Friday, October 27, 2006

A long wait for a good beer - Guinness evolution ad

Just saw this amazing ad for Guinness, three guys in a pub that suddenly get thrown backward in evolution, 3 billion years to the point where they lizards drinking foul water at some pond. Sometimes ads are so great.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The singularity summit as podcasts

So much good stuff, so little time.
There’s a number of very good talks available as podcasts from the Singularity Summit at Stanford – back in may.
A little snippet: In his speech Cory Doctorow has a good description of the fundamental problem with controlling the network with heavy-handed Digital rights management:

All complex systems have parasites and you can’t solve parasites by rendering the system simple. Solving the parasites by rendering the system simple renders the system not powerful enough to not even bother with.

Mega cities on display in Venice

The biennale on architecture in Venice is well worth a visit – you should reserve two days for it, there’s a lot to see. It’s hard work, but luckily there’s all of that wonderful Italian coffee to pick you up.
It closes on november 18th.

The theme this time is Mega cities, and the main exhibition looks at 16 major cities: Caracas, Cairo, Mexico City, Cairo, Berlin, Shanghai, Istanbul and Los Angeles are among them.
Lots of good analysis, breathtaking multimedia, amazing photos and interesting facts. Such as:
There’s one square meter of free space pr. Inhabitant in Cairo.
In 2050 8 billion people will be living in cities - 3/4 of the worlds population, as opposed to just over half today.
The worlds largest city currently is the greater Tokyo metropolitan area with 34 mio. Inhabitants. By 2050 Mumbai is expected to be the largest. It’s currently 18 mio. But will likely be over 40 mio. Then.
In Los Angeles 80% of all transportation is in cars, In Tokyo 80% of transportation uses trains and buses.
The typical daily commuting time in Sao Paolo, Brasil is 4-5 hours.
Half of all cement in the world is used in China. Shanghai alone added 2700 skyscrapers in the past ten years, increasing the number of hi-rises tenfold.
60% of Mexico Cities inhabitants are squatters. The rates for ”informal” occupancy is similar in many third mega-cities.

The impression I got away with was that of to very strong, opposing forces, top-down and bottom-up. One is city planning and architecture on an absolutely massive, soviet style scale. The exhibition shows any number of very large projects for brand new cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants – particularly for Asia.
The other force is the flood of poor people simply moving to the city, putting up their shacks where it’s possible. Seen from above, it looks like a sea of corrugated tin roofs and muddy roads swallowing the old, official cities.
The Venezuelan pavilion is about the slums of Caracas. On a wall-size sign it’s states something like: These people have no use for architects. This sort of city does not look like someone intended. But perhaps, the solutions that the people in the slums find to solve the extreme pressure on resources could be used by all of us.

For old times sake I did a radio-report for Radio Denmarks Orientering.
It’s in Danish, though. You can hear it here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Craig Venter at Poptech

I missed Poptech this year, but very generously the amazing Poptech team streamed the whole conference - so I’ve kinda been there, at least virtually.
The one talk I was really looking forward to was Craig Venter – of decoding the human genome fame. He came on as the last speaker. He’s almost scary in his laser like determination and belief in what he’s doing, but I get this feeling that we’d better listen. He’s working on “synthetic biology”, his project is to create new life from the bottom up, bacteria which can be tailored to do Really Usefull Stuff – like eating CO2 and turning it into energy for us to use.
It’s a wonderful prospect, but I can see a million things going wrong before we can relax about large scale use of synthetic bacteria.
The following passage of Venter’s speech gets into some of the details. Sounds to me like he’s spelling out the future - although I’m not sure that I’ve gotten all the spelling right:

No cells’ genome has yet been even remotely synthesized and even genome replacement has not yet been demonstrated. So we’re early on, but we think there’s tremendous use for this key technology as we go forward.
This audience clearly knows about energy demand and the potential to develop new fuels. My view is coming a little bit from a different side in terms of what we are doing to the environment; We’re adding 3,5 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, we can not afford to ignore any technology that offers a solution.
We’ve designed, on paper, organisms that can take that CO2 back from the atmosphere and fix the CO2 into cellular proteins, sugars, biopolymers etc. Just recently Dupont has opened a plant in Tennessee that has silos, 4 of them, about the size of this room, for producing propanediol from sugar, that goes into their new ceronapolymer that’s going to be used for stain free carpets and clothing - all derived from modifying the genome of a bacteria. They are starting with sugar, but we can go back further, to CO2.
We have metabolic pathways that can take carbon monoxide out of the air, split water with that, producing hydrogen and oxygen. We can go from methane to produce hydrogen or other fuels. We have a team working on modifying photosynthesis to go straight from sunlight into hydrogen production without any other energy being added - and we and others have been working on modifying cells to produce burnable fuels directly.
So cellulasis, or enzymes that break down the complex sugars that form plants and trees – everybody knows that termites can eat wood but in fact termites can not eat wood, they have bacteria in their guts, the cellulasis, that break down the cellulose into simple sugars.
The goal is to convert some of agriculture where we can capture back some of this carbon in a recyclable fashion. People are starting with ethanol but there is no reason why in a few years time we can’t go right from cellulose through a bacteria to make butane, propane, even octane directly.
Now all of a sudden, in stead of taking carbon from the ground, burning it and putting it in the atmosphere we can recycle it through the process of photosynthesis. We’re looking at a wide variety of plants as feed stocks, going into producing chemicals as Dupont is doing, for nutraceuticals and most importantly into energy - in terms of what we are rapidly doing to this planet.
I’m the least worried about disease, whether it’s manmade or new emerging infections affecting humanity. In the long term. if we destroy our spaceship, which we are in the process of doing, disease will not matter.