mm228: Toothpicks — Good to great to gone

December 20, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

We journey from the future: nanotechnology (mm227) directly to the past and our stomach-churning present.

Thanks to the always wonderful (and never consulted sufficiently) Arts & Letters Daily, we were directed to an entertaining article in a(n embarrassingly) new to this writer publication, The American, detailing the history of the lowly, unglamorous toothpick.

Faithful reader may recall that the history of technology is one of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s abiding interests, but I had never paid much attention to the toothpick in any way, much less thought about its origins and provenance. Turns out to be most fascinating, and highlights what was absolutely world-beating about American inventiveness and marketing prowess. And lowlights what is manifestly frightening about what’s happened to factories and their well paid jobs in the past 40 years.

theamerican

The Glorious Toothpick

By Henry Petroski From the November/December 2007 Issue

Filed under: Culture, Lifestyle, Public Square

The humble mass-produced toothpick is a paradigm for American manufacturing: inspiration, invention, marketing, trade, success, and failure. HENRY PETROSKI explains.

Image credit: photograph by Geoff Spear.

Glorious ToothpickThe plain wooden toothpick is among the sim­plest of manufactured things. It consists of a single part, made of a single material, and is intended for a single purpose, from which it takes its name. But simple things do not necessarily come easily, and the story of the mass-produced toothpick is one of preparation, inspiration, invention, marketing, competition, success and failure in a global econ­omy, and changing social customs and cultural values. In short, the story of the toothpick is a par­adigm for American manufacturing.

Early wooden toothpicks were found objects, each fashioned ad hoc from a broken twig or stalk with a pointed end. Often, the other end of the twig was chewed until its fibers separated to form a primitive toothbrush called a chew-stick. Some cultures, like the Japanese, developed rigid rules about how such sticks were held and used.

In medieval Portugal, a cottage industry developed to produce straightforward hand­made toothpicks, and these splints of orange­wood gained a reputation for being the best in the world. Toothpicks made in the Portuguese tra­dition were common in Brazil in the mid-19th century when Charles Forster, an American work­ing in the import-export trade, found them being crafted and used by natives there. It was a time when the manufacture of just about everything was becoming mechanized in America, and Forster believed that toothpicks could be mass-produced in New England at a cost that would allow them even to be exported to Brazil and compete with the handmade kind.

Not a mechanic, Forster found an inventive genius in Boston who was mechanizing the manufacture of shoes, which used wooden pegs that the inventor had created machinery to produce. Forster envisioned that the peg machine could be modified to manufacture toothpicks.

Once his machinery was producing toothpicks by the wagonload, he needed to sell them. He built a market in Boston (where folks were accustomed to whittling their picks themselves) by sending out paid shills to demand them at general stores, or dine at restaurants and then ask for a toothpick, which of course the stores and restaurants never thought to stock. Then Forster would come along, with inexpensive smooth, uniform toothpicks for sale. From Boston, the use of cheap machine-made toothpicks very quickly became an artifact of American culture.

The Glorious Toothpick — The American, A Magazine of Ideas

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Toothpicks are no longer manufactured in Maine; some comparative few in Minnesota (still a few trees there, one supposes) but mostly now in China and Southeast Asia, from inferior wood, although you still can find them with the Forster brand. But the use of toothpicks has declined in most Western cultures, as awareness of better tools for dental health has become widespread.

The toothpick is emblematic of the cataclysmic changes this country is realizing, as the manufacture of all types of products, sophisticated big screen high definition televisions as well as toothpicks, have rapidly moved offshore toward cheap labor. Now the big business in many small towns is the local state prison, which fill to overflowing with petty drug users serving federally mandated terms all out of proportion to the nature of the crime. Ugh.

And the shells of those old factories, that once cut and sewed cloth for America’s apparel; that once cut and scored cardboard to make the boxes that shipped the dresses; that once housed the machine tools that forged the machinery that once populated all of those factories: the rehabilitated shells of those old factories deep in the hearts of our big cities and small, are now the trendy loft homes of the young and trendy.

Lately of course, due to the communications and information revolution largely invented and financed here, and whose growth was fertilized through creative marketing here, even service jobs are migrating toward increasingly sophisticated yet in Western terms low priced centers like Bengaluru and Manila.

Which brings us back to nanotechnology, and other technology of the future. Get busy, engineering and scientific and financial and marketing geniuses, ’cause we can’t afford those 65-inch big screens and those $5,000 per month loft leases on a McDonald’s paycheck.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm227: Nanotechnology: The future is now — is it safe?

December 19, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Nanotechnology. The gee-whiz technology of our future. Tiny robotic surgeons, injected into our bloodstream, repairing damaged organs and scouring clogged arteries. “Fantastic Voyage” made real.

That nanotechnology hasn’t arrived quite yet. But, The Economist, the best magazine on the planet, explored today’s nanotechnology in a recent issue, and raised some rather unsettling questions. Because, as it happens, nanotechnology has arrived in a big way, as it were, and once again, we may not be aware of its implications.

A little risky business

Nov 22nd 2007 | From The Economist print edition

The unusual properties of tiny particles contain huge promise. But nobody knows how safe they are. And too few people are trying to find out

Illustration by Bill Butcher

WAVING a packet of carbon nanotubes accusingly at the assembled American politicians during a hearing last month in Congress, Andrew Maynard was determined to make a point. The nanotechnology expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC, had bought the tiny tubes on the internet. They had arrived in the post along with a safety sheet describing them as graphite and thus requiring no special precautions beyond those needed for a nuisance dust.

Dr Maynard’s theatrics were designed to draw attention to a growing concern about the safety of nanotechnology. The advice he had received was at best uncertain, and at worst breathtakingly negligent. For a start, describing carbon nanotubes as graphite was rather like describing a lump of coal as a diamond. Graphite is made of carbon, just like the nanotubes, although the tubes themselves are about 1m times smaller than the graphite that makes up the “lead” in a pencil. Carbon nanotubes may be perfectly safe, but then again, they may have asbestos-like properties. Nobody knows. Indeed, industry, regulators and governments know little about the general safety of all manner of materials that are made into fantastically small sizes.

Let’s start with a level set: turns out that nanotechnology is more than the tiny machines that I’ve always been led to imagine that the field encompasses:

In the past few years the number of consumer products claiming to use nanotechnology has dramatically grown—to almost 600 by one count. Patents are rapidly being filed (see chart 1). For a product to count as nanotechnology, it does not need to contain a tiny machine—though some seers imagine that as the field’s ultimate aim. It is enough merely for some of the material to have been tinkered with at a small scale. Often that can involve grinding down a substance into particles that may be only a few nanometres big—a nanometre is a billionth of a metre—about 100,000th of the thickness of a sheet of paper. These particles can also be engineered into shapes that provide some functional property, like rigidity. The variety of shapes includes rings, shells, wires, beads, cages and plates. The particles and shapes can also be incorporated into other materials to bestow useful properties on them.

Examples are cosmetics and sunscreens, where ground up nanoparticles of titanium oxide can block ultraviolet rays but remain transparent.

Problem is, that while scaling known elements into tiny sizes can improve their functionality in tremendously useful ways, it might also increase toxicity, by making the particles much more reactive than in their normal state. Because nanoparticles can thus be more reactive, and are so infinitesimal, they could breach the body’s normal defense against invasion and perhaps accumulate to possibly toxic levels in the organs.

Concerned yet? You might become more so when you learn that there is no clear consensus in industry or among government regulators regarding the amount of risk, or even whether there is risk at all, in the growing use of nanotechnology, even for those products meant to be applied to the skin of, or consumed internally by humans.

Meanwhile, commercial application of nanotechnology is increasing:

Meanwhile, nanotechnology is becoming part of the global economy. It could help produce trillions of dollars of products by 2014, ranging from face creams to computer chips and car panels, according to Lux Research. The risks from these products will often be very low or non-existent. In the computer industry, for instance, making smaller and smaller features on the surface of a chip is not likely to involve much risk to computer users. Motorists probably have little to fear from carbon nanotubes being embedded into a car door to make it more crash-resistant. Yet what happens to such products at the end of their life remains a question.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The risk in nanotechnology | A little risky business | Economist.com

MUDGE is all for pushing the envelope, creating breakthroughs, reaching for Mars. But in our haste toward the future, the risks involved should be given more than lip service, or remain in the hands of organizations whose priorities are conflicted.

Or else we won’t be able to blame the next health scare on China.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm226: Tricky Dick’s burn bag blew out of control…

December 19, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

… tell me you didn’t think of that!

White House Office Building Catches Fire

Blaze May Have Started in Utility Closet

By Allison Klein, Debbi Wilgoren and Michael Schmuhl

Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; 3:11 PM

The historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House caught fire this morning, and D.C. firefighters broke windows and doused the second and third floors with water to extinguish the two-alarm blaze.

At an afternoon news conference, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said security concerns prevented them from saying exactly where or how the fire started.

White House Office Building Catches Fire – washingtonpost.com

… in advance of impeachment, right?

I know there’s only a year left, but you have to send a message to the evangelicals and the neocons that they’ll remember, and you can’t get to George III until you remove his even worse alternative.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm225: A shared obsession is a most satisfying thing

December 18, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

The changing face of military aviation

seventh in an occasional series

The series so far…

No

Title

Link

1

U.S. pilot helped clear the fog of war

mm142

2

Go to war — Play videogames

mm155

3

Osprey: A Flying Shame

mm163

4

Abolish the Air Force

mm183

5

Proxy killers — Can you live with that?

mm211

6

A Maginot Line for the 21st Century

mm215

Many of the above links refer wholly or in part to UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles. So one might imagine that MUDGE is somewhat taken with the concept, and one would be correct.

But, this is not solely the byproduct of some feverish boyhood-hatched hobbyist daydreaming; this is mainstream, folks. The first link above referenced a fascinating story on UAVs at war that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Mentioned during the Wright Brothers post that it had been my intention to use Orville and Wilbur as the jumping off point (as it were) for a large scale story we’ve been accumulating regarding this intriguing development — remote controlled aircraft at war. But, that post took off in another direction (aiw), and we hangared the UAV for another day.

Then, casting around this evening for tonight’s topic (last night’s wrote itself — one gets spoiled), I finally arrived at the best magazine on the planet, The Economist whose print edition I confess that I’ve fallen a bit behind in reading.

And there, in their Technology quarterly, a couple of intriguing aircraft stories, including a well written (of course) analysis of the most common UAV, Predator.

Unmanned and dangerous

Dec 6th 2007 | From The Economist print edition

Aviation: Unmanned aerial vehicles are a vital tool of modern warfare. Once-harmless drones are now deadly attack aircraft. Where did the technology come from, and where is it going?

 RNLA

DUSK falls over Baghdad and Kabul, and the Predators take their places in the skies overhead, ready for action. Western soldiers prefer to fight in the dark, when their night-vision gear gives them the advantage over insurgents. They know that with drone aircraft scanning the ground, with unblinking eyes able to see by day or night and radars that can see through cloud, they “own the night”.

For the Predators’ pilots, however, it is still bright daylight. Sitting in cramped metal containers in bases across America, they fly their machines by remote control from thousands of miles away, via satellite links. The video from the drones is gathered in a makeshift operations centre in the Nevada desert and distributed to leaders in the Pentagon and commanders on the ground. In the Predator operations centre, one screen monitors the weather around the Arabian Sea (Predators do not like rain or high winds), another shows the location of each aircraft on a map, and a third projects a mosaic of video images from each plane. One image shows a house under close observation in a palm grove in Iraq; another shows a road being scanned for hidden bombs. A laptop computer system known as Rover allows troops on the ground to watch the footage, and will soon let them mark out targets.

After a useful history of the development of UAVs that begins, of course, in Britain in the 1930s (much inventive military technology either originated or was perfected in England, including that oh-so-American entity the modern aircraft carrier, whose offset deck and steam catapults are English imports), we arrive at Israel in the 1980s.

Ultimately it was Israel, not America, that revived the use of drones in warfare. It had seen at first hand in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war the damage that modern air defences can cause. In the 1982 Lebanon war, the clever use of small Israeli-built UAVs (incorporating technology developed in America’s disappointing programmes) helped win a startling air campaign in which Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries in the Bekaa valley were destroyed and up to 100 Syrian jets shot down against no losses for Israel. In carefully choreographed moves, drones were used to spy on the Syrian defences, fool their radars and gather the electronic intelligence needed to destroy them.

Unlike America, which sought to operate large UAVs at long distances through hostile air space, Israel’s drones operated from its own defended territory, and real-time video was transmitted through short line-of-sight data links. Israeli UAV technology became all the rage in the Pentagon, especially after the American navy lost three aircraft over Lebanon in 1983. Predator is in fact derived from a design devised by a former Israel Aircraft Industries engineer.

Before providing you the link, need to share this wonderful diagram.

predatoreconomist

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Unmanned and dangerous | Economist.com

As The Economist points out UAV technology is evolving rapidly beyond primitive (in technology terms) Predator, which is tricky to fly, greatly prefers good weather, and gulps down huge swaths of commercial satellite bandwidth.

Such aircraft as Reaper and Global Hawk are already flying, with improved size, payload, range and autonomy (Global Hawk famously flew non-stop US to Australia, and that’s just scratching the surface of its accomplishments — check this out!)

The Wright Brothers started flying kites; now pilots control their high flyers with invisible strings, or just with strings of program code. What an awesome circle this makes, in just over 100 years.

But, what are the flyguys going to do with all that surplus “right stuff” if callow 20 year olds in Nevada perched in front of consoles are doing all the flying and war-winning?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm224: Dec. 17, 1903: A seminal date in world history

December 17, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

MUDGE grew up at a time when everyone knew who the Wright Brothers were. Indeed, I believe that the one who survived beyond 1912 actually died the year I was born. And I just looked it up — Orville died exactly nine days after I was born, at the age of 76.

I’m wondering how many people care anymore that the first flight ever anywhere of a heavier than air powered airplane was made in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on Dec. 17, 1903, 104 years ago today.

I’ve been thinking about it all month, like I have every December since I was about eight years old.

Does anyone remember Landmark Books? I think I may still have some of those left from my childhood somewhere in the dungeon below the house, together with others picked up second hand for the next generation of MUDGElets.

Thanks to Google (where else?) found an interesting page on a site I’d never encountered before, Valerie’s Living Books with this description:

Landmark Books (American history) and World Landmarks (world history) are accurate, in-depth stories for young people nine to fifteen years old. These living histories were written by award-winning authors or by men and women who experienced the events first-hand. Written during the 1950’s and 60’s and illustrated either with two-color drawings or clear photographs, the books are informative, enjoyable, and well worth collecting and reading.

Reading level and content vary from book to book. Some are relatively simply written and are very appropriate for middle to upper elementary children. Other books, because their reading level is higher and the subjects they cover require a mature reader, may be best suited for young adults.

Explanation for the digression: I first learned about the Wright Brothers and their amazing achievement from one of the Landmark Books, “The Wright Brothers, Pioneers of American Aviation,” by Quentin Reynolds; I read and reread it countless times. What a tremendous inspiration. And what a terrific series of books, on so many fascinating and important topics.

Ironically, Valerie’s did not have a copy to show you, so I went to my trusty old/rare books destination, Alibris, for this:

wrightbros

Don’t remember the dust jacket, but this hardbound book and many others in the series were in aggregate one of the pillars of my childhood.

In this age of videogames and Nickelodeon, a parent could do worse than to find some Landmarks at a local used book emporium, or Valerie’s or Alibris, and put them in the way of your 8-14 year olds. A world full of important people, events and things existed for several billion years before they were born; they could get a clue…

Okay, though, back to the Wright Brothers. So, I always think about the first powered flight around this time and date; was even noodling around thinking that it might be a topical lead-in to a further discussion of one of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s current concentrations, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles — we’ll get to it another day, thanks), when I encountered this story today at Wired.com.

Dec. 17, 1935: First Flight of the DC-3, Soon to Be an Aviation Legend

By Tony Long  | 12.17.07 | 12:00 AM

A Douglas DC-3 shown in flight.  | Photo: Corbis

1935: The Douglas DC-3 makes its maiden flight at Clover Field in Santa Monica, California. Despite a production history lasting only 11 years, it will become one of the most durable, long-lived and beloved aircraft of all time.

While it may be a legendary plane today, the Douglas Aircraft Company wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about getting the DC-3 off the ground. The impetus came from American Airlines, which wanted a plane that could provide sleeper berths for 14 passengers.

So if Orville and Wilbur were inspirations of my childhood, so then the Douglas DC-3 was an icon of that time also.

For they were still around when I first began looking up in the sky in the early 1950s; I dimly remember flying in one somewhere (or maybe I just hope I so remember! — I flew in piston-powered airliners several times in my youth), and during my childhood built more than one plastic scale model of that aircraft.

And Wired told me something I didn’t know:

The first DC-3 flew Dec. 17, 1935, 32 years to the day after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was a good omen for an extraordinarily good plane. The DC-3 entered commercial service flying coast to coast, with an overnight stop, across the United States.

Talk about synchrony…

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Dec. 17, 1935: First Flight of the DC-3, Soon to Be an Aviation Legend

How absolutely, astonishingly, completely the world changed after December 17, 1903. Not quickly, at first. The Wright’s motorized, manned kite only flew 120-feet, less than the wingspan of many modern aircraft and, secretive and paranoid perhaps, the brothers took their time getting out the word, enough so that there were challenges through the years for the unprecedentedness of the achievement.

But then, men and women took to the air, eventually outer space, and the planet simultaneously grew smaller and larger as a result.

All because a couple of bicycle mechanics in the town of Dayton, Ohio read everything they could on the subject of heavier than air flight, thought they could do it better than the lavishly funded formal scientists of the day, applied their self-taught mechanical skills and creative problem solving abilities, including finding a safe but out of the way venue for their experiments, and, somehow, leaped into the sky.

The U.S. Air Force has an amazing museum of flight at Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, the site honoring, of course, Wilbur and Orville. (By the way, if you and your kids have any interest in the subject, you can easily spend an amazing day wandering around more than 300 aircraft. Been there, with my then-17-year-old son; we opened the museum one Sunday morning, and closed it that evening. And, free admission! Thanks, taxpayers!)

Kitty Hawk, an otherwise unremarkable bunch of sand dunes, is memorialized by a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, (USS Kitty Hawk CV-63) the second to carry the illustrious name, soon to be decommissioned and in the news recently when the Chinese government turned it away from a ceremonial Thanksgiving visit to Hong Kong, and then objected when it transited back to home port at Yokosuka, Japan (been there! gaped at that huge ship there!) by way of the Taiwan Strait.

kittyhawk

Finally, while we’re showing useful photos, have to share this one, the magnificent capture of that first flight, that first day of the current era of manned flight, from Wikimedia Commons.

wrightfirstflight

A stunning portrait of a stunning, global civilization altering day.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

Note!: the links to Valerie’s Living Books, and Alibris used above is for the convenience of faithful reader and represents no commercial relationship whatsoever. Left-Handed Complement should be so fortunate as to ever collect remuneration of any kind for this endeavor. I can link, so I link. It’s technology. It’s cool. It’s an artifact of Sequitur Service©. Deal with it.


mm223: Pigs, bees, fish — the dangerous ways we set our table

December 16, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

The lavish supplies of cheap food we take for granted in the U.S. are far more costly than we’ve understood. Two stories in NYTimes this weekend provide disturbing evidence on several fronts. Michael Pollan authored the first, where he analyzed a pair of stories.

Staph infection and pig farms

The incursion of staph infection into the world at large from the general confinement of hospitals is distressing. In fact,

MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria … is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS — 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in 2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

One formerly understood that staph has mutated to develop resistance to antibiotics due to the overuse of antibiotics in the hospital setting, and thus is difficult to combat there. The victims of the resistant infections are generally the weak and elderly patients.

Now, there is disturbing evidence that the massive use of antibiotics in the ubiquitous ginormous feedlots might be causing staph to mutate outside hospitals.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on factory farms. Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the routine feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of infectious diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals’ growth also commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the crucial fact is that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades.

This is all still guesswork on the part of researchers, as neither the FDA nor the livestock industry seems that interested in examining the issue.

Scientists have not established that any of the strains of MRSA presently killing Americans originated on factory farms. But given the rising public alarm about MRSA and the widespread use on these farms of precisely the class of antibiotics to which these microbes have acquired resistance, you would think our public-health authorities would be all over it. Apparently not. When, in August, the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition asked the Food and Drug Administration what the agency was doing about the problem of MRSA in livestock, the agency had little to say. Earlier this month, though, the F.D.A. indicated that it may begin a pilot screening program with the C.D.C.

The implication for the long-term costs of the inexpensive meat the world (except of course the 20% who are starving) takes for granted if a relationship is established between MRSA and CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation, a new acronym for MUDGE) is definitely disturbing. As is, of course, the fact that MRSA has overtaken AIDS as a killer in the U.S.

Bees, again

This space has taken some note over the past several months of the honeybee story (here, here and here): the bees have disappeared; do we really know why? Michael Pollan has some significant observations, and relates the issues with the bees to that of the pigs.

The second story is about honeybees, which have endured their own mysterious epidemic this past year. Colony Collapse Disorder was first identified in 2006, when a Pennsylvanian beekeeper noticed that his bees were disappearing — going out on foraging expeditions in the morning never to return. Within months, beekeepers in 24 states were reporting losses of between 20 percent and 80 percent of their bees, in some cases virtually overnight. Entomologists have yet to identify the culprit, but suspects include a virus, agricultural pesticides and a parasitic mite. (Media reports that genetically modified crops or cellphone towers might be responsible have been discounted.) But whatever turns out to be the immediate cause of colony collapse, many entomologists believe some such disaster was waiting to happen: the lifestyle of the modern honeybee leaves the insects so stressed out and their immune systems so compromised that, much like livestock on factory farms, they’ve become vulnerable to whatever new infectious agent happens to come along.

Due to the massive scale of agriculture in California, source of so much of the food grown in this country, the state has, by necessity, become an importer of itinerant bees.

In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers — and mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure to agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an epidemic national in scope.

So, pigs and bees have become industrialized. The law of unintended consequences has gone to work, also.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Michael Pollan – Agriculture – Disease Resistant Staph – Concentrated Animal Feed Operations – Sustainability – New York Times

a disturbing Chinese fish story

The final element of today’s food fright is also a Times story.

In China, Farming Fish in Toxic Waters

By DAVID BARBOZA

FUQING, China — Here in southern China, beneath the looming mountains of Fujian Province, lie dozens of enormous ponds filled with murky brown water and teeming with eels, shrimp and tilapia, much of it destined for markets in Japan and the West.

Fuqing is one of the centers of a booming industry that over two decades has transformed this country into the biggest producer and exporter of seafood in the world, and the fastest-growing supplier to the United States.

But that growth is threatened by the two most glaring environmental weaknesses in China: acute water shortages and water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides. The fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.

“Our waters here are filthy,” said Ye Chao, an eel and shrimp farmer who has 20 giant ponds in western Fuqing. “There are simply too many aquaculture farms in this area. They’re all discharging water here, fouling up other farms.”

Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.

Okay, let me count: eels, shrimp, tilapia, sewage, industrial waste, agricultural runoff including pesticides, veterinary drugs and pesticides. The food we want seems swamped by all the stuff we want no part of, but we don’t get to choose. After all,

Environmental problems plaguing seafood would appear to be a bad omen for the industry. But with fish stocks in the oceans steadily declining and global demand for seafood soaring, farmed seafood, or aquaculture, is the future. And no country does more of it than China, which produced about 115 billion pounds of seafood last year.

China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world, harvested at thousands of giant factory-style farms that extend along the entire eastern seaboard of the country. Farmers mass-produce seafood just offshore, but mostly on land, and in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, or in huge rectangular fish ponds dug into the earth.

The U.S. imports 80% of its fish; the Chinese produces 70% of the world’s supply of farmed fish. China is huge, ambitious, and often very primitive in its safety surveillance. This is an ugly combination.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

In China, Farming Fish in Toxic Waters – New York Times

Let’s review:

  1. Some scientists are convinced that pig and other livestock agriculture can kill us, because the overuse of antibiotics in CAFO settings could cause the mutation of antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus bacteria.
  2. Honeybees have been worked so hard in the service of agribusiness that some scientists believe that the stress made them less resistant to bee-killing viruses and parasites.
  3. Chinese aquaculture (a wetter form of agribusiness) is producing massive quantities — the overwhelming majority of the globe’s farmed product — of fish contaminated by sewage, industrial waste, agricultural runoff and veterinary drugs and pesticides.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, it’s not what you pay for food, but what it costs you that counts. I don’t think that we can afford inexpensive food.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm222: Social networks — Encyclopedic, Careeric, Blogic

December 14, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

It’s all about making connections, here at Left-Handed Complement. Once again, several threads have appeared from different directions, just in time to create the fabric of post no. 222.

Encyclopedic

First, two entries noted Google’s new contender for encyclopedia of choice, Knol, challenging Wikipedia. The straight story from, where else, NYTimes:

google

Google Develops Wikipedia Rival

By JEREMY KIRK, IDG News Service\London Bureau, IDG

Google is developing an online publishing platform where people can write entries on subjects they know, an idea that’s close to Wikipedia’s user-contributed encyclopedia but with key differences.

The project, which is in an invitation-only beta stage, lets users create clean-looking Web pages with their photo and write entries on, for example, insomnia. Those entries are called “knols” for “unit of knowledge,” Google said.

Google wants the knols to develop into a deep repository of knowledge, covering topics such as geography, history and entertainment.

The target of this new community is not only Wikipedia, but also Yahoo “Answers.” And they’ve coined new nomenclature (don’t you just love the English language?), “knols.”

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Google Develops Wikipedia Rival – New York Times

Poking around some of our usual suspects, i.e., our blogroll2 , Machinist blog at Salon.com weighed in on Google’s new adventure with some useful analysis. Does the world need another encyclopedia? The folks behind Squidoo and Mahalo think so in their own unique ways (if less scholarly, in this observer’s opinion), and now so does the web’s 8,000,000-lb. gorilla.

Truthiness showdown: Google’s “Knol” vs. Wikipedia

Having just written a book about how digital technology is changing cultural ideas about truth — shameless plug: to be released mid-March from Wiley; pre-order here — I’m fascinated by Google’s announcement, late yesterday, of a Wikipedia-like application called Knol.

Knol’s goal, writes Udi Manber, Google’s engineering chief, in a blog post, is “to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it.” The system, which is currently running in an invitation-only beta, offers free Web hosting space and editing tools to allow anyone to write up a page about whatever they like. Google is calling each article a “knol,” which it says stands for a “unit of knowledge.”

Experts contributing knols will not be anonymous, or aggregated, says Machinist’s Farhad Manjoo, but rather will contribute separately and openly to create what Google hopes will become collective knowledge, and perhaps, maybe, wisdom, the pinnacle of the knowledge pyramid (anyone still care about knowledge management? data, information, knowledge, wisdom).

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Machinist: Tech Blog, Tech News, Technology Articles – Salon

And of course, Google will sell and place advertising, to be shared with the article authors.

Imagine advertising in the margins of the 30 printed volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Well that’s why Larry Page and Sergey Brin are $zillionaires, and yr (justifiably) humble svt is so humble…

Careeric*

(*New coinage!) Several posts ago, while noting Facebook’s stumble over its intrusive Beacon privacy-blasting tool, we mentioned LinkedIn in passing, as a site we (still very much in the world of Web 0.79, much less 2.0!) participate in rather desultorily.

I’ve got 41 people in my network, which LinkedIn tells me expands to “41,700+” (their friends — astounding!) and “2,563,400+” for their friends (science fiction).

MUDGE doesn’t know if he wants to know that many people.

But, besides accreting millions of supposed contacts, what is one supposed to do at LinkedIn. David Kirkpatrick, senior editor at Fortune magazine, tells us he was in precisely the same boat (of course, MUDGE likes to think of himself as extraordinarily unusual, so for senior editors to have had similar feelings makes one uneasy!):

linkedin

Why you’ll finally use LinkedIn

The buttoned-down social network has a new CEO, a growing membership, and an increasingly-useful set of features.

By David Kirkpatrick, senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) — For years, I’ve been befuddled by LinkedIn. I knew it was supposed to be the social network for work, but to me it was like war. “What is it good for?” I asked myself repeatedly, even as I occasionally poked around and accepted requests to link with people. I belonged to it, but I really didn’t know why.

The other day I had a chance to sit down with LinkedIn CEO Dan Nye, who’s been on the job since February. He told me about a few changes that Linkedin subsequently announced (VentureBeat has a good description of them.). And his PR person upgraded me to what would otherwise be a paid account. (It can be $20 to $200 per month.)

Who knew that LinkedIn charged anything? I’ve been a member for more than five years, and have never been solicited, until tonight when I poked around a bit after reading Kirkpatrick’s story, and the link to VentureBeat clipped above. LinkedIn is getting more ambitious about its available tools, as you’ll see.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Why you’ll finally use LinkedIn – Dec. 14, 2007

Most intriguing. But here’s a concern:

(Nye recited the depressing figure that only 30 percent of LinkedIn’s members have read any business magazine in the last 30 days.)

Hey, LinkedIn, I’m picking up the slack on that one, with my subscriptions and devotional readership of Business Week and the best magazine on the planet, The Economist!

But if only 30% of those 2,563,400+ third degrees in MUDGE‘s network read business magazines, one has to be concerned about how useful the 70% business illiterates of them might be when the day comes that I am expelled from HCA (the Heart of Corporate America, not its real name, as constant reader will recall) and I have to network for real. Down to a mere 769,020 viable networkers. Not nearly enough to find viable employment for this overaged supernumerary.

Sigh.

Blogic**

(**More new coinage, from the fertile tidal pool of MUDGEdom.) This third leg of today’s tripod has to do with the social network of bloggers, who gather under that extraordinary circus tent called WordPress.

I can’t be complimentary enough about WordPress. The first-ranked member of MUDGE‘s Blogging Process Hall of Fame©, as unveiled here, and anointed here, WordPress has been a resourceful and supportive, and most breathtakingly cost effective blogging host.

This nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© has been hosted there from absolute day one; in fact, it was mention of its free site (where? at Lifehacker?) that provided the spark that, several months later, burst into this vigorous flame of daily commentary.

This week Anne Zelenka, writing in the always useful GigaOm, presented her observation that WordPress is not merely a host for nearly 2,000,000 blogs (!), but a social network in and of itself.

wordpress1

The Next Social Network: WordPress

Anne Zelenka, Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at 3:45 PM PT

Could open-source blogging platform WordPress serve as your next social networking profile? Chris Messina, co-founder of Citizen Agency, thinks so. He’s started a project called DiSo, for distributed social networking, that aims to “build a social network with its skin inside out.” DiSo will first look to WordPress as its foundation.

This could be the next step towards the unified social graph that some technologists wish for. WordPress suits the purpose because it provides a person-centric way of coming online, offers an extensible architecture, and already has some features — such as an OpenID and a blogroll plugin — that can be pressed into social networking service. And its users represent exactly the sort of audience that might appreciate the permanent, relatively public identity that DiSo aims to offer.

The contrast is with the MySpace and Facebook paradigm. Zelenka argues that those sites provide a space for one online, but it’s not one’s own space. Not “person-centric.”

Clark was responding to an ongoing conversation launched by blogger and cartoonist Hugh MacLeod, who proposed that blogging is far more important to him than social networking. Bloggers including Stowe Boyd and Darren Rowse seconded the idea. This growing disenchantment with social networking and return to blogging suggests that in the future we could see a migration, at least among tech bloggers, towards more distributed social networking — along the lines of what Messina envisions.

This is all rather esoteric, but interesting all the same.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The Next Social Network: WordPress – GigaOM

As we’ve discussed above, and before, this writer came to the creative end of the web quite late. While for many years a consumer, only in the past seven months have I been a content creator. Never was tempted by MySpace (we’ll let MUDGElet No. 3 enjoy his age appropriate time there); only a bit tempted by Facebook (as discussed previously); and the jury is still out on the value to me of LinkedIn; but I feel I’ve found a home (lonely as it is, but she always has told me that it’s quality not quantity that matters) here at WordPress, among 2,000,000 fellow bloggers.

Maybe Chris Messina of DiSo is on to something.

So, there’s our tripod of social networking. Encyclopedic, careeric, blogic. An icky stretch, right?

Google’s Knol, LinkedIn and WordPress. Hope it came together for you, the way it did for me.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm221: The dread disease we all hope to catch: Old age

December 13, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

It is always interesting to see how stories hit from different directions, and yet form a pattern startling in its similarity of topic. So it was when, while dining in the company cafeteria today accompanied by my trusty companion, Business Week, I encountered an article that grabbed my attention as I leafed by in search of something else.

The topic: Alzheimer’s disease. I pulled it out of the magazine, the better to locate on line, see below.

While scanning the NYTimes somewhat later, this story jumped out. The relationship is obvious — Alzheimer’s. The Times speculates on prevention; BW speculates on its origins, in search of treatment or cure. Take a look:

nytimes

Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile

By JANE E. BRODY

My husband, at 74, is the baby of his bridge group, which includes a woman of 85 and a man of 89. This challenging game demands an excellent memory (for bids, cards played, rules and so on) and an ability to think strategically and read subtle psychological cues. Never having had a head for cards, I continue to be amazed by the mental agility of these septua- and octogenarians.

The brain, like every other part of the body, changes with age, and those changes can impede clear thinking and memory. Yet many older people seem to remain sharp as a tack well into their 80s and beyond. Although their pace may have slowed, they continue to work, travel, attend plays and concerts, play cards and board games, study foreign languages, design buildings, work with computers, write books, do puzzles, knit or perform other mentally challenging tasks that can befuddle people much younger.

But when these sharp old folks die, autopsy studies often reveal extensive brain abnormalities like those in patients with Alzheimer’s. Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas and Yaakov Stern at Columbia University Medical Center recall that in 1988, a study of “cognitively normal elderly women” showed that they had “advanced Alzheimer’s disease pathology in their brains at death.” Later studies indicated that up to two-thirds of people with autopsy findings of Alzheimer’s disease were cognitively intact when they died.

Alzheimer’s doesn’t automatically cause the impairment we’ve always presumed it universally does? How strange!

“Something must account for the disjunction between the degree of brain damage and its outcome,” the Columbia scientists deduced. And that something, they and others suggest, is “cognitive reserve.”

Cognitive reserve, in this theory, refers to the brain’s ability to develop and maintain extra neurons and connections between them via axons and dendrites. Later in life, these connections may help compensate for the rise in dementia-related brain pathology that accompanies normal aging.

Sounds like MUDGE has got to get out and get some of that cognitive reserve. Think Target carries it? Or Neiman Marcus?

No, you guessed it, cognitive reserve is home made, not bought.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Memory – Aging – Medicine & Health – New York Times

This will never do — actually changing sedentary habits. Let’s look for a magic bullet instead:

bw_255x65

Is Alzheimer’s a Form of Diabetes?

If so, an insulin-centered treatment could alter the course of the disease

by Catherine Arnst

Scientists have been searching for the cause of Alzheimer’s disease for more than 100 years, and during that time, theories about why brain cells are destroyed in the course of the illness have come and gone. One of the newer and more unorthodox theories posits that Alzheimer’s may actually be a form of diabetes. Some experts have even taken to calling the brain disease type 3 diabetes, as distinct from the insulin-dependent (type 1) and adult-onset (type 2) varieties of the condition.

The diabetes hypothesis stems from growing evidence that cells in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims are resistant to insulin; just as in diabetes, the cells don’t respond appropriately to this hormone. As a result, neurons are deprived of glucose, which they need for energy. As the evidence mounts, the type 3 label is gaining currency in Alzheimer’s research circles and is drawing attention from the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma companies are testing existing diabetes drugs against Alzheimer’s, while startup Acumen Pharmaceuticals, in partnership with Merck (MRK), is focusing on molecules that allow insulin to reach brain cells.

This is absolutely stunning: suddenly Alzheimer’s might not be mysterious; it may operate according to long-understood mechanisms, like diabetes. While there is no cure for diabetes, there are treatments that are quite effective. Imagine adapting such pharmaceuticals to work in the insulin resistant areas of the Alzheimer’s brain.

A research team led by neurobiologist William L. Klein at Northwestern University came up with more supporting evidence for the type 3 diabetes theory in September, 2007. Klein, a founder of Acumen, discovered that a toxic protein called ADDL damages insulin receptors on the surface of brain cells, rendering them less responsive to the hormone.

Seems that type 3 diabetes might be as controllable as type 2, which long has drawn the continued attention of pharmaceutical science.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Is Alzheimer’s a Form of Diabetes?

Approaching a stupendous birthday, with a mother and mother-in-law 80 years old and above, concerns about aging are certainly more immediate to this writer than before.

And, thanks to the fact that I’m part of a very large cohort of similarly aged population, researchers have come to recognize like never before the profit potential of science directed toward the ailments of the elderly.

Couldn’t be happening at a better time. By the way, do you think that daily blogging is sufficiently challenging brain stimulation?

MUDGE is certainly hoping so!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm220: It’s all about power

December 12, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Yes, faithful reader, it’s another SASB day. But, unlike the eclectic content of most of our recent pastiches operating under that appellation, today we present a common theme: alternative energy, or POWER!

shortattention_thumb2 ©

First up, a driver’s review of a new Honda, the FCX Clarity (FCX = Fuel Cell eXperimental?), powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, soon to be released in tiny test quantities in — where else? — California early in 2008.

nytimes

Hydrogen Car Is Here, a Bit Ahead of Its Time

hondafcxclarity

By NORMAN MAYERSOHN | Published: December 9, 2007

SANTA MONICA, Calif.

OFTEN, it is the smallest of gestures that deliver the most powerful messages. I was reminded of this last month when I settled into the driver’s seat of the FCX Clarity, a sedan powered by fuel cells that Honda will begin leasing to a handful of private customers next summer. Fresh from a briefing that detailed the car’s NASA-grade complexity, I wondered what procedures might be required to start the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen and bring the power supply to life.

MUDGE has been intrigued by the possibilities of fuel cell powered vehicles (and fuel cells for other applications, see below) for some years.

The stumbling blocks have always seemed incapable of practical solution:

  • safe (using mass production economics) high pressure hydrogen storage in the vehicle;
  • convenient delivery of hydrogen (how long did it take for gasoline stations to arrive at the penetration of three to an intersection that we remember from pre-1974 U.S.?);
  • and, always the crucial unasked question — what’s the energy cost to bottle hydrogen, anyway, and is the total life cycle cost truly significantly lower than petroleum-based fuel? Indeed, how much petroleum based fuel is used to create the hydrogen in the first place?

But, hydrogen fuel cells are so seductive: hydrogen is abundant (and not just in politically dicey parts of the world), and the output of hydrogen fuel cell power generation is water. What’s not to love?

Until now, writing about fuel cells has been a no-risk proposition, with no reality check looming, no looking back when the cars arrived in showrooms to see whether one had been embarrassingly optimistic. Way back in the 1990s, a physicist assured me that fuel-cell cars were 20 years away — and always would be.

So Honda has surprised the automotive world by producing a vehicle far closer to practical manufacture than anyone else in the industry, and the lucky guy from NYTimes got a chance to drive it.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Cars – Reviews – Honda FCX Clarity – Fuel Cell – Test Drive – New York Times

Those Honda engineers — remarkable achievement! Now, when will there be even one hydrogen pump on even one corner in even one town?

Okay, we promised another fuel cell story:

shortattention_thumb2[6] ©

From 4,000-lb. automobiles to the several ounces of cell phone in your pocket. Business Week had the story last week:

bw_255x65

Bic Wants to Flick Your Cell Phone

It sees a big opportunity in making cartridges that will help replace batteries in portable devices

by Jennifer L. Schenker

Each day consumers snap up 10 million Bic razors and 5 million of the colorful plastic lighters made famous by the ad campaign “Flick My Bic.” Those volumes pale in comparison to Bic’s ubiquitous pens: The French company sold its 100 billionth in 2005. Bic, which had sales of about $2 billion in 2006, has spent 30 years honing the art of making disposable consumer goods.

Now, Bic wants to use that expertise for something far more challenging than pens or lighters. It’s designing disposable cartridges for fuel cells, a kind of power supply that could someday eliminate the need to constantly recharge mobile phones or laptop computers. Electronics makers are drawn to fuel cells because today’s rechargeable batteries can’t keep up with the demands users place on portable gadgets. If you spend any time surfing the Web from your phone and e-mailing your friends, as well as making calls, you probably have to recharge at least once a day. With a fuel cell, you’d never have to look for an outlet; You’d just pop out a spent fuel cartridge and insert a new one.

See, a fuel cell is a generic term, for any container capable of producing electricity from a chemical reaction, as opposed to batteries, as found everywhere, including in those Prius hybrids so popular (and so uneconomic in true terms!), which store electricity. So, rather than automotive, Bic’s fuel cells are pen cartridge sized, appropriate for those mobile electronic gadgets that are more and more vital to our daily existence.

Bic has no desire to manufacture the fuel cells themselves. These devices were first commercialized more than 50 years ago and are used in various industrial settings. Bic will leave that part of the business to companies such as Samsung and LG, which are eager to sell mini fuel cells—assuming they can bring down the price and the size enough for them to fit in a handset. If the electronics makers succeed in their mission, Bic sees a big opportunity in the replaceable cartridges, which might actually resemble the ink containers in its pens. Each one would cost just a couple of dollars, and could conceivably keep a mobile phone running for weeks at a stretch. If Bic and the fuel-cell makers can get the engineering right, “they could significantly extend the run time of portable devices,” says Heather Daniell, a technology analyst at New Energy Finance, a London market research firm.

Imagine, weeks of cell phone use, then when the charge gets low, just pop in a new $2 battery.

And, read to the end of the BW story, and see a teaser about how fuel cells might provide cheap power for our troops in the field, for all of the mobile devices that are so critical to the conduct of modern warfare.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Bic Wants to Flick Your Cell Phone

So, we move from fuel cells to wind generation, a recent topic in this space. here for example.

shortattention_thumb2[8] ©

No question that interest in alternative forms of energy generation is growing. Once again, NYTimes has a tale of kite-like objects that might one day provide inexpensive power from a thousand feet above.

nytimes

Airborne Wind Turbines

By DAVID GELLES  |  Published: December 9, 2007

Traditional wind turbines can be unreliable sources of energy because, well, the wind blows where it will. Not the case 1,000 feet up. “At a thousand feet, there is steady wind anywhere in the world,” says Mac Brown, chief operating officer of Ottawa-based Magenn Power.

Illustration by Bryan Christie Design

The helium-filled Magenn Air Rotor System contains a turbine that spins around a horizontal axis and can produce 10 kilowatts of energy as it floats 1,000 feet above the earth while attached to a copper tether.

To take advantage of this constant breeze, Brown has developed a lighter-than-air wind turbine capable of powering a rural village. “Picture a spinning Goodyear blimp,” Brown says. Filled with helium, outfitted with electrical generators and tethered to the ground by a conductive copper cable, the 100-foot-wide Magenn Air Rotor System (MARS) will produce 10 kilowatts of energy anywhere on earth. As the turbine spins around a horizontal axis, the generators convert the mechanical energy of the wind into electrical energy, then send it down for immediate use or battery storage.

Can’t help but be intrigued, but also to wonder about the underlying assumption — is it really constantly windy at 1,000-feet up?

But, a patent has been issued, and investors have been found, so someone has been telling some excellent stories.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Airborne Wind Turbines – New York Times

So, that’s our alternative energy SASB. Have to admire the inventiveness of the globe’s researchers, engineers, and software wizards, and admire the gutsy investors and entrepreneurs who appreciate those good stories, and put their money where geeky mouths are.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm219: One Laptop per Child — Harvard speaks

December 11, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Previous entries on this topic:

mm088: Meet the XO
mm089: Amateur mapmaking…
mm099: A $99 Desktop…
mm149: India’s take…
mm153: By a Laptop, Get one…
mm162: Laptop with a Mission
mm170: Technology and Ed …
mm179: OLPC for India after all?
mm189: OLPC cranks up!
mm203: OLPC: News; discouraging word
mm212: Cheap computing…

olpc7926

It’s a topic that just won’t quit: One Laptop Per Child. MUDGE‘s older son (the term “MUDGElet No. 2″ isn’t sufficiently dignified for the rarefied confines of Harvard, donchaknow) is a 2005 masters graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and obviously stays in touch.

He forwarded us a link to this story from Harvard Business School (HBS), aware as he is (hmmm, must be faithful reader! Loyalty hasn’t disappeared! Or at least, polite indulgence for the old man…) of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s interest in Nicholas Negroponte’s intriguing initiative.

So, though we came late to the story, this past summer, as the PR machinery geared up in preparation for first deliveries, it’s been brewing, as any ambitious project would be, for several years. Thus there are already lessons to be learned, especially marketing lessons, and HBS would like to teach them to us.

harvardbusinessschool

HBS Cases: One Laptop per Child

Q&A with: John A. Quelch  |  Published: December 10, 2007

Author: Martha Lagace

Drop it on the ground. Sprinkle water on its surface. Let it sit in the sun and expose it to swarms of dust—the XO laptop is designed to handle most any abuse from a child. But the journey of the XO laptop from concept to the educational tool for the world’s poorest children is turning out to be a bit more complicated than originally anticipated.

A new Harvard Business School case study called “Marketing the ‘$100 PC'” spells out these opportunities, problems, and challenges from a marketing point of view. As the case asks, can the laptop move out of the realm of “great idea, great gadget” and improve the educational possibilities for children in impoverished environments?

The concept explored is “action pricing,” where a product is developed, as an immense stretch, to meet a very low price, definitely the strategy pursued by OLPC.

The technological challenge was complex: create a tool that would be useful yet attractive to school children, with the strength to stand up to careless and primitive environments, with a screen visible in bright light, a battery capable of receiving power through multiple inexpensive means (a pull cord, a detachable solar panel), and with networking capabilities to teach cooperation and collaboration, all for $100.

So, $188 is not $100, but let’s face it, $100 isn’t $100 any more (try $109.21, and that doesn’t factor in the price of gasoline), so that’s hardly a knock.

The marketing challenge remains difficult:

“While on the surface it is a laudable vision to get one laptop to each child, and the motives are pristine, there are stumbling blocks in implementation,” observes Quelch.

The conservative nature of governments, complex bureaucracy, and decision-making hurdles can all interfere with early public sector adoption of even the most worthy innovation, he says. This slower-than-expected adoption and diffusion may have surprised the leaders of OLPC.

And finally, OLPC faces what has to be gut-wrenching competition from the fiercely competitive computer industry, who, never letting “not invented here” bother them ever, have leapt into the fray. Guess what, you don’t have to be a non-profit to sell computers for $200 — imagine what they really must cost to manufacture!

So, while I’ve cherry-picked the article, it’s still worth a visit. You even get the opportunity to purchase the case itself, if you’re interested in adding the subject to your own marketing/business curriculum.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

HBS Cases: One Laptop per Child — HBS Working Knowledge

Give One Get One is still running, and remains a worthy cause, especially if you follow Left-Handed Complement’s  suggestion to “Give One, Give One”, with the second one directed toward a third world nation closer to home, Mississippi, for example.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE