SciTechBlog
March 27, 2009

Ready for Earth Hour?

Posted: 04:53 PM ET

You've heard of Earth Day. Now get ready for Earth Hour.

The El Capitan theatre in Hollywood is one of many famous structures planning to switch off its lights during Earth Hour. Photo: Getty Images

A global initiative organized by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour is asking people and institutions around the world to turn off their lights for one hour Saturday night - 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. in whatever time zone you're in - to conserve energy and make a statement of concern about climate change.

Earth Hour began in Sydney, Australia, in 2007, when 2.2 million homes and businesses switched off their lights for 60 minutes. Last year 50 million people turned off their lights, according to the project's Web site, www.earthhour.org. Such global landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Rome’s Colosseum, the Sydney Opera House and the Coca Cola billboard in New York's Times Square all stood in darkness. (No word on Las Vegas, though.)

This time, organizers hope that 1 billion people worldwide - almost one-sixth of the Earth's population - will switch off their lights. More than 2,400 cities and towns in 82 countries - plus such floodlit icons as Paris's Eiffel Tower, Egypt’s Great Pyramids and New York's Empire State Building - are already on board, according to the Earth Hour site.

(The site doesn't say anything about whether participants should stop using all electricity during Earth Hour, so if you stay home and watch TV in the dark you might be OK.)

As with any public venture these days, Earth Hour leaders are using the Web to rally folks to their cause. An Earth Hour group on Facebook has more than 628,000 members, an Earth Hour video has been watched more than 57,000 times on YouTube and Earth Hour was the top-searched topic Friday afternoon on Twitter.

Tweets ranged from statements of support to such comments as "[I] will be cranking out as many jigawatts as possible during Earth Hour. I even plan to run both cars in the garage."

One man's Facebook post, titled "Why Earth Hour is stupid," argued that the initiative will simply waste energy unless power plants lower their production during this time. People could conserve electricity more efficiently by unplugging unused household appliances, he wrote.

So what, if any, are your plans for Earth Hour? And why?

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Filed under: climate change • Energy


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March 24, 2009

Woz survives again on 'Dancing With the Stars'

Posted: 09:49 PM ET

Did the geek vote do it?

Steve Wozniak’s 10 out of a possible 30 from the judges Monday on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” gave him one of the worst scores in the show’s six seasons, but that didn’t matter when the results were announced Tuesday night.

As host Tom Bergeron announced that Wozniak and his dance partner Katarina Smirnoff were the fourth couple safe from elimination, Smirnoff let out a shocked, shrill and piercing scream as the Apple, Inc. co-founder appeared to mouth the words, “Oh my God.”

You could almost hear the collective sigh and mass cheer in Geekville.

Standings on the show are determined by a combination of 50 percent of the judges’ scores and 50 percent of the viewers’ votes, and “Woznation” has been in full effect as his fans have taken to social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to drum up support.

So despite Wozniak’s dismal performance - which one judge declared to be the worst Samba he had ever seen - the philanthropist survives to dance another week. And in a nod to the burly Woz’s attempt at the break-dance move “the worm” during his Monday night performance, host Bergeron quipped, “The worm has turned!”

After the stunning announcement that Wozniak and his partner were safe from the dreaded “dance off” round, the visibly surprised Silicon Valley icon said he was “more shocked than anytime in my life, except maybe when I got served with divorce papers.”

The great Woz seemed to acknowledge his many followers.

“It’s amazing what we can do, and I’m going to keep trying to entertain,” he told host Samantha Harris.

–Lisa Respers France, CNN.com Writer

Filed under: Uncategorized


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Final thoughts from TEDx USC

Posted: 01:00 PM ET

Some final thoughts from our bloggers at Monday's TEDx conference at USC's Stevens Institute for Innovation:

Kellee Santiago

Stevens director Krisztina Holly just announced to the audience that the TEDx USC event is currently No. 2 on Twitter, second only to Jennifer Aniston. She read some of the tweets aloud, many of which are entertaining: "A plethora of hotties at #tedxusc — hooray for smart girls!"

Kellee Santiago, co-founder of thatgamecompany is now speaking on video games, calling them a "catharsis." Santiago has pioneered the creation of gentle, arty games that are closer to visual poetry than traditional, goal-oriented video games.

"How many times does a generation get to witness the birth of an entirely new artistic medium?" she asked the audience. As soon as people recognize video games as an artistic medium, Santiago said, then we can realize the significant impact that these games have on society.

Video games, like radio and TV before them, have been written off as "mindless entertainment." But Santiago believes they will grow within the next century to be more powerful than TV and radio were in the 20th century. "I do think we are on the precipice of an extremely exciting time right now," she said.

Later we heard from Markus Nordberg, resources coordinator for the ATLAS project at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - an underground atom-smasher the size of a seven-story building on the border between Switzerland and France. The goal of ATLAS is to recreate the conditions that might have existed very shortly after the Big Bang — and in doing so, better understand how our universe works.

Nordberg said the project uses a lightning-fast camera with 100 megapixels — enough to fill up multiple iPods with data every second. If ATLAS were a telescope, it would be able to spot a grain of sand on Neptune. “It’s complex,” Nordberg exclaimed, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

It took 15 years to build ATLAS, Nordberg said, and during that time, the hundreds of scientists who built it became family. Nordberg identified three distinguishing traits of the scientists that make the ATLAS collaboration possible:
1. They have the vision to work together to achieve something extraordinary.
2. They have the commitment to contribute.
3. They have a tolerance for freedom and individual expression of ideas.

“We all have our different stories and our different passions, but we all worked together and share the same goal,” he said.

Finally, USC Marshall School of Business professor Dave Logan talked about how people, as social beings, naturally form tribes and tribal cultures. Logan, co-author of a book called "Tribal Leadership," classifies five stages of tribal cultures:

Stage 1 (2% of all tribes): The culture of prisons and gangs
Stage 2 (25% of tribes): The culture of DMVs ("How can people be so dumb and yet live?")
Stage 3 (48% of tribes): "I'm great and you're not!" (It tends to happen with smart, successful people—such as those at TEDx USC)
Stage 4 (22% of tribes): "We're great"
Stage 5 (2% of tribes): "Life is great"

The greatest challenge for most of us, Logan said, is moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4.

For more on TEDx, click here.

- USC students Kate Mather, Greg McDonald, Larissa Puro

Filed under: science • technology • video games


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Ringing bells at Tedx USC

Posted: 11:37 AM ET

One of the challenges in the world of digital innovation is the ability to recreate the human face. During his talk at the TEDx USC conference, Paul Debevec explained that while computer graphics in movies and video games have exploded in recent years, audiences still notice inconsistencies in digitally created human faces (a reason why many video game characters wear helmets, as in "Halo 3").

Paul Debevec

But Debevec, associate director of graphics research at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, said that digital-imaging technology is fast improving. The work is painstaking and precise, requiring a multi-layered process to capture the skin and facial expressions in different forms.

From oil levels in the pores to the way wrinkles move, the human face is documented and the computerized data merged to create a life-like resemblance. In the near future, the technology Debevec is developing will be applied to whole human bodies. The aim is to create near-flawless digital human clones, with differences subtle enough not to be caught by the audience.

The results, as Debevec showcased at the TEDxUSC conference, have already been seen in "Spiderman 2," "Hancock," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Didn't notice? That just means it's working, he said.

"We leverage a lot from the fact that computers are literally a million times more powerful than they were when we started," said Debevec. However, his work won't be putting actors out of work anytime soon. Fundamentally, he said, good emotional acting will always be the basis for virtual characters.

The USC audience then experienced the entrancing music of Salman Ahmad, frontman of the international music group Junoon, which blends rock with traditional Sufi devotional music. Ahmad explained he was introduced to rock music as a high school student when he saw Led Zeppelin perform at Madison Square Garden. After the concert, he decided that music was the career for him.

The anecdote is emblematic of the spontaneous innovation we've been exposed to in this event so far. Ahmad's parents wanted him to become a doctor - a noble profession. But instead, as a pioneering musician, he has touched millions more lives. Ahmad is a UN Goodwill Ambassador and defied death threats to play the first rock concert in Kashmir.

Ahmad's spontaneous decision to pick up a guitar, and to create something that had never been created, has empowered profound change, brightened the world and helped spread human understanding. As Ahmad himself noted, "When you see with the heart, all masks fall down."

During his performance Ahmad was joined onstage by a surprise guest: Melissa Etheridge, who dueted with him on "Ring the Bells," a song they wrote together. Audience members joined in by ringing hundreds of tiny porcelain bells - Monday's version of a concert lighter - that had been handed out without explanation earlier.

"Differences are what keeps the change from happening," said Etheridge, explaining how people of diverse cultures must overcome their differences in the quest for peace.

- USC students Matt Harrison, Emily Henry, Kate Mather and Deborah Stokol

Filed under: science • technology


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March 23, 2009

More from Tedx USC

Posted: 06:01 PM ET

Next up at Monday's TEDx conference was Jane Poynter, who discussed the "two years and 20 minutes" she spent living with eight other people in Biosphere 2, an enclosed ecological system in the Arizona desert.

Jane Poynter

Through living at the biosphere from 1991 to 1993, she grew to understand how much of a part of an isolated environment she was. The group faced difficulty when the biosphere began to run out of oxygen faster than the CO2 levels were increasing.

"In a sense it was terrifying. But at the same time, I knew I could walk out the door if it really got bad," she said. Instead of walking out, Poynter said the thrill of finding the source of the oxygen loss inspired her and the other crew members to remain in the biosphere. They eventually found the source of the problem—the concrete.

The biosphere had a savannah, private beach, rainforest, desert and dwelling for humans. The purpose, she said, was to “take life and jam it into a bubble and see if it survives.” (Sidenote for anyone who wants to live in a biosphere: Poynter said she ate so many sweet potatoes she turned orange).

Poynter drew chuckles from the audience when she talked about leaving the biosphere. "I immediately recoiled," she said of her reunion with family and friends, with their hairsprays and deodorants. "They stank." More importantly, after leaving the biosphere Poynter felt frustrated that she no longer knew where her food came from.

The results of the research she completed within the biosphere could help with an effort to grow plants in a self-contained environment on the moon or on Mars, she said.

An hour into the TEDx program, the speakers have already challenged us to think differently and test our ideas. One of the most compelling presentations was given by Donal T. Manahan, a professor of biology at USC, who proposed a "Blue Revolution." This sort of change involves tapping into our protein and food resources in the ocean.

His team of researchers are currently manipulating oysters to make them faster-growing. If organisms can grow faster, humans can eat them faster - potentially solving our food-shortage challenges. Likewise, Manahan says we should call "Planet Earth" by a new name - "Planet Ocean," because 99 percent of our atmosphere is aquatic due to the depth of the oceans. Perhaps we've been short-sighted to seek answers to our food shortages mainly on land?

- USC students Brooke-Sidney Gavins, Kate Mather and Larissa Puro

Filed under: Uncategorized


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From the TED conference at USC

Posted: 05:03 PM ET

Today's TEDxUSC conference - a one-day event at the University of Southern California's Stevens Institute for Innovation - kicked off with the tickling of electronic ivories by Qi Zhang, a doctoral candidate at USC's Thornton School of Music. Roughly 1,200 people packed the school's red-curtained Bovard Auditorium for the conference, which was supported in part by CNN.

Krisztina Holly of USC's Stevens Institute for Innovation

Conference speakers were scheduled to give 18-minute talks on ideas that will change the future. (For more on TEDx, click here.)

Here's an account of the conference from student bloggers inside the hall:

No cell phones allowed. A secret program that wasn’t revealed until today. The announcement that the doors will be closed throughout the event. But I was most intrigued by the miniature porcelain bells we received with our nametags. We jingled up until the very moment the doors opened. We were told the bells would be explained later in the event.

Krisztina "Z" Holly, the director of USC's Stevens Institute, then opened the event with a quick, mind-stimulating event: The audience was asked to watch a video and count the number of times a basketball was passed back and forth. Although a gorilla also appeared on the screen, most people were so focused on the ball passing and the task at hand - counting - that they didn't even see the gorilla. The point of the exercise was to illustrate the importance of serendipity and to be aware of what's going on around us - even while focusing intensely. The conference is off to a great start.

Holly is now talking about the role of innovation at USC and why the university is hosting the TEDx conference for the first time. She is giving a preview of what to expect throughout the day, and says there will be a few "surprises" not listed in the program. She said "innovation is all about taking risks," and noted that USC is the first university to "experiment" and sponsor TEDx.

Chris Anderson of the TED conference is now speaking about TED as a whole and how the organization has broadened its mission to include the nurturing of ideas, how today's event is a "big deal" and that audience members are "guinea pigs." He is asking audience members to send him feedback on today's event, because he hopes to make similar programs available at other universities and groups.

USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias opened his talk with the insight that the so- called "educated classes" are divided between those who believe they understand how their world works and those who want to know but realize they do not. He said the creative insights that represent true progress inevitably constitute a new discovery that no one saw coming. There can be no knowledge without the recognition of past ignorance, and neither can there be discovery without the recognition of absence.

We can view nearly every great scientific discovery as a journey out of simplistic ignorance into complex awareness. Indeed, great discovery inevitably requires repudiating the simplistic truths of earlier eras. In this path of greater knowledge, Provost Nikias encourages us to embrace what he calls "intellectual friction," or the often disconcerting exposure to different views.

- USC students Brooke-Sidney Gavins, Keaton Gray, Matt Harrison, Emily Henry, Kate Mather, Greg McDonald, Larissa Puro and Deborah Stokol

Filed under: science • technology


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March 20, 2009

Spot climate change in your backyard

Posted: 04:54 PM ET

As you may have read, the Obamas are planting a vegetable garden. Seem like big news? Perhaps not, but I have a feeling one reason this tidbit is currently the No. 1 read story on the NYTimes homepage is that many Americans are itching for a lost connection to the land and the outdoors.

spring bloom

Some see the organic garden as a distraction from Obama’s gaffe over the Special Olympics or the ever-present AIG bonus debate, but it seems like it also hits on something larger.

Just take a look at what iReporters are saying about what they’ve learned from past generations about saving money and fending for themselves. (Post your 'victory garden' stories here). Many bring up gardens. And, in a recent interview with a four-generation family, younger members talked about how they wish they had the same survival skills their grandparents did. Gardening is chief among them.

I’m no master gardener. I tried for the first time last year: the jalapenos and Roma tomatoes were delicious, but mostly were overshadowed by the hip-high weeds that I let grow up between them most of the summer. But it was fun to try.

So, in that spirit, here are a couple tips for trying out your green thumb and learning a bit of science this season:

1. Become a volunteer scientists: Hoards of backyard scientists across the country again are participating in Project BudBurst. Check out their Web site and be part of a group effort to map the blooming of plants. Your small effort can help scientists track big trends, like climate change.

2. Learn about your local environment: Check out this USA Today story on planting maps - they’re changing, perhaps because of global warming. Learn what the climate is like in your area to better understand what will grow and when.

3. Find local food: Across the country people are banding together and sharing resources to get fresh food locally. Some join food coops, others, like guerrilla gardeners, take over public spaces to make group gardens. Local farmers' markets are another option.

Feel free to share you stories in the comments or on iReport.

Filed under: climate change • environment • gardening • science


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California regulators rile ethanol producers

Posted: 12:52 PM ET
Some ethanol producers are unhappy with California's proposed low carbon fuel standards.

Some ethanol producers are unhappy with California's proposed low carbon fuel standards.

California wants to take a big-picture look at decreasing carbon emissions from transportation, and in doing so, it has managed to step on some toes, mainly some ethanol producers. Since California is often a trend-setter on these type of things, this case could be a good example of what the rest of us might see in our own states down the road.

Biofuels play a big role in this, but it’s the way they’re doing it that has some people riled up. I’m a biofuel fan myself and have two vehicles (both 25-year-old-plus diesels, one of which was featured on CNN.com’s American Road Trips special) that I run on biodiesel, so I find this all quite interesting.

California's proposing a “Low Carbon-Fuel Standard” aimed at decreasing carbon, not only from tailpipe emissions but also from the overall production of fuels and their use. As part of this, it has proposed a rule limiting the use of ethanol in the strategy, mainly because it says ethanol from corn (because of its land use and impact on food crops) can have a higher impact than regular gasoline produced in the state (according to the Los Angeles Times).

Supporters of the proposal claim they aren’t trying to ban ethanol or anything; in fact, according to the fact sheet I linked to above, they’re advocating going from an ethanol blend fuel called E5 (5 percent ethanol, 95 percent gasoline) to E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline) and E85 (85 percent ethanol) for flex fuel vehicles.

Mainly they’re stressing the change from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic-based ethanol (ethanol made from agricultural waste or switchgrass are cited examples), which the sheet says can have four or five times lower greenhouse gas emissions than corn.

The ethanol people don’t really like that. Tom Koehler of Pacific Ethanol told the Los Angeles Times that the proposal was a “perversion of science and a prescription for disaster.” And Wesley Clark (yes, that Wesley Clark), the co-chairman of ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy, told SFGate that in addition to bad science, it would be “bad policy to adopt a regulation that creates unfair standards” and would continue California’s reliance on fossil fuels.

If you live in California, you have until April 23 to comment on the proposal, when the Air Resources Board will vote. And I'm sure the rest of you will have plenty to say on this controversial topic. Fire away in the comments.

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Filed under: Cars • climate change • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline • Road trip


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March 19, 2009

Creating artificial muscles

Posted: 03:01 PM ET

What can operate in temperatures above the melting point of iron (1,538 degrees Celsius) and below the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees Celsius)?

A sheet strip of carbon nanotube aerogel: The muscles of the future? Courtesy University of Texas

Answer: Artificial muscles made up of carbon nanotubes.

I'm sure that was the first thing that came to mind, right?

This is the latest innovation coming out of the field of carbon nanotechnology.

The application of these microscopic carbon tube structures has piqued the interest of many engineers and scientists in recent years. Individual carbon nanotubes can measure in at roughly 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, don't let their size fool you.

They can be as stiff as steel and can have very high thermal and electrical conductivities. But getting them to work in tandem with each other has been a challenge for scientists.

Using a material called aerogel (a type of gel in which the liquid portion has been replaced with gas to create a low-density solid), researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas' Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute have found a way to make carbon nanotubes work together in extreme temperatures - such as those found in space. Their findings will be published in this week's Science journal.

These carbon nanotube sheets or aerogels have properties unlike any other raw material. Individual carbon nanotubes have been woven together to make interconnected bundles that collectively give the sheet its unique properties. By injecting charges into the carbon nanotube sheet, scientists create repulsion between the individual nanotubes, causing the material to contract.

Artificial muscles have similarities to human muscles but are usually electroactive polymers whose shape can be modified when voltage is applied. These artificial muscles are capable of providing 30 times the force and contracting 1,000 times faster than human skeletal muscles.

"My guess is that this story will have a happy ending in terms of new products that benefit humankind," said Dr. Ray Baughman, director of the NanoTech Institute.

The applications of these artificial muscles stretches far beyond the walls of the lab. You can expect to see them at work someday in medical devices, fuel cells, aerospace and even robots.

- Azadeh Ansari, CNN.com

Filed under: technology


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March 16, 2009

What do you want to see in the iPhone update?

Posted: 01:03 PM ET
Apple will unveil its iPhone 3.0 software Tuesday.

Apple will unveil its iPhone 3.0 software Tuesday.

Apple is scheduled to make an iPhone announcement Tuesday, and you may have seen the reports from Fortune and others: Kevin Rose of Digg says the iPhone 3.0 software will support copy and paste (finally!!!) and bring the phone's feature list up to par with the upcoming Palm Pre.

Rose also cites his source as saying that there will be no background applications for the iPhone, no video and no multimedia messages (MMS) this release.

But hopefully Apple will announce its long-promised iPhone push-notification system (which will make things like instant messaging actually useful).

Of course, we’ll find out exactly what we’ll be getting Tuesday. But speculating about what Apple will do is half the fun, right?

So what iPhone features do you want to see?

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Filed under: Apple • iPhone


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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