Climate Crisis: (More) Smog-Eating Buildings

pollution_eating2Air pollution is now one of the greatest health concerns in the world, exceeding cigarettes as the number one killer of people worldwide. With an estimated 7 million deaths in 2012 alone, the WHO now ranks it as the biggest global environmental killer. In fact, of the 1,600 major cities surveyed from around the world, over half are now above the safe limits of Particulate Matter (PM), with the highest cost borne by the poorer regions of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Because of this, Carbon Capture technology is being seriously considered as an integral part of the future of urban planning and architecture. So in addition to addressing the issues if housing needs, urban sprawl and energy usage, major buildings in the future may also come equipped with air-cleaning features. Already, several major cities are taking advantage, and some innovative and futuristic designs have emerged as a result. Consider the following examples:

aircleaning_skyscraperCO2ngress Gateway Towers: Conceived by architects Danny Mui and Benjamin Sahagun while studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology, this concept for an air-cleaning skyscraper earned them an honorable mention in the 2012 CTBUH student competition. And while there are no currents plans to build it, it remains a fitting example of innovative architecture and merging carbon capture technology with urban planning and design.

The concept involves two crooked buildings that are outfitted with a filtration system that feeds captured CO2 to algae grown in the building’s interior, which then converts it into biofuels. Aside from the scrubbers, the buildings boast some other impressive features to cut down on urban annoyances. These include the “double skin facade”- two layers of windows – that can cut down on outside traffic noise. In addition, the spaces on either side of the buildings’ central elevator core can be used as outdoor terraces for residents.

CC_catalytic_clothingCatalytic Clothing: A collaborative effort between Helen Storey and Tony Ryan, the goal of this experiment is to incorporate the same pollution-eating titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in carbon capture façade into laundry detergent to coat clothing. According to Ryan, one person wearing the nanoparticle-washed clothes could remove 5 to 6 grams of nitrogen dioxide from the air a day; two pairs of jeans could clean up the nitrogen dioxide from one car.

If enough people in downtown New York, Beijing, Mumbai, Mexico City – or any other major city of the world renowned for urban density, high concentrations of fossil-fuel burning cars, and air pollution – would wear clothing coating with these nanoparticles, air pollution could be severely reduced in a few years time. And all at a cost of a few added cents a wash cycle!

CC_in_praise_of_airIn Praise of Air: Located in Sheffield, England, this 10×20 meter poster shows Simon Armitage’s poem “In Praise of Air”. Appropriately, the poster doubles as a pollution-eating façade that uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The full poem reads as follow:

I write in praise of air.  I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.

Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips.  Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…

Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s  first word, was air.

According to Tony Ryan of University of Sheffield, who created it with his colleagues, the poster can absorb about 20 cars’ worth of nitrogen oxide a day and would add less than $200 to the cost of a giant advertisement. While it is a creative tool for promoting a local poetry festival, it also serves as proof of concept that the technology can be incorporated into practically any textile, and will be reproduced on several more banners and posters in the coming months.

hyper_filter1Hyper Filter Skyscraper: Designed by Umarov Alexey of Russia, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper recognizes the threat of environmental pollution and seeks to merge carbon capture technology with the building’s design. Under today’s levels of pollution, harmful substances spread over hundreds of kilometers and a whole region and even a country could represent a single pollution source. Hence the plan to place a air-scrubbing building at the heart of the problem – an urban core.

Consistent with CC technology and the principle of photosynthesis, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper is designed to inhale carbon dioxide and other harmful gases and exhale concentrated oxygen. The skin of the project is made out of long pipe filters that ensure the cleaning process. While clean air is released to the atmosphere, all the harmful substances are stored for use in the chemical industry for later use. These can include chemicals products, biofuels, and even manufactured goods.

CC_mexico-hospital-facade-horizontal-galleryManuel Gea González Hospital: Located in Mexico City, this hospital was unveiled last year. The building features a “smog-eating” façade that covers 2,500 square meters and has titanium dioxide coating that reacts with ambient ultraviolet light to neutralize elements of air pollution, breaking them down to less noxious compounds like water. This was Berlin-based Elegant Embellishment’s first full-scale installation, and its designers claim the façade negates the effects of 1,000 vehicles each day.

Funded by Mexico’s Ministry of Health, the project is part of a three-year, $20 billion investment into the country’s health infrastructure, an effort which earned Mexico the Air Quality Prize at the 2013 City Climate Leadership Awards in London. Considering the fact that Mexico City is <i>the</i> most densely-populated cities in the world – with a population of 21 million people and a concentration of 6,000/km2 (15,000/sq mi) – this should come as no surprise.

CC-pollution-palazzo-italia-horizontal-galleryPalazzo Italia: Located in Milan, this building is designed by the architectural firm Nemesi & Partners, and comes equipped with a jungle-inspired façade that is built from air-purifying, “biodynamic” cement. This shell will cover 13,000 square meters across six floors, and will remove pollutants from the air and turns them into inert salts. Apparently, the material from Italcementi only adds 4-5 percent to the construction costs.

Scientists in the Netherlands have also adapted the photocatalytic material to roads, claiming it can reduce nitrous oxide concentrations by 45 percent. The building is set to launch next year at the 2015 Milan Expo.

Propogate Skyscraper: This pollution skyscraper was designed by Canadian architects YuHao Liu and Rui Wu, and won third place at this year’s eVolo’s Skyscraper Competition. Basically, it envisions a building that would turn air pollution into construction materials and use it to gradually create the building. Relying on an alternative carbon-capture technique that employs philic resins and material processes to transform carbon dioxide into solid construction material, their uses carbon dioxide as a means to self-propagate.

3028400-slide-propagateA simple vertical grid scaffold forms the framework and takes all the ingredients it needs for material propagation from the surrounding environment. Individual living spaces are built within this gridwork, which creates open square spaces between lattices that can then be filled by tenements. Its pattern of growth is defined by environmental factors such as wind, weather, and the saturation of carbon dioxide within the immediate atmosphere.

Thus each building is a direct reflection of its environment, growing and adapting according to local conditions and cleaning as the air as it does so. Unlike conventional skyscrapers, which rely on steel frame and concrete casting, the proposed skyscraper suggests a more environmental conscious construction method, an alternative mode of occupation and ownership, and possibly a distinct organization of social relationships.

Synthesized Spider Web: Another innovative solution comes from Oxford’s Fritz Vollrath, who was inspired by the behavior of spider silk fibers. With the addition of a glue-like coating, the thinness and electrical charge of spider silk allows them to capture any airborne particles that pass through them. These synthesized silk webs could be used like a mesh to capture pollutants – including airborne particulates, chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals – coming out of chimneys or even disaster zones.

Spiderweb_towersSpiderweb Tower: Considering that London has some of the worst air quality in Europe, and the fact that air pollution is thought to be the second biggest risk to public health in the UK after smoking, solutions that can bring carbon capture and pollution-eating technology to downtown areas are in serious demand. And one solution comes from graduate architect Chang-Yeob Lee, who has come up with a radical design that would turn London’s BT Tower into a pollution harvesting ‘spiderweb’ that turned smog into bio-fuel.

Lee’s plan envisions the skyscraper being covered in a ‘giant eco-catalytic converter’ that traps pollutants from the capital’s air. At the same time, nano-tubes of titanium would turn carbon-dioxide into methanol and water using only the power of the sun. As Lee put it:

The project is about a new infrastructure gathering resources from pollutants in the city atmosphere, which could be another valuable commodity in the age of depleting resources.

Quite a bit of potential, and just in the nick of time too! And be sure to watch this video


Cyberwars: The Heartbleed Bug and Web Security

heartbleed-iconA little over two years ago, a tiny piece of code was introduced to the internet that contained a bug. This bug was known as Heartbleed, and in the two years it has taken for the world to recognize its existence, it has caused quite a few headaches. In addition to allowing cybercriminals to steal passwords and usernames from Yahoo, it has also allowed people to steal from online bank accounts, infiltrate governments institutions (such as Revenue Canada), and generally undermine confidence in the internet.

What’s more, in an age of cyberwarfare and domestic surveillance, its appearance would give conspiracy theorists a field day. And since it was first disclosed a month to the day ago, some rather interesting theories as to how the NSA and China have been exploiting this to spy on people have surfaced. But more on that later. First off, some explanation as to what Heartbleed is, where it came from, and how people can protect themselves from it, seems in order.

cyber_securityFirst off, Heartbleed is not a virus or a type of malware in the traditional sense, though it can be exploited by malware and cybercriminals to achieve similar results. Basically, it is a security bug or programming error in popular versions of OpenSSL, a software code that encrypts and protects the privacy of your password, banking information and any other sensitive data you provide in the course of checking your email or doing a little online banking.

Though it was only made public a month ago, the origins of the bug go back just over two years – to New Year’s Eve 2011, to be exact. It was at this time that Stephen Henson, one of the collaborators on the OpenSSL Project, received the code from Robin Seggelmann – a respected academic who’s an expert in internet protocols. Henson reviewed the code – an update for the OpenSSL internet security protocol — and by the time he and his colleagues were ringing in the New Year, he had added it to a software repository used by sites across the web.

Hackers-With-An-AgendaWhat’s interesting about the bug, which is named for the “heartbeat” part of the code that it affects, is that it is not a virus or piece of malware in the traditional sense. What it does is allow people the ability to read the memory of systems that are protected by the bug-affected code, which accounts for two-thirds of the internet. That way, cybercriminals can get the keys they need to decode and read the encrypted data they want.

The bug was independently discovered recently by Codenomicon – a Finnish web security firm – and Google Security researcher Neel Mehta. Since information about its discovery was disclosed on April 7th, 2014, The official name for the vulnerability is is estimated that some 17 percent (around half a million) of the Internet’s secure web servers that were certified by trusted authorities have been made vulnerable.

cyberwarfare1Several institutions have also come forward in that time to declare that they were subject to attack. For instance, The Canada Revenue Agency that they were accessed through the exploit of the bug during a 6-hour period on April 8th and reported the theft of Social Insurance Numbers belonging to 900 taxpayers. When the attack was discovered, the agency shut down its web site and extended the taxpayer filing deadline from April 30 to May 5.

The agency also said it would provide anyone affected with credit protection services at no cost, and it appears that the guilty parties were apprehended. This was announced on April 16, when the RCMP claimed that they had charged an engineering student in relation to the theft with “unauthorized use of a computer” and “mischief in relation to data”. In another incident, the UK parenting site Mumsnet had several user accounts hijacked, and its CEO was impersonated.

nsa_aerialAnother consequence of the bug is the impetus it has given to conspiracy theorists who believe it may be part of a government-sanctioned ploy. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s extensive efforts to eavesdrop on internet activity and engage in cyberwarfare, this is hardly a surprise. Nor would it be the first time, as anyone who recalls the case made for the NIST SP800-90 Dual Ec Prng program – a pseudorandom number generator is used extensively in cryptography – acting as a “backdoor” for the NSA to exploit.

In that, and this latest bout of speculation, it is believed that the vulnerability in the encryption itself may have been intentionally created to allow spy agencies to steal the private keys that vulnerable web sites use to encrypt your traffic to them. And cracking SSL to decrypt internet traffic has long been on the NSA’s wish list. Last September, the Guardian reported that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ had “successfully cracked” much of the online encryption we rely on to secure email and other sensitive transactions and data.

Edward-Snowden-660x367According to documents the paper obtained from Snowden, GCHQ had specifically been working to develop ways into the encrypted traffic of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Hotmail to decrypt traffic in near-real time; and in 2010, there was documentation that suggested that they might have succeeded. Although this was two years before the Heartbleed vulnerability existed, it does serve to highlight the agency’s efforts to get at encrypted traffic.

For some time now, security experts have speculated about whether the NSA cracked SSL communications; and if so, how the agency might have accomplished the feat. But now, the existence of Heartbleed raises the possibility that in some cases, the NSA might not have needed to crack SSL at all. Instead, it’s possible the agency simply used the vulnerability to obtain the private keys of web-based companies to decrypt their traffic.

hackers_securityThough security vulnerabilities come and go, this one is deemed catastrophic because it’s at the core of SSL, the encryption protocol trusted by so many to protect their data. And beyond abuse by government sources, the bug is also worrisome because it could possibly be used by hackers to steal usernames and passwords for sensitive services like banking, ecommerce, and email. In short, it empowers individual troublemakers everywhere by ensuring that the locks on our information can be exploited by anyone who knows how to do it.

Matt Blaze, a cryptographer and computer security professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that “It really is the worst and most widespread vulnerability in SSL that has come out.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ars Technica, and Bruce Schneier all deemed the Heartbleed bug “catastrophic”, and Forbes cybersecurity columnist Joseph Steinberg event went as far as to say that:

Some might argue that [Heartbleed] is the worst vulnerability found (at least in terms of its potential impact) since commercial traffic began to flow on the Internet.

opensslRegardless, Heartbleed does point to a much larger problem with the design of the internet. Some of its most important pieces are controlled by just a handful of people, many of whom aren’t paid well — or aren’t paid at all. In short, Heartbleed has shown that more oversight is needed to protect the internet’s underlying infrastructure. And the sad truth is that open source software — which underpins vast swathes of the net — has a serious sustainability problem.

Another problem is money, in that important projects just aren’t getting enough of it. Whereas well-known projects such as Linux, Mozilla, and the Apache web server enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding, projects like the OpenSSL Software Foundation – which are forced to raise money for the project’s software development – have never raised more than $1 million in a year. To top it all off, there are issues when it comes to the open source ecosystem itself.

Cyber-WarTypically, projects start when developers need to fix a particular problem; and when they open source their solution, it’s instantly available to everyone. If the problem they address is common, the software can become wildly popular overnight. As a result, some projects never get the full attention from developers they deserve. Steve Marquess, one of the OpenSSL foundation’s partners, believes that part of the problem is that whereas people can see and touch their web browsers and Linux, they are out of touch with the cryptographic library.

In the end, the only real solutions is in informing the public. Since internet security affects us all, and the processes by which we secure our information is entrusted to too few hands, then the immediate solution is to widen the scope of inquiry and involvement. It also wouldn’t hurt to commit additional resources to the process of monitoring and securing the web, thereby ensuring that spy agencies and private individuals are not exercising too much or control over it, or able to do clandestine things with it.

In the meantime, the researchers from Codenomicon have set up a website with more detailed information. Click here to access it and see what you can do to protect yourself.

Sources:,, (2),

Climate Crisis: Terraforming the Desert

green_machineNow that I’m back from my European adventure, I finally have the time to catch up on some news stories that were breaking earlier in the month. And between posting about said adventure, I thought I might read up and post up on them, since they are all quite interesting to behold. Take, for example, this revolutionary idea that calls for the creation of a rolling city that has one purpose in mind: to replant the deserts of the world.

Desertification is currently one of the greatest threats facing humanity. Every year, more than 75,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles) of arable land turns to desert. As deserts spread – a process that is accelerating thanks to climate change and practices like clear-cutting – the UN estimates that more than 1 billion people will be directly affected. Many of them, living in places like Northern Africa and rural China, are already struggling with poverty, so the loss of farmland would be especially hard to handle.

green_machine_balloonsAs a result, scientists are looking to come up with creative solutions to the problem. One such concept is the Green Machine – a floating, self-powered platform that would act as a mobile oasis. Rolling on treads originally designed to move NASA rockets. Designed by Malka Architecture and Yachar Bouhaya Architecture for the Venice Biennial, this mobile city would roam the drylands and plant seeds in an effort to hold back the desert.

The huge platform would be mounted on sixteen caterpillar treads originally made to move NASA rockets, while giant floating balloons that hover from it capture water condensation. As the first treads roll over the soil, the machine uses a little water from the balloons to soften the ground while the last set of treads injects seeds, some fertilizer, and more water. The entire platform would run on renewable power, using a combination of solar towers, wind turbines, and a generator that uses temperature differences in the desert to creates electricity.

green_machine_cityThe machine could theoretically capture enough energy that it can self-support an entire small city onboard, complete with housing, schools, businesses, parks, and more farmland to grow produce for the local area. This city would house and support the many researchers, agronomers, workers and their families that would be needed to oversee the efforts. Similar to what takes place in oil drilling, these individuals could be flown in for periods of work that could last up to sixth weeks at a time before rotating out.

The designers were inspired by Allan Savory, who has proposed a much lower-tech version of the same process that relied on cattle to naturally till and fertilize the soil. For the architects, building on this idea seemed like a natural extension of their work. If the machine went into action at desert borders, the designers say it could help formerly barren soil produce 20 million tons of crops each year, and could even help slow climate change by capturing carbon in soil.

green_machine_terraOver time, biodiversity could also gradually return to the area. The architects are currently working on developing the project on the Moroccan side of the Sahara Desert. As Stephane Malka, founder of Malka Architecture, put it, it’s all about using the neglected parts of the world to plan for humanity’s future:

For a long time, my studio has developed work around neglected spaces of the city. Deserts are the biggest neglected space on Earth, as they represent more than 40% of the terrestrial surface. Building the Green Machine units would be able to re-green half of the desert borders and the meadows of the world, while feeding all of humanity

As to the sheer size of their massive, treaded city, the designers stressed that it was merely an extension of the challenge it is seeking to address. Apparently, if you want to halt a worldwide problem, you need a big-ass, honking machine!


News from Space…X: Reusable Launch Vehicle Good to Go!

spacex-falcon-9-octaweb-640x427After years of research, development and testing, SpaceX (Elon Musk’s poster child of the commercial space travel revolution) is about to attempt something truly revolutionary. In a bid to significantly reduce the costs of sending rockets into space, they will attempt the first ever soft landing of a heavy space launch vehicle. Initially planned for March 16th, the company has since updated the launch date to March 30th in order to give its techs more time to prepare.

On this day, if all goes according to plan, SpaceX mission CRS-3 will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. In the past, rockets blasting off from Earth would normally ditch the massive primary stage of their assembly into the ocean after launch. But this one it will sprout some metal legs and use what’s left of its rocket fuel to slowly return to Earth.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeThis is perhaps the single most important step in SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of ten or more, which will ensure the acceleration of space travel for the indefinite future. One of the primary reasons that the human exploration of space is moving so slowly is the cost factor. For heavy lift vehicles, which are required to lift large satellites, equipment, and supplies into space, it costs roughly $22,000 to lift a single kilogram ($10,000 per pound) into orbit.

It costs even more to send a rocket beyond Earth’s gravity well and out into space, which is why reducing costs is seen as intrinsic to sending manned missions to Mars. Currently, NASA pays around $70 million per seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule, thanks to the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. But a crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, DragonRider, is also in development, which will reduce the cost per seat to $20 million.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424SpaceX debuted its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) tech on the suborbital Grasshopper rocket in October of 2013. This came after multiple launches were conducted that saw the rocket reach greater and greater altitudes and which tested its ability to maneuver horizontally. Once this was complete, they began the task of fitting a Falcon 9 with the Merlin rocket engines, which would bring the vehicle back to Earth after the first stage rocket detached.

For this flight, the first stage will still land in the water to minimize the chance of damage if something goes wrong. But once SpaceX is confident that it can do a soft landing with its RLV safely, future launches will see the first stage fly all the way back to to the launchpad. After that, SpaceX will start bringing the second stage back to the launchpad, too. The eventual goal, according to SpaceX, is to create a launch system that is reusable within “single-digit hours.”

grasshopper_lateraldivertBasically, SpaceX would give these rockets a quick once-over, fill them back up with fuel, and send them back to work. If everything goes to plan, the total cost per pound to launch into Earth orbit could drop to $500 or less — one twentieth of what unreusable rockets cost. Suffice it to say, if SpaceX manages to undercut every other space launch company in the world — including the Russian and Chinese governments — it could suddenly find itself in a very powerful and lucrative position.

Not only would it replace Russia and the Ukraine as NASA’s primary contractor, it would also see to the restoration of America’s ability to send people, equipment, satellites and supplies into space from its own soil. Given the current state of tensions in the Crimea, this is sure to put a smile on a lot of people’s faces in DC. The launch is currently scheduled to take place at the end of March and there will be a live NASA feed to cover the rocket’s descent.

And while we’re waiting, here’s a clip of SpaceX first testing out the Grasshopper rocket to take us back:


Cyberwars: NSA Building Quantum Computer

D-Wave's 128-qubit quantum processorAs documents that illustrate the NSA’s clandestine behavior continue to be leaked, the extents to which the agency has been going to gain supremacy over cyberspace are becoming ever more clear. Thanks to a new series of documents released by Snowden, it now seems that these efforts included two programs who’s purpose was to create a ““useful quantum computer” that would be capable of breaking all known forms of classical encryption.

According to the documents, which were published by The Washington Post earlier this month, there are at least two programs that deal with quantum computers and their use in breaking classical encryption — “Penetrating Hard Targets” and “Owning the Net.” The first program is funded to the tune of $79.7 million and includes efforts to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” that can:

sustain and enhance research operations at NSA/CSS Washington locations, including the Laboratory for Physical Sciences facility in College Park, MD.

nsa_aerialThe second program, Owning the Net, deals with developing new methods of intercepting communications, including the use of quantum computers to break encryption. Given the fact that quanutm machinery is considered the next great leap in computer science, offering unprecedented speed and the ability to conduct operations at many times the efficiency of normal computers, this should not come as a surprise.

Such a computer would give the NSA unprecedented access to encrypted files and communications, enadling them to break any protective cypher, access anyone’s data with ease, and mount cyber attacks with impunity. But a working model would also vital for defensive purposes. Much in the same way that the Cold War involved ongoing escalation between nuclear armament production, cybersecurity wars are also subject to constant one-upmanship.

quantum-computers-The-Next-GenerationIn short, if China, Russia, or some other potentially hostile power were to obtain a quantum computer before the US, all of its encrypted information would be laid bare. Under the circumstances, and given their mandate to protect the US’s infrastructure, data and people from harm, the NSA would much rather they come into possesion of one first. Hence why so much attention is dedicated to the issue, since whoever builds the worlds first quantum computer will enjoy full-court dominance for a time.

The mathematical, cryptographical, and quantum mechanical communities have long known that quantum computing should be able to crack classical encryption very easily. To crack RSA, the world’s prevailing cryptosystem, you need to be able to factor prime numbers — a task that is very difficult with a normal, classical-physics CPU, but might be very easy for a quantum computer. But of course, the emphasis is still very much on the word might, as no one has built a fully functioning multi-qubit quantum computer yet.

quantum-entanglement1As for when that might be, no one can say for sure. But the smart money is apparently anticipating one soon, since researchers are getting to the point where coherence on a single qubit-level is becoming feasible, allowing them to move on to the trickier subject of stringing multiple fully-entangled qubits together, as well as the necessary error checking/fault tolerance measures that go along with multi-qubit setups.

But from what it’s published so far, the Laboratory for Physical Sciences – which is carrying out the NSA’s quantum computing work under contract – doesn’t seem to be leading the pack in terms of building a quantum computer. In this respect, it’s IBM with its superconducting waveguide-cavity qubits that appears to be closer to realizing a quantum computer, with other major IT firms and their own supcomputer models not far behind.

hackers_securityDespite what this recent set of leaks demonstrates then, the public should take comfort in knowing that the NSA is not ahead of the rest of the industry. In reality, something like a working quantum computer would be so hugely significant that it would be impossible for the NSA to develop it internally and keep it a secret. And by the time the NSA does have a working quantum computer to intercept all of our encrypted data, they won’t be the only ones, which would ensure they lacked dominance in this field.

So really, thess latest leaks ought to not worry people too much, and instead should put the NSAs ongoing struggle to control cyberspace in perspective. One might go so far as to say that the NSA is trying to remain relevant in an age where they are becoming increasingly outmatched. With billions of terabytes traversing the globe on any given day and trillions of devices and sensors creating a “second skin” of information over the globe, no one organization is capable of controlling or monitoring it all.

So to those in the habit of dredging up 1984 every time they hear about the latest NSA and domestic surveillance scandal, I say: Suck on it, Big Brother!


The Future of Currency: Bitcoin Hitting the Streets

bitcoinFor those familiar with digital currencies, the name Bitcoin ought to ring a bell. Developed back in 2009, this “cryptocurrency” – i.e. it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money – was created as a form of online payment for products and services. Since that time, it has become the subject of scrutiny, legislative bans, volatile pricing, and a hailed as a hardinger of the coming age of “distributed currency”.

Unlike precious metals or more traditional forms of currency, which hold value because they are backed by a country or are used to manufacture goods, Bitcoin is only buoyed by market demand. There are only 12.3 million virtual Bitcoins in circulation and those “coins” are traded through a Peer-to-Peer computer network, much as people used to share music files.

bitcoin1What’s especially interesting is the fact that the creator of this new form of currency remains unknown. It is assumed that it originated with a programer from Japan, due to the fact that its first mention came in a 2008 paper published under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. It became operational roughly a year later with the release of the first open source Bitcoin client and the issuance of the first physical bitcoin.

And in an interesting and personally-relevant development, it now seems that a Bitcoin ATM is coming to my old hometown of Ottawa. In this respect, the nation’s capitol is joining other major cities around the globe as municipalities that dispense the crypto currency, in spite of the fact that it is still not recognized by any national banking institutions, or financial regulating bodies.

future_money_bitcoinWhat’s more, the publicly-traded cryptocurrency has seen its stock go through repeated highs and lows over the past few years, being subject to both bubbles and price drops as countries like India and China prohibited its use. But with these machines hitting the streets, a trend which began back in November with the distribution of Robocoin ATMs, there is speculation that the digital currency might just be here to stay.

Part of the appeal of cryptocurrencies is that they allow for anonymity, hence why bitcoin has been linked to a number of illegal activities, such as on the shuttered drug marketplace Silk Road. And because its value is strictly tied to speculators, and not backed by any tangible measure or authority, speculators are able to ratchet up demand and push the stock value higher.

future_money2But Bitcoin is also starting to be accepted as a mainstream form of payment for U.S.-centric sites like OkCupid and WordPress. And back in October of 2013, China’s web giant Baidu accounced that it would start accepting Bitcoin payments for a firewall security service it sells. And though the Chinese government put the brakes on Bitcoin exchanges by December, the number of mainstream institutions opening up its coffers to it is growing.

These include Richard Branson’s private space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the Sacramento Kings, the e-commerce giant Paypal, and, a major online retailer. And popular use is also growing, as evidenced by the visualization below which shows downloads of bitcoin client software since 2008, broken down by different operating systems.

bitcoin_globalWhat the graphic shows is quite indicative. All over the world, particularly in developed countries and areas of economic growth – the Eastern US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Australia and Southeast Asia – the Bitcoin software is being downloaded and used to oversee online exchanges in good and services.

And ultimately, those who believe in the service and choose to invest in it are doing so based on the promise that it will someday streamline monetary transactions and free the world from the financial manipulation of big government and big banks, breakdown the financial walls between nations, and remake the worldwide economy. In short, it will breakdown centralized economies and allow a “distributed economy” to takes its place.

bitcoin_popmapAdmittedly, the service is still flawed in a number of respects. For example, people who chose to collect bitcoins in the past were dissuaded from spending them since their value kept going up. The problem is, if economic incentives encourage people to hoard their bitcoins rather than spend them, the currency will never fulfill its role as the future of money.

Another problem is the one arising from the currency’s “deflationary nature”. Because the system was designed to allow the creation of only a finite number of bitcoins, there will come a point where, as demand rises, the value of the currency will only go up (making the price of goods and services fall, hence the term deflation). And that could lead to hoarding on an even larger scale.

bitcoin-atm-flagshipBut according to many economists who have closely followed the progress of the digital money, Bitcoin’s recent ups and downs are to be expected from a currency so young, and one that is just now attracting major attention from the mainstream population. The bottom could fall out of the market, but the currency could just as easily stabilize and reach a point where its value is consistent enough that people no longer hoard the stuff.

So at this point, its difficult to say what the future will hold for the new miracle money known as Bitcoin. But when it comes to cryptocurrencies in general, time seems to be on their side. Ever since the Internet Revolution took off, the possibilities for creating a new, de-centralized world order – research, development, politics and business are open and inclusive in ways like never before – has been emerging.


The Future is Bright: Positive Trends to Look For in 2014

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersWith all of the world’s current problems, poverty, underdevelopment, terrorism, civil war, and environmental degradation, it’s easy to overlook how things are getting better around the world. Not only do we no longer live in a world where superpowers are no longer aiming nuclear missiles at each other and two-thirds of the human race live beneath totalitarian regimes; in terms of health, mortality, and income, life is getting better too.

So, in honor of the New Year and all our hopes for a better world, here’s a gander at how life is improving and is likely to continue…

1. Poverty is decreasing:
The population currently whose income or consumption is below the poverty line – subsisting on less than $1.25 a day –  is steadily dropping. In fact, the overall economic growth of the past 50 years has been proportionately greater than that experienced in the previous 500. Much of this is due not only to the growth taking place in China and India, but also Brazil, Russia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, while developing nations complain about debt crises and ongoing recession, the world’s poorest areas continue to grow.

gdp-growth-20132. Health is improving:
The overall caloric consumption of people around the world is increasing, meaning that world hunger is on the wane. Infant mortality, a major issue arising from poverty, and underdevelopment, and closely related to overpopulation, is also dropping. And while rates of cancer continue to rise, the rate of cancer mortality continue to decrease. And perhaps biggest of all, the world will be entering into 2014 with several working vaccines and even cures for HIV (of which I’ve made many posts).

3. Education is on the rise:
More children worldwide (especially girls) have educational opportunities, with enrollment increasing in both primary and secondary schools. Literacy is also on the rise, with the global rate reaching as high as 84% by 2012. At its current rate of growth, global rates of literacy have more than doubled since 1970, and the connections between literacy, economic development, and life expectancy are all well established.

literacy_worldwide4. The Internet and computing are getting faster:
Ever since the internet revolution began, connection speeds and bandwidth have been increasing significantly year after year. In fact, the global average connection speed for the first quarter of 2012 hit 2.6 Mbps, which is a 25 percent year-over-year gain, and a 14 percent gain over the fourth quarter of 2011. And by the second quarter of 2013, the overall global average peak connection speed reached 18.9 Mbps, which represented a 17 percent gan over 2012.

And while computing appears to be reaching a bottleneck, the overall increase in speed has increased by a factor of 260,000 in the past forty years, and storage capacity by a factor of 10,000 in the last twenty. And in terms of breaking the current limitations imposed by chip size and materials, developments in graphene, carbon nanotubes, and biochips are promising solutions.

^5. Unintended pregnancies are down:
While it still remains high in the developing regions of the world, the global rate of unintended pregnancies has fallen dramatically in recent years. In fact, between 1995 and 2008, of 208 billion pregnancies surveyed in a total of 80 nations, 41 percent of the pregnancies were unintended. However, this represents a drop of 29 percent in the developed regions surveyed and a 20 percent drop in developing regions.

The consequences of unintended pregnancies for women and their families is well established, and any drop presents opportunities for greater health, safety, and freedom for women. What’s more, a drop in the rate of unwanted pregnancies is surefire sign of socioeconomic development and increasing opportunities for women and girls worldwide.

gfcdimage_06. Population growth is slowing:
On this blog of mine, I’m always ranting about how overpopulation is bad and going to get to get worse in the near future. But in truth, that is only part of the story. The upside is while the numbers keep going up, the rate of increase is going down. While global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100, this represents a serious slowing of growth.

If one were to compare these growth projections to what happened in the 20th century, where population rose from 1 billion to just over 6, they would see that the rate of growth has halved. What’s more, rates of population growth are expecting to begin falling in Asia by 2060 (one of the biggest contributors to world population in the 20th century), in Europe by 2055, and the Caribbean by 2065.

Population_curve.svgIn fact, the only region where exponential population growth is expected to happen is Africa, where the population of over 1 billion is expected to reach 4 billion by the end of the 21st century. And given the current rate of economic growth, this could represent a positive development for the continent, which could see itself becoming the next powerhouse economy by the 2050s.

7. Clean energy is getting cheaper:
While the price of fossil fuels are going up around the world, forcing companies to turn to dirty means of oil and natural gas extraction, the price of solar energy has been dropping exponentially. In fact, the per capita cost of this renewable source of energy ($ per watt) has dropped from a high of $80 in 1977 to 0.74 this past year. This represents a 108 fold decrease in the space of 36 years.

solar_array1And while solar currently comprises only a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity supply, its total share grew by 86% last year. In addition, wind farms already provide 2% of the world’s electricity, and their capacity is doubling every three years. At this rate of increase, solar, wind and other renewables are likely to completely offset coal, oil and gas in the near future.

In short, things are looking up, even if they do have a long way to go. And a lot of what is expected to make the world a better place is likely to happen this year. Who knows which diseases we will find cures for? Who knows what inspirational leaders will come forward? And who knows what new and exciting inventions will be created, ones which offer creative and innovative solutions to our current problems?

Who knows? All I can say is that I am eager to find out!

Additional Reading:,,

News from Space: Chang’e-3’s Landing and 1st Panorama

Change-3-landing-site_1_ken-kremer-580x344China accomplished a rather major technological and scientific feat recently with the recent soft landing of its Chang’e-3 robotic spacecraft on Dec.14th. This was the nation’s first attempt at landing a spacecraft on an extra-terrestrial body, and firmly established them as a competitor in the ongoing space race. What’s more, the event has been followed by a slew of fascinating and intriguing pictures.

The first were taken by the descent imaging camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander, which began furiously snapping photos during the last minutes of the computer guided landing. The Chinese space agency then combined the photos to create a lovely compilation video, with the point of view rotated 180 degrees, to recreate what the descent looked like.

Change-3_lunar_landing_site-580x470The dramatic soft landing took place at 8:11 am EST (9:11 p.m Beijing local time) with the lander arriving at Mare Imbrium (Latin for “Sea of Rains”) – one of the larger craters in the Solar System that is between 3 and 4.5 billion years old. The precise landing coordinates were 44.1260°N and 19.5014°W – located below the Montes Recti mountain ridge.

The video begins by showing the Chang’e-3 lander approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge. At an altitude of 15 km (9 miles), the Chang’e-3 carried out the rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area in Mare Imbrium.

chang'e3_landingThe vehicles thrusters then fired to pivot the lander towards the surface at about the 2:40 minute mark when it was at an altitude of roughly 3 km (1.8 miles). The powered descent was autonomous, preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not by mission controllers on Earth stationed at the Beijing. Altogether, it took about 12 minutes to bring the lander onto the surface.

Roughly 7 hours later, on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time, China’s first ever lunar rover ‘Yutu’ (or Jade Rabbit) rolled down a pair of ramps and onto the Moon’s soil. The six wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover drove straight off the ramps and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt. This too was captured by the lander’s camera and broadcast on China’s state run CCTV.

chang'e3_egressThe next bundle of footage came from the rover itself, as the Jade Rabbit took in its inaugural photographs of the landing site in Mare Imbrium. The photos were released by Chinese state TV on Dec. 15th, not long after the rover disembarked from the lander, and were then pieced together to form the lander’s first panoramic view of the lunar surface.

Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer – an amateur photo-astronomer and a science journalist who have composed panoramas from the Curiosity mission in the past – also composed the images together to create a series of mosaics. A sample of the 1st panorama is pictured below, with the Yutu rover in the center and tire tracks off to the left.. Click here to the see the full-size image.

Change-3-1st-Pano_1b_Ken-Kremer--580x203The individual images were taken by three cameras positioned around the robotic lander and captured the stark lunar terrain surrounding the spacecraft. The panoramic view shows ‘Yutu’ and its wheel tracks cutting a semi circular path at least several centimeters deep into the loose lunar regolith at the landing site at Mare Imbrium, located near the Bay of Rainbows.

Liu Enhai, Designer in Chief, Chang’E-3 Probe System, has this say about the images in a recent CCTV interview:

This picture is made of 60 pictures taken 3 times by the rover. The rover used three angles: vertical, 15 degrees tilted up, and 15 degrees down…so that we get an even farther view

chang'e3_portraitThe 140 kilogram Yutu rover then turned around so that the lander and rover could obtain their first portraits of one another. The first is visible above, showing the Jade Rabbit rover (in better resolution), with the image of the Chang’e 3 lander below. Liu Jianjun, Deputy Chief Designer of the Chang’E-3 Ground System, was also interviewed by CCTV, and had this to about that part of the mission:

The rover reached the point of X after it went down from the lander, then it established contact with the ground. Then it went to point A, where the rover and lander took pictures of each other. Then it reached point B, where it’s standing now.

These are just the first of what is expected to be a torrent of pictures produced by the rover, which according to Chinese officials, will spend the next year conducting in-situ exploration at the landing site. Beyond that, the rover will use its instruments to survey the moon’s geological structure and composition on a minimum three month mission to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by future missions.

chang'e3_lander_portIn addition to accomplishing a great scientific feat, China has now joined a very exclusive club, being only one of three nations that has successfully conducted a soft landing on the Moon. The United States was the first, reaching the Moon with its Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. The Soviet Union followed less than a decade later, having reached the Moon with its unmanned Lunik 24 spacecraft in 1976.

And now, almost forty years later, the space race is joined by one of the world’s emerging super powers. Soon, we can expect the European Space Agency, India, Pakistan, and possibly Iran to be reaching the Moon as well. And by that time, its likely the spaceships will be carrying colonists. Hopefully we’ll have some infrastructure set up to receive them!

In the meantime, be sure to check out the Chang’e 3 descent video, and stay tuned for more updates from the Jade Rabbit and it begins its exploration of the Lunar surface.

Source:, (2)

News From Space: Olympic Torch gets a Spacewalk

sochi_torch_ISS1Yesterday, for the first time ever, the Olympic torch was taken into space as two Russian cosmonauts took it on a spacewalk outside of  the International Space Station. NASA streamed video of the event as two cosmonauts, Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanskiy, conducted their walk while the torch bobbed weightlessly from the end of a tether.

The two cosmonauts took several photos with the torch hovering with planet Earth in the background, the orb’s edge capturing the sunrise and emitting a bright glow. After two hours, they returned it to the space station and got to other tasks on their itinerary, which included attaching a footrest and a camera platform to the exterior of the orbiting laboratory.

The Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft rests on its launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodromeThe walk was just latest leg in the torch’s journey, which began on October 7th when the torch was delivered from Greece to Moscow. After touring the country, a journey which took it from Moscow, to St. Petersburg, and even to the North Pole (another first) aboard an atomic-powered icebreaker, the torch was launched last Thursday aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Inspired by the Firebird of Russian folklore, a magical glowing birdt hat can be both a blessing and a curse to its owner, the metre-long torch – which weighs roughly 2 kg (4.4 lbs) on Earth – accompanied a three-man crew into space. This consisted of a Russian cosmonaut and an American and Japanese astronaut, bringing the total number of crew aboard the station to nine.

Space-Shuttle-Atlantis-STS-101-031.previewGranted, this is not the first time an Olympic torch has been taken into space. In 1996 and again in 2000, the Atlanta and Sydney Olympic torches were flown into space aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis, in preparation for the Atlanta Summer Olympics. However, in that case, the torch was not taken outside of the spacecraft, which makes this a true first.

Much like on that occasion, the torch remained unlit while it was in space, as lighting it would have consumed precious oxygen. Still, the ISS crew managed to carry the unlit torch with them on a tour through several of the station’s modules and snapped pictures of it all. This took place over the course of several days before it stepped into space on Saturday.

sochi_torch_ISS4The torch is set to return to Earth tomorrow along with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency. Once home, it will be handed off to Sochi 2014 officials and continue on its 65,000 kilometer (44,000 mile) journey, which just happens to be the longest Olympic torch relay in history.

The torch is also planned to reach such destinations as Mount Elbrus (Europe’s highest peak) in the Caucasus mountain range before arriving in Sochi on February 7th, where it will kick of the 22nd Winter Games. In another interesting first, this will be the first time that an Olympic Games has been held by the Russian Federation, whereas the 1980 Summer Olympics that were held in Moscow took place during the era of the Soviet Union.

Olympic torch launched into spaceAccording to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who has been in charge of planning the Olympics, transporting the Olympic torch to the ISS and bringing it into space is seen as “[A] way to show the world what Russia is made of.” He said it would display Russia’s “might” and its economic achievements, not unlike China did with the Tiangong space station.

Though the upcoming games are still a source of controversy to many – due to the recent passage of several laws that criminalize what officials call “gay propaganda” – this latest part of the Sochi Olympic torch relay showcases what is truly great about the Olympics. Not only was it an historic first, it also reminds us what the Olympics are all about.

sochi_torch_ISS5Originally conceived as a way of fostering goodwill between Greece’s city-states, and resurrected in 1894 to foster goodwill between nation-states, bringing the torch on board the ISS amidst a crew of international scientists helps to celebrate the spirit of diversity and tolerance which can and must define our modern world.

One can only hope that the symbolic value of this has not been lost on Russian lawmakers. Take it from us, Putin and the State Duma of Russia. It’s not too late to rethink your country’s political stances. If you really want to show how far your country has come, why not do some incredibly rational, like back away from an incredibly antiquated legal stance? I know for a fact it would make the Olympics go more smoothly this coming February…

And of course, be sure enjoy this video that NASA captured during the spacewalk:

Sources:, (2),,,

Powered by the Sun: Bringing Solar to the Developing World

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31All over the world, the goal of bringing development to impoverished communities and nations – but in ways that won’t cause additional harm to the natural environment – remains problematic. As the cases of China and India demonstrate, the world’s fastest growing economies in the 21st century, rapid industrialization may bring economic development, but it comes with a slew of consequences.

These include urban sprawl, more emissions from cars and public transit, and the poisoning of waterways through toxic runoff, chemicals and fertilizers. With seven billion people living in the world today, the majority of which live in major cities and are dependent on fossil fuels, it is important to find ways to encourage growth that won’t make a bad situation worse.

solar_quetsolBut to paraphrase an old saying, crisis is the mother of creative solutions. And amongst forward-looking economist and developers, a possible solution is take the latest advancements in solar, wind, tidal power and biofuels, and tailor them to meet the needs of local communities. In so doing, it is hoped that the developing world could skip over the industrial phase, reaping the benefits of modernization without all the dirty, unhealthy consequences.

Two such men are Juan Rodriguez – a young man who was studying for his business administration at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in and cut his teeth working for major multinationals like Pampers, Pepto Bismol and Pantene – and his childhood friend Manuel Aguilar, a Harvard graduate with a degree in astrophysics who had gone on to manage a global hedge fund.

solar_quetsol1Three years ago, the two agreed that they were looking for something else and began investigating renewable energy. The result was Quetsol, a company that uses solar energy to improve the quality of life of poor communities living off the electrical grid. In Rodriguez’s and Aguilar’s native Guatemala, such poverty is widespread, with close to 20% of the population living without electricity and relying primarily on candles for light.

This picture of poverty is not exactly news. But after spending a year visiting close to 100 such communities, Rodriguez and Aguilar began to get a clear picture of why solar hadn’t yet succeeded. As Rodriguez put it:

Going to a community and talking about solar power isn’t like going into a community and talking about space travel. It is something that people have already seen, because NGOs have donated solar systems to these communities for decades. In many cases, the systems worked perfectly, but eventually the batteries died, and nobody was there to service them.

solar_quetsol2There solution was to start from the bottom up, using the free-market principle of adapting their approach to meet local needs. This would involve identifying communities before visiting them, taking into account how many people were living without electricity, and what the housing situation was like. When they then visited these communities, they sought out community leaders and held public meetings to learn about them and present their ideas.

Buildings relationships with local communities was a challenge, but so was creating a product for a market whose needs ranged from basic lighting and cell phone charging to powering a refrigerator all day. What they found was that unelectrified communities were relying on terribly inefficient means, ranging from diesel generators to walking to the nearest electrified community to plug in a phone.

solar_quetsol3What was resulted was a Solar Kit, consisting of a 10W Solar Panel, a control box with 7 Amp Battery, 2  LED Bulbs  (and a third optional bulb), and a universal cell phone charger. This kit has the ability to provide five hours of electricity to a house made up of two rooms that measure roughly 25 square meters (225 square feet) each. This is the typical design of homes in rural Guatemala, with one room serving as the bedroom and the other as the kitchen.

With that done, they began working on their sales strategy. Initially, this consisted of working with microfinance credit institutions to help families and communities purchase their solar kits. But after watching too many credit applications get rejected, they took a page from the telecom companies that have made cell phones ubiquitous in Guatemala, Basically, they switched to a pay-as-you-go plan.

solar_quetsol4Today, Quetsol employs a staff of 20 people and boasts board members like Google’s Tom Chi. There product line has also expanded, with the Q1 Solar Kit being supplemented by the Q3, a heavier model that boasts a 75W solar panel, an 85 Amp Battery, and five LED bulbs. The Q2 Kit – a middle of the road model with a 30W panel, 34 amp battery and 3 bulbs – is soon to be released.

But most importantly of all, they have electrified more than 3,500 homes in Guatemala thus far. But that is just a drop in the bucket compared to their long-term goal. Basically, the organization is viewing Guatemala as a stepping stone to all of Latin America as well as Africa by 2015. By 2016, they’d like to tackle the nearly 700 million off-the-grid homes in Asia.

Might sound ambitious, but Rodriguez and Marroquin feel they have the business acumen and social entrepreneurial savvy to pull it off. And given their background and business model, I’d say they are about right. Combined with other technologies that merge local needs with clean, efficient, and renewable means, development in the developing world might actually be an eco-friendly possibility.