Geothermal vents in Iceland

When Cleantech meets Cryptocurrency

February 9, 02015

During periods of relative calm, objective observation of the world is hard enough; foresight, even harder. During times of great change, clarity can be impossible.

Yet occasionally an encounter will reveal, sometimes just for a moment, the usually invisible systems and activities that comprise the global order – the “emergent now” that pulses just out of view. And it’s usually stranger than we would have otherwise imagined.

I had just such a moment recently in Iceland, where I had a chance to sit down with several of the country’s leading clean-tech and data center experts.

Iceland famously generates vast amounts of ultra-green electricity – about seventeen terawatt hours’ worth every year. Twenty five percent of this capacity is geothermal in origin, and the rest comes from hydrothermal, making Iceland’s one of the cleanest economies in the world. This abundance has attracted energy-intensive industries (including highly controversial aluminum smelters) as well as clean-tech startups like Carbon Recycling, a company that fuses waste CO2 and hydrogen to produce “synthetic methanol”, which is exported to the Netherlands and blended with gasoline. Electricity is so cheap in Iceland (about a third of the cost in the U.S) plans are even being developed to export it to Europe via undersea cable.

Perhaps the buzziest of the industries that have been borne of Iceland’s energy independence is the green datacenter sector. The business pitch, made by local players like Verne Global, and Advania, is simple: in Iceland, data centers are cheaper to run from an electrical perspective and cheaper to cool from a geographical perspective – a double win.

Iceland’s remoteness makes it an inappropriate choice for certain datacenter applications like high-frequency Wall Street trading, where milliseconds matter and the computers have to be as close to the action as possible. But for slower applications, where cost and computing matter more than connectivity, Iceland is ideal.

One such “perfect” application is Bitcoin mining, and the country’s datacenters have attracted a lot of it. A year ago, the NYTimes’ Nathaniel Popper profiled Emmanuel Abiodun, a British entrepreneur who has established a multimillion-dollar bitcoin-mining operation called CloudHashing within a major Icelandic datacenter; Cloudhashing leases its specializing mining equipment to others.

This is presumably a tougher sell now that Bitcoins are worth closer to $200 apiece rather than the almost $1200 they commanded in late 2013. Even so, the lower cost of electricity in Iceland makes it possible to run these machines more efficiently, and presumably, make Bitcoin mining profitable at lower costs than elsewhere.

As I was preparing for my own walking tour of one of these ultra-secure facilities (the head of security pleasantly marched me through no less than nine physical security systems) one local tech-sector leader told me that most of the customers for these Bitcoin mining contracts are Chinese, and that, at its peak, demand was so high that an astounding eight percent of all Bitcoin mining worldwide was thought to be happening in Iceland.

Let’s take a moment to visualize and appreciate the resulting set of connected facts:

On an island in the North Atlantic, leagues below the surface, subterranean veins of liquid rock well upward through primordial vents, whereupon they make contact with equally ancient aquifers, producing steam that is artfully siphoned off and passed through turbines, which, when spun up, produce bountiful, carbon-free electricity.

This great stream of benign electrons – a true social good if ever there was one – is then passed onward, by means of cables, to some of the most esoteric, purpose-built computers ever assembled. These machines patiently wade through a truly psyche-shattering number of useless calculations, each one a discarded digital lottery ticket. Ever-more rarely, one of them strikes algorithmic gold. In an instant, the winning computation is transmuted into units of cryptocurrency, and on the other side of the planet, a Chinese hedge fund collects a small reward.

This is how the world works now: the geophysical system connects to the computational system, which links to the financial system, which shapes the geopolitical system, and round and round we go. Speculators from an ascendant, and nominally Communist 21st-century world power quietly leverage the entrepreneurial efforts of a citizen from a former 19th-century world power, to harness a market opportunity made possible by the unique ecological properties of an independent small state. These dependencies-at-a-distance make for strange bedfellows, for sure, but their larger consequences are not as neatly categorized: in times of relative stability, such interdependence likely improves resilience and reduces risk; in periods of complicated change, such connections likely amplify fragility and disruption.

There is also a lesson here about what happens when a resource is made cheaply and abundantly: namely, people feel comfortable “wasting” it. In the dark winters of centuries’ past, whole Icelandic families might huddle around a small fire for warmth. Now, the heat of a single rack of Bitcoin-mining computers, performing many billions of calculations a second, make it warm to the touch.

 

Image: Detail, View from a Train #3,

Norwegian Slow

June 13, 02014

On a trip to Oslo this spring, I was introduced to a fascinating, genuinely countercultural phenomenon: “Slow TV“, in which mundane events, some lasting days, are broadcast in their entirety, unedited and in real-time.

Slow TV got its start in Norway in 2009, when the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK televised a six-and-a-half-hour train ride from Oslo to Bergen (available in its entirety here). To almost everyone’s surprise, more than one in five people in the country tuned in for at least some of it.

That success was followed in 2011 by a five-day long piece of footage of a ship making its way up the Norwegian coastline (available in full here).  Then twelve hours of watching a log burn. Then eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream. Recently, NRK broadcast a 9-hour “National Knitting Evening“, which featured a team trying, paradoxically, to beat a world speed record in taking wool “from sheep to sweater” – a record held by the Australians. The Norwegians failed in their attempt – but in a country of four million people, 1.3 million of them watched at least four hours of a broadcast which included four hours of discussion and eight and half hours of “long, quiet sequences of knitting and spinning”. (A two-hour excerpt is available here.) This was followed by The Piip-Show, a three-month experiment in which you could follow the lives of birds in a feeder internally decorated to look like a coffee bar. Slow TV has even inspired at least one parody – a local radio station streamed real-time footage of an abandoned porcelain toilet left by the side of the road, though in a violation of the form, it remained there for less than an hour and half before being picked up.

Why on Earth would any of this succeed? The Norwegians who told me about the Slow TV movement expressed considerable pride in its existence. One woman in her 20’s told me, “Everything moves so fast now, going slow is the new punk.” Another told me that the absence of a narrative allowed her to look – really look – at what she was seeing on the screen – and to notice details she would have otherwise missed. And middle-aged man told me he found the broadcasts comforting, and that he and his mother had watched a bit together, talking about life while the train’s gentle rumbling filled her small parlor, then fell into an easy silence for a bit, while looking out the virtual window – in other words, what people on trains actually do.

Image Source: Detail, Image from Dove 2, 4-26-13, Planet Labs, Inc.

Taking the Pulse of the Planet

March 9, 02014

If you could take a picture of the whole world every day, what could you see?

It’s a simple question, with a fantastical, almost childlike premise. Now, a remarkable startup, Planet Labs, is working to answer it.

The brainchild of three visionary ex-NASA scientists and technologists (Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler, and Chris Boshuizen), PlanetLabs is launching the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites in history. It has just deployed its first ‘flock’ of 28 such devices, each the size of a shoebox, from the International Space Station. Together, these microsatellites will deliver a composite picture of most of planet Earth, at a 3-to-5-meter/pixel resolution. With the vagaries of weather, a complete picture of the planet, sans-clouds, will emerge every few weeks. (The average image in Google Earth, by comparison, is 36 months old.)

The first ‘flock’ of Planet Labs satellites being released into orbit at the ISS.

Up till now, getting your hands on up-to-date, high resolution imagery of any particular location from space has been a time consuming and expensive proposition, one largely reserved for big military, governmental and commercial customers.  The focus was at the very high-end of spatial resolution (sub meter per pixel). In a classic example of Schumpeterian disruptive innovation, however, Planet Labs will now provide slightly lower-resolution, but much more frequent and accessible imagery to a much larger pool of constituencies and customers.

In that wider set of hands, Planet Labs’ data will enhance consumer Internet mapping services, enrich supply-chain monitoring and improve precision agriculture. It will also transform the way we approach global challenges like climate monitoring, environmental compliance, public health, and disaster recovery, to name just a few.

This isn’t just about having another tool for addressing our grand challenges, however. It’s also about changing us. Making the whole planet accessible will help us see and understand how our planet works, how others live upon it, and how we’re all connected – which is the first step toward greater stewardship, empathy and engagement.

Some of the first “Doves” being prepped for orbit.

It’s not just Planet Lab’s imagery that’s disruptive – it’s also the way the company’s “Doves” (as they call their satellites) are designed and built. The company has deeply embraced agile development thinking – adopting a rapid, iterative, modular and inexpensive approach to spacecraft design. Where a traditional spacecraft might take years to plan and build, Planet Labs can assemble Doves in a matter of weeks. This highly efficient, swarming approach to design and innovation ensures that the company can continuously upgrade and improve, in much the same way that apps and websites are. (n.b. This cinches it – if you can do Agile in space, you can do it anywhere.)

Planet Labs is not only bringing a new product, but a new ethos to space. I’m thrilled to be advising the company and working with them closely in the months to come.

Image: Detail, Nurses Holiday, Kevin Lawrence Leveque

Cooking, Nursing and Making

February 13, 02014

Like millions of people across the world, I’m an enthusiastic amateur cook. I pore over cookbooks and recipes for fun, constantly scanning for opportunities to learn, experiment and build new skills.  In service to these experiments, I regularly handle potentially dangerous materials (like uncooked meat) and equally dangerous technologies (like sharpened knives and open flames), which might, if mishandled, seriously harm or even kill me. Then I put the results of these experiments into my body, and into the bodies of the people I love most in the world.

I can do all of this because cooking is one of humanity’s few truly democratized forms of practice. As an amateur cook, I don’t just have permission, but encouragement to experiment, fail and innovate – all in the service of learning and improving. Cooking places me in a dialogue with my culture, my region’s food traditions and agricultural practices, the seasons, family history, current social trends and contemporary scientific understanding, as well as with a thriving global community of cooks, who happily share all kinds of tips, tricks and techniques.

To cook in this way requires no special licensing from the government, or the taking of tests or paying of dues, or swearing to uphold a certain code of conduct. (Although it does sometimes involve swearing.) If I were ever to decide to cook professionally, the state mandates primarily that I keep a sanitary kitchen, not that achieve a certain consistent level of quality or that I prepare a set of sanctioned dishes.

In all of this, I am representative of the vast majority of the world’s cooks, only the tiniest fraction of which will ever be ‘professionals’. (Indeed, purely as a matter of statistics, it’s likely that most of the world’s best cooks are amateurs.)

The results of this system are pretty wonderful. Every day, human beings consume billions of delicious meals, prepared by themselves and others using an incredibly vast array of techniques, without incident.

Yet the results are not universally benign. Each year, some people get sick, and some even die from things cooked by themselves or others – whether from a single undercooked shrimp or from the accumulated effects of too many cheeseburgers. We tolerate these outcomes as acceptable risks – understanding them to be the cost of having a wide variety of food choices, and trusting ourselves to make them.

Not every field is so democratic – and some that were once more participatory have become intensely professionalized. Such is the case in healthcare, another ancient field where, as with cooking, people employ potentially dangerous technologies and and put things in the human body, with mostly (but not universally) good outcomes.

Healthcare is, in contrast to cooking, the hard-won realm of professionals. The government and medical bodies tightly control the license to operate. One cannot be a ‘hobbyist’ doctor, as one might have in the distant past; by and large, one must participate in the professional ecosystem of healthcare delivery or not at all.

This may seem like the appropriate and natural order of things, but it was not always thus. The professional, institutional delivery of health and medicine as we experience it today took centuries to develop, taking much of its modern form only in 19th century with the advent of professional medical associations, credentialing and licensing processes, the differentiation of specialists and general practitioners, the codification of medical ethics and the standardized delivery of care in hospitals. (Many great medical journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet all date from this period; the American Medical Association was founded in 1847.)

Much of this effort was spurred not only by a desire to ensure higher quality outcomes, but to suppress competition from a sea of unqualified competitors, and to normalize the interactions and expectations between doctors, specialists and patients. The highly professionalized, highly specialized and highly institutionalized model of healthcare we have to today is the product.

How well does this system innovate? It might seems strange to even ask the question, given that we’re living through a veritable Cambrian explosion of medical innovation, from personalized cancer therapies to point-of-care diagnostics.

But as wonderful as these innovations are, they represent the work of a very specific segment of the healthcare field, with an equally specific set of incentives and motivations. Innovation in today’s healthcare system is often arduous, expensive, and typically undertaken by only by a narrow set of commercial interests; not even everyone in the formal system gets to participate. Partly, this is due to the understandable (and commendable) instinct to avoid harm and quackery; partly it’s because the stakes and costs of insuring against failure are extremely high; partly it’s because new innovations arouse the natural, protective instincts of incumbent organizations and bureaucracies; and partly it’s because there’s a lot of money to be made.

In some cases – as with drug discovery and the development of very advanced technologies – the huge capital risks involved (and equally huge potential benefits to humanity) absolutely warrant this kind of outcome. But in many other circumstances, the results are less inspiring. When only a chosen few get to innovate, the results often end up just being more expensive than they have to be, not necessarily better. The problems that get addressed are often the ones that have the most significant potential for financial return, rather than the ones that solve the most acute medical needs in the most cost-effective way. Worse still, channeling innovation into a few officially sanctioned corners retards the growth and spread of innovation in the field as a whole, by discouraging a wider array of voices and perspectives.

I was thinking of all this when I watched the following video, which has been making the rounds online lately:

The video shows a small and typical example of knowledge sharing in the nursing field – how to  use the strap from an oxygen mask to remove a ring from a swollen finger. It’s exactly the kind of noncommercial sharing of technique that is perfectly commonplace in cooking; yet has become less encouraged in fields like nursing, which is, paradoxically, the field closest to the actual delivery of care.

It wasn’t always like this. A scan of the back pages of The American Journal of Nursing from the 1940s and 50s shows lots of sharing of what we might today call nursing “hacks” – clever, unconventional uses for products, and DIY, jerry-rigged devices all invented to improve patient care, and make nurses’ jobs easier.

They include innovations like “a simple wire contrivance … used to hold drainage bottles on the patient’s bed” and “an apparatus for rinsing baby bottles, designed by the nursery staff, made of several copper pipes welded together … that could rinse fifteen baby bottles at one time”.

These innovations – products of a less bureaucratic, less litigious, and, one assumes, less market-oriented time in medical innovation – are answers to problems which nurses encountered (and still encounter) every day. Now, as then, nurses are loaded with this kind of tacit knowledge and insight – hard-won observations from the trenches about what is needed and useful. Every day, working outside the limelight of the “professional” innovation discussion, they are quietly fabricating solutions to many challenges on the front lines of patient care.

The challenge is to channel and amplify all of that latent creativity to best effect. That’s just what MIT researchers Jose Gomez Marquez and Anna Young, at the Little Devices Lab are attempting to do with MakerNurse – a project that brings together nurses with the right support and tools to unlock their tacit insights and give expression to their creative solutions. (The examples already documented by the project are impressive – ranging from pediatric nebulizers to reusable tracheostomy collars.)

This is work that assumes the natural inventiveness of the nurses themselves as a starting point. Helping them take their ideas further might then mean helping them understand and use the fabricating technologies needed to develop and prototype their ideas; sometimes it might mean pairing them with professionals who can help them refine their insights; sometimes it might mean helping them find a wider audience for their solutions; and sometimes it might just mean helping them find one another.

In addition to these worthy goals, the MakerNurse project is a great example of how the Maker movement will likely grow up. Once seen mostly as the provenance of techno-hobbyists and entrepreneurs, it will smuggle not just the tools, but the ethos of distributed innovation into entire fields of human endeavor.

In the process, it will enable and ennoble professionals on the front lines and amplify their creativity and effectiveness. And it should act to keep the costs of needlessly expensive innovations in check. A healthcare system that empowers MakerNurses is one that is better designed, more humane, cheaper to deliver, with happier providers and customers, and better outcomes. So too is airline industry with MakerAirlineAttendants, and an educational system with MakerTeachers.

We need a “Maker_____”  project – and more cooks, and more kitchens – in every industry.

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Anchor Me Here

November 2, 02013

Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath provoked many marvelous storytelling projects. Few capture the emotional core of the experience better than Anchor Me Here, a beautiful, five-minute short film by Laura Egan that serves as an homage to the residents of the Rockaways:

Shot with a special high-speed, high-fidelity camera, Anchor Me Here captures community resilience, wordlessly and perfectly, through the eyes of families, first responders, fishermen and leaders of faith.

One of the residents who make a significant appearance in the film is James “Frank the Fish” Culleton, one of the last commercial fishermen and charter boat captains in the Rockaways. Already challenged by slower economic forces affecting his 30-year livelihood, Culleton was wiped out by the storm in a single night. One year on, he remains a Sandy migrant, moving from place to place, in seemingly endless limbo.

For the past year, Brooklyn-based photographer Jonah Markowitz has been documenting Culleton’s life, and that effort resulted in a moving multimedia and photographic narrative of Culleton’s descent into purgatory, as well as a first-person account from Culleton himself called “Riding Out Sandy in the Rockaways,” which appeared recently in the New York Times.

Markowitz has set up an Indigogo campaign for Culleton, called Reeling to Recovery, which seeks a mere $7500 in funds to enable him to buy a motorhome, and the first steps back to stability and dignity. About half has been raised already – I urge you to support it.