobile phone as the ultimate expression of urban sophistication.

And then there's the profit motive. Text messages, after all, aren't free, so that the explanation for their use by evangelicals might instead be found in the rampant commercialism in some tendencies of African Christianity.

The very same practice of text-message by Nairobi denizens -- four times more of which have a mobile phone than a bank account -- is the subject of another recent paper, this forwarded to me only this morning by Oxford University's David Anderson, a leading historian of Africa who also directs the British university's African studies center. Written by Oxford student Michelle Osborn, the paper -- published in June in the Journal of Eastern African Studies -- documents the role that text messaging played in the recent post-election protests in Kenya earlier this year.

Many scholars have found that the mobile phone has contributed to democratization in African countries (and elsewhere in the developing world), by helping protesters evade government repression, organize protests and broadcast their message internationally. In the Kenya case, however, Osborn found some negative fallout from rampant text messaging during the disturbances, some of which were violent and result in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Test messaging, Osborn writes, "brought a new, unpredicted dimension" to the conflict between supporters of rival political parties, both of whom wanted their man to be elected president. "Politicians utilized rumors and SMS texts to galvanize supporters into collective action," some of which was ugly.

The mobile phone and the Internet are undeniable positive forces for good. But less positive outcomes are co-evolving alongside the welcome ones. As scholars apply more effort to studying these new technologies, their social effects -- and perhaps even how to design devices more effectively -- should become better understood.

Industry Group Backs New Wireless HDTV Scheme

A consortium of high-definition TV makers has announced its support of a new technology for wireless connectivity of its products. The proposed system, called the Wireless Home Digital Interface (WHDI), will use a proprietary chip set and communications algorithms from Amimon Inc., a startup headquartered in Herzlia, Israel. The WHDI scheme is a variant on the proposed IEEE 802.11n standard.

Hitachi Ltd., Motorola Inc., Samsung Electronics Co., Sharp Corp., and Sony Corp. said yesterday that they will serve as promoter-level members of the special interest group. They intend to develop an upgraded set of specifications for the technology by the end of the year and then work for its acceptance as a new standard.

Amimon claims the WHDI spec will provide wireless connectivity of up to 100 meters for uncompressed high-def video within a home network. The company said in a press release yesterday that its system relies on a video-modem that operates in the unlicensed 5-gigahertz band to enable wireless video and audio delivery with less than 1 millisecond latency. It said WHDI signals will operate through walls and other obstructions into multiple rooms with a variety of future consumer electronics.

"The development of the new standard will ensure that when consumers purchase CE devices and take them home, they will enjoy a fast, easy, and hassle-free wireless connection that delivers the highest quality," said Yoav Nissan-Cohen, Amimon's chief executive officer. "The WHDI standard's objective is to enable an enriched customer experience with multi-vendor interoperability."

The company has created a site on the Web to promote the WHDI initiative.

According to an EETimes report, the WHDI group faces competition from a number of challengers. For example, another startup, called SiBeam, already offers wireless high-def home networking in the 60-GHz band but only at distances of 10 meters currently. SiBeam, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has gathered an impressive roster of supporters, as well, such as Intel Corp., LG Electronics, Matsushita Electrical, NEC Corp., Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba Corp. (with some backing both proposals). However, this consortium's efforts, called WirelessHD, have yet to gain much traction in the market or in the standardization process.

It is still early in the race to eliminate cables from consumer electronics in the home, but the challenge just got another boost of interest with this news.

When is a terabyte not a terabyte?

Consider the following exchange from the generally excellent public radio show, On The Media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mathematician Martin Wattenberg observed in Wired that the sum total of all the words you'll hear in your lifetime amount to less than a terabyte of text. So then how much is a petabyte?

CHRIS ANDERSON: A petabyte is, mathematically it is, you know, 1,000 terabytes, but we have a hard time understanding that scale. We usually use the sort of, you know, the Library of Congress, as an example. The Library of Congress is sort of, you know, on the - you know, on a couple of terabytes scale; a petabyteâ''s a thousand of those.

We've never seen petabyte scale data aggregations before. Thereâ''s never been anything like that because we're still relatively early in, you know, the digital age. But Google has just hit that state. Google processes about a petabyte of information every 72 minutes, and a year from now it'll process a petabyte every half an hour, and so on.

There's a category mistake here to the tune of at least two, maybe three or four, orders of magnitude; it's an awful lot like mixing little-c calories and big-c Calories in the same sentence.

Consider a simple document containing the words "hello world" - 11 bytes of information, in a fairly straightforward way of counting them. The same words took up 19 456 bytes when put into Microsoft Word document. Take a image-file snapshot of it, and it might blow up to a 76 468-byte file, as it did when I used the Grab utility a few minutes ago.

When we measure the Library of Congress, we tend to make a successive estimates of the number of books, pages, words, and, finally, bytes, taking as a rough measure one byte per character. The makers of these estimates generally look for the smallest possible number, and I suppose we should be grateful they don't subject the resulting number to some ZIP-like compression.

When we consider Google's petabytes, we're, presumably, looking at the number of bytes its spiders crawl through, or the bytes on its millions of hard disks, throwing together video, audio, jpegs, and PDFs in with the text. Indeed, a lot of simple text gets counted in terms of the HTML pages it resides on. For comparison purposes, "hello world" is a cool 2500 bytes when you let Microsoft Word turn it into a .htm file.

Then there's the question of information, and Information. The Library of Congress is filled mainly with books. That is, it contains words that have been carefully thought out, then written, then vetted by a publisher, then pushed out into the world at great expense, with the expectation that they will be useful and interesting to thousands, often millions, of people, across several decades.

Google's cache, on the other hand, is filled with MySpace diary entries, LOLcat images, videoclips of Jon Stewart, and millions of copies of Abba songs. Compress those terabytes down to their truly useful and interesting elements, and you have, well, not much more than the 11 bytes of "hello world."

More memory devices masquerade as jewelry

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Like many women, I've looked at a piece of my jewelry and thought, "well, it's not that gorgeous but I hang on to it for its memories."

Next time I say that, I might not be talking figuratively. Because yet another wearable USB memory stick is about to hit the market.

I've made fun of USB jewelry in the past, like the Swarovski crystal pendants introduced by Philips at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. But it could be turning into a trend. This week Super Talent Technology introduced the Pico-C Gold, a 24-carat gold plated, 8 GB, $40 USB necklace. It's not bad looking (see photo above), kind of high tech with a touch of 1980s fern bar. At least it doesn't try to hide the fact that it is, indeed, a memory stick.

Maybe I'll get one. For the memories.

Silicon Valley's Tesla dealership opens its doors

Today, in Menlo Park, Calif., Silicon Valley's first Tesla dealership opened to the public on the site of a former Chevy dealership.

This is what it looks like today.

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This it what it looked like nine months ago.

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Inside, there was mostly empty space. Two protototypes and one of the models used for aerodynamic testing sit on the showroom floor.

Silicon Valley's Tesla dealership opens its doors

Today, in Menlo Park, Calif., Silicon Valley's first Tesla dealership opened to the public on the site of a former Chevy dealership.

This is what it looks like today.

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This it what it looked like nine months ago.

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Inside, there is mostly empty space. Two prototypes and one of the models used for aerodynamic testing sit on the showroom floor.

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The real action is inside the service center, where six cars, hot off the production line, are being prepared for pickup by their new owners, who likely ordered them a year or more ago.

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Many many more would-be owners are still waiting. In the meantime, they can make a Tesla fashion statement.

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Al Gore versus T. Boone. Take Your Pickens

Former vice president Al Gore got a lot of attention last week with a call to make the U.S. electric power system completely carbon-free within ten years, a startling idea that some find inspiring. Meanwhile, Texan oilman T. Boone Pickens has been running full-page newspaper ads promoting his â''Pickens Plan,â'' the idea being to replace the electricity we make by burning natural gas with wind-generated power, and to use the freed-up gas to fuel automobiles. Itâ''s not hard to detect the element of self-interest in that plan: Pickens is building a huge wind farm in Sweetwater, Texasâ''and reportedly owns the countryâ''s largest natural gas company. But even allowing for self-promotion versus self-sacrifice, if you had only the Gore or Pickens plan to choose from and wanted to take a stake, youâ''d do better to pick the T Boone.

This blogger yields to none in his admiration for Gore the science popularizer and Gore the proseletizer. The former senator and presidential contender has delivered his â''inconvenient truthâ'' lecture hundreds or thousands of times over the last few years, and devoted countless weekends at his home near Nashville to training selected volunteers to give proxy versions of the speech. But when it comes to politics and policy, oddly, the man is a loose cannon.

A couple of years ago Gore floated the idea of replacing all U.S. payroll taxes, including those that support the Social Security system, with environmental taxes. The politician who promised voters in the 2000 presidential election that he would treat Social Security as a â''locked boxâ'' seemed to have forgotten that the whole point of environmental taxes is to be self-liquidating: theyâ''re meant to discourage and ultimately eliminate undesired activities. Once emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases is ended, where is the tax revenue going to come from to support Social Security?

Now Gore is saying we can completely abolish carbon-emitting electric generation within ten years, implying that anybody who disagrees has a canâ''t do attitude. Well, the fact is we canâ''t do it. Right now we produce half our electricity from coal, the most carbon-intense of fuels, and one-fifth from natural gas. Gore wants to replace all that by some combination of wind, solar, and geothermal. But geothermal is a tiny niche player in electricity generation and photovoltaic solar is still far from market-ready. That means that really only wind is available to do the job, and the most optimistic projectionâ''one recently issued by Department of Energy labsâ''is that wind could deliver one fifth of our electricity by 2030, not three quarters and not by 2018.

From that point of view, the Pickens plan at least has the advantage of being realistic. T. Boone wants to take the natural gas that currently supplies 22 percent of U.S. electricity and have it, in compressed form, fuel automobiles instead. (He points out in his short and pointed video presentation that 6 million cars in the world already run on compressed natural gas, an excellent automotive fuel.) He will have wind-generated electricity replace the power currently made from gas, with the aim of sharply reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. (Regarding nuclear, both Pickens and Gore propose to keep its electricity share at 20 percentâ''a notable concession to reality on the part of Gore, who previously has leaned anti-nuclear.)

Concern about energy dependence motivates the Pickens plan, while Goreâ''s intent is to cut the chances of catastrophic climate change. This difference is key, because the Pickens plan, though eminently doable, does almost nothing to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If oneâ''s main concern is to kick the carbon habit, however, itâ''s desirable not to eliminate the role of natural gas in power generation but to increase it to replace some of the power now made from coal. (Natural gas emits only one third or one half as much carbon per unit energy as coal, and this is why developing countries that replace coal with gas generation qualify for Kyoto credits.) Together with expanded reliance on wind and nuclear, perhaps half of the electricity now made from coal could be generated by zero-carbon or low-carbon sources by 2020.

Whether your preference is Gore, Pickens or some other action plan, it all keeps coming back to the ongoing big story in power, which is wind. At the end of last week, as the ink was drying on the Pickens Plan, Texas regulators approved a $4.93 billion transmission expansion, to accommodate the stateâ''s fast-growing wind generation. Yes, $4.93 billion.

Out of Africa: the arrogance of an AIDS vaccine

Mourn the death of the campaign for an AIDS vaccine but also cheer it. The push for a â''silver bullet,â'' however human an impulse, reflected as much an overwhelming arrogance on the part of scientists as the inherent difficulty of engineering a preemptive technological response to a protean disease.

The field of vision should be clearer now. Pragmatic and relentless behavioral and societal adaptations are the best (and most humanistic) responses to the persistence of new cases of HIV/AIDS. As Helen Epstein wrote last year in her brilliant polemic on the disease, â''The Invisible Cure,â'' the most effective responses in Africa â'' where the disease remains an enormous public-health issue â'' are animated by mass-based social mobilizations. In Uganda, where social mobilization has perhaps gone the furthest on matter of AIDS, the results have been impressive.

After 20 years of discussing the possibility of an AIDS vaccine, the time has come to pause and let the social mobilizers hold sway in the field of prevention, unburdened by the â''noiseâ'' of well-meaning technocrats holding out the hope of a swift and easy intervention, unfettered by concerns about social organization and culture. In fighting AIDS, as in much else, social values and political mobilization, are decisive. The failure of the vaccine movement provides a convenient opportunity to remember the limits of technological innovation and the perils of engineering arrogance.

To be thrown on the social and cultural, however, is not to escape the awful dimensions of HIV/AIDS. On my visit early this month to a community of farmers in eastern Uganda, I was humbled by the capacity of human beings â'' alone and in their chosen groups â'' to deny, dissemble and even self-destruct in the face of lethal threats. In the foothills of majestic Mount Elgon, the leaders of a community Iâ''ve come to know and respect have fallen prey to new cases of HIV/AIDS. These men and women only fitfully sought treatment, and their â''prevention strategiesâ'' remain flawed.

The hollow promises of an AIDS vaccine had never reached this Ugandan village. In the homes of the stricken, there are no technocratic delusions, only evidence of flawed humanity.

Major Decisions Take U.S. Air Regulation back to Go

Actually itâ''s almost as if in a game of Monopoly, you somehow drew Community Chest and Chance cards simultaneously, and both told you to go back to Go. On Friday, July 11, Environmental Protection Agency head Stephen L. Johnson announced the agency would not try to impose restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, despite findings of a staff report he was releasing. The same day, in another part of town, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit threw out a plan the EPA adopted several years ago to reduce soot and smog, saying it was so flawed in so many ways no amount of tinkering could fix it.

A Washington truism thatâ''s held true longer than anybody can remember is that if you have to announce something potentially controversial, the best time to do so is on a Friday afternoon, preferably on a mid-summer day. The EPA and Circuit Court decisions conform to that pattern. Though they were reported in the Saturday papers, of course hardly anybody reads those papers on a hot July morning, and even the reporters filing them, instead of following up are off to the beach. Thatâ''s one reason why have followed up here, albeit with a six-day delay, and why we posted on a Thursday rather than a Friday.

Both decisions had somewhat startling, even perplexing, dimensions. The EPA climate report was a response to a Supreme Court decision telling the agency to evaluate the human impact of greenhouse gases. EPA Administrator Johnson, rejecting mandatory action on GHG emissions even as he was issuing a report detailing their adverse impacts, â''in effect was simultaneously publishing the policy analysis of his scientific and legal experts and repudiating its conclusions,â'' as The New York Times observed. Even stranger, it continued, along with his staffâ''s work he also published â''the comments of its critics, which had a definite tinge of hostility toward the EPA regulators.â''

However weird his modus operandi, Johnsonâ''s decision was not really a surprise. Nobody expected the Bush Administration in its waning months, despite the Supreme Court directive, to initiate carbon regulation, which it has always opposed. One way or another it was going to punt, leaving the difficult decisions to a next administration and one, presumably, that will have its heart in the matter.

The appeals court decision, on the other hand, was a shocker. EPAâ''s Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) â''represented the Bush administrationâ''s most aggressive action to clean the air over the next two decades,â'' as The Washington Post put it. CAIRâ''s purpose was to reduce or eliminate impacts of upwind emissions on clean air attainment efforts in downwind states east of the Mississippi, an effort that EPA said would help prevent 17,000 premature deaths. Naturally, given its scope and complexity, CAIR faced a variety of detailed challenges: from a state and a municipality, several utility groups, and a national energy company with big nuclear holdings. But nobody had expected the court to toss out the whole next-phase plan for reducing SO2 and NOxâ''or, if anybody did, theyâ''re not admitting it.

Because of the decisionâ''s immense importance, itâ''s worth lingering a little over some salient details. Again and again, considering various objections, the court found that EPA had adopted an overly regional approach, neglecting to assess the specific impact of one stateâ''s upwind emissions on another stateâ''s downwind attainment efforts; repeatedly, the decision takes EPA to task for adopting such a procedure merely because it was â''logicalâ'' or â''fairâ'' rather than in strict compliance with statutes. With specific reference to CAIRâ''s NOx trading program, the decision rebukes EPA for adopting a formulaâ''evidently from the acid rain programâ''that favors coal-burning utilities over those relying mainly on gas and oil, working to the disfavor of a state like oil-rich Louisiana. With reference to SO2, it found that CAIRâ''s proposed supplemental trading scheme would illegally devalue permits issued in the acid rain program.

â''Unfortunately,â'' the court concluded, â''we cannot pick and choose portions of CAIR to preserve.â'¿CAIR is a single, regional program, as EPA has always maintained, and all its components must stand or fall together.â''

A number of the petitioners in the suit declared themselves dismayed by the outcome, including Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, N.C. Though one of the nationâ''s top coal-burning utilities, Duke has been a leading industry advocate of carbon regulation; together with North Carolina, however, it was a major plaintiff in the CAIR suit. It appears now to be embarrassed and perhaps even damaged by the sweeping result. â''It was not the intent of Duke Energyâ''s participation in this litigation to overturn EPAâ''s CAIR,â'' a spokesman said. Though challenging just the SO2 portions of CAIR, now that the whole rule is overturned, Duke loses the benefits for coal-burning utilities contained in the NOx trading provisions.

Just how shockedâ''shocked!â''should we be? Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling, who wrote the petitionersâ'' brief in the 2007 Supreme Court climate decision, says itâ''s quite unusual for a big rule like CAIR to be vacated in its entirety: generally courts will remand defective portions to the regulatory agency for revision. But in this case Heinzerling feels â''the decision seems kind of right, assuming the courtâ''s accounting of EPAâ''s reasoning is accurate.â''

John Walke, the top air lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, sharply disagrees. In a blog he posted on July 15, he said that if Duke hadnâ''t wanted to overturn CAIR then it shouldnâ''t have brought suit in the first place, as â''any decent attorney practicing in the D.C. Circuit would know that the frequent practice in that [quite conservative] court is to vacate unlawful rules in their entirety.â'' Walke said this should have been particularly true of the able attorney who argued Duke's case in court, coincidentally a former classmate of his at Harvard Law School.

The immediate impact of the courtâ''s decision is that a previous NOx trading scheme, the so-called NOx SIP call, comes back into effect. But Walke, Heinzerling, and just about everybody else agree that in the longer run, stronger regulation of NOx and SO2 particulate will not be possible without new and revised statutory authority, which will have to await the next Congress and next Administration, along with a carbon mandate.

One final note: everybody considers the decision, as such, to be final. The D.C. Appeals Court, which is the one designated to deal with challenges to federal regulations, is after the Supreme Court the countryâ''s most prestigious and most powerful legal authority. The decision in the case of North Carolina versus EPA, written by the courtâ''s chief judge David B. Sentelle (coincidentally a native of North Carolina), can be readily found and downloaded at FindLaw, after a short log-in procedure.

Getting on the Big Green Bus

IMG_2128.JPGThis morning I walked a few blocks from my house and waited for the bus. The Big Green Bus, that is, a cooking-oil fueled, solar-panel powered, Dartmouth-college-student carrying, sustainable-living-promoting road show.

The bus was a little late, thanks to freeway accidents and massive traffic tie-ups. By the time it arrived, a crowd of moms, kids, and local journalists had gathered.

The point of the 40-state, 20,000 km summer tour, recent Dartmouth graduate and bus rider Ro Wang told me, is to make people realize that small changes in your lifestyle now can make a meaningful difference to the environment in the future, and you donâ''t have to make big sacrifices.

â''You donâ''t have to go back to the ice age,â'' says Dartmouth environmental studies major Nathan Mazonson.

Dartmouth mechanical engineering major Trey Roy pointed out that the twelve students and recent graduates on the tour were not giving up their high-tech college student lifestyle. Thanks to five top-of-the-line 215 W Sunpower solar panels, donated by T.J. Rodgers, and eight golf cart batteries, the students have flat-screen television, surround sound, videogames, computers, cell phones, and a refrigerator and freezer to hold their snacks day and night. On windy days, they stick a wind turbine out on the roof for a 400 W power boost.

The bus itself runs on a little diesel (to warm up the engine for the first five minutes of driving) and a lot of used vegetable oil, collected from restaurants that fry food. â''Weâ''ve never paid for the oil,â'' Mazonson said. And if you get to close to the exhaust, youâ''ll get hit with the smell of stale french fries.

The road trip is sponsored by Newmanâ''s Own, Waste Management, Timberlandâ''s Earthkeepers, Changents, and Burtâ''s Bees.

Below, a photo tour:

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ON THE BUS. Twelve Dartmouth students and recent grads, including environmental studies major Nathan Mazonson (left), mechanical engineering major Trey Roy (center), and physics major Elysa Corin are riding 20,000 km this summer to encourage people to make lifestyle changes to help the environment.

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VEGGIE POWERED. The Big Green Bus runs on waste vegetable oil, with a parallel diesel system that briefly warms the oil and can be switched in when fast food restaurants can't be found.

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CLEAN OIL. Two filtering systems in the back of the bus, plus a final filtering pass near the engine, make sure french fry fragments don't clog the fuel lines.

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THANKS, TJ! Five solar panels donated by Cypress Semiconductor's TJ Rodgers mean that bus riders don't have to leave their high-tech toys, like multimedia systems and videogame players, behind.

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