A year of fresh ideas that hold promise for mankind

Brainstorms from 2009: From two-wheeled paradise to printable batteries

A year of fresh ideas that hold promise for mankind

In Oct 2008, an association of US state-highway officials approved the concept of a national bicycle routes corridor plan — the first step in potential American bike Interstates. But this amounts to little more than a go-ahead for states to put bike-route signs on existing roads.

Copenhagen, however, began last month to create the real thing: a system of as many as 15 extra-wide, segregated bike routes connecting the suburbs to the centre of the city. These are not bucolic touring paths; Copenhagen’s bike highways are meant to move traffic. Nearly 40 per cent of Copenhagen rides a bike to work. On Norrebrogade, a two-mile street in the centre of the city, 36,000 cyclists clog the bike lane every day.

The bicycle office of Copenhagen’s design calls for service stations and plans to employ so-called intelligent transportation systems — not unlike the technology that makes the E-Z Pass possible. Using handlebar-mounted RFID or GPS technology, for example, commuters could detect other riders on the routes, helping them to assemble into pelotons or ‘bike buses.’ These groups could in turn emit signals that trip traffic lights in their favour, resulting in a ‘green wave’ of bicycle momentum.

But Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and infrastructure consultant, warns that as appealing as the bike highway seems, it is not the first step in creating a bicycle culture.

Good enough is the new great:
“Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere,” Robert Capps of ‘Wired’ wrote this summer in an essay called ‘The Good-Enough Revolution.’ Companies that had focused mainly on improving the technical quality of their products have started to notice that, for many consumers, “ease of use, continuous availability and low price” are more important.

High-definition televisions have turned every living room into a home cinema, yet millions of us choose to watch small, blurry videos on our computers and our mobile devices. Cameras capture images in a dozen megapixels, yet Flickr is filled with snapshots taken with phone cameras that we can neither focus nor zoom. And at war, a country that has a fleet of F-16 fighter jets that can cover 1,500 miles an hour is now using more and more remote-controlled Predator drones that are powered by snowmobile engines.

Lo-fi solutions are now available for a range of problems that couldn’t be solved with high-tech tools. Music played from a compact disc is of higher quality than what comes out of an iPod — but you can’t easily carry 4,000 CDs with you on the subway or to the gym. Similarly, a professional television camera will produce a higher-quality image than a phone, but when something important happens, from the landing of a jet on the Hudson River to the murder of an Iranian protester, and there are no TV cameras around, images recorded on phones are good enough.

In February, a music professor at Stanford, Jonathan Berger, revealed that he has found evidence that younger listeners have come to prefer lo-fi versions of rock songs to hi-fi ones. For six years, Berger played different versions of the same rock songs to his students and asked them to say which ones they liked best. Each year, more students said that they liked what they heard from MP3s better than what came from CDs. To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. Good enough is now better than great.
Myth of the deficient older employee:

Although workers who were 45 and older had lower unemployment rates in 2008 than younger workers, they stayed unemployed for longer periods, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. This is not surprising. Employers are often reluctant to hire older workers, not only because they have higher health care costs and sometimes command higher salaries but also because of their reputational stigma. Older workers are commonly thought of as being less productive and less willing to learn than younger workers, as well as overly cautious. But this year economists presented a more nuanced picture than the above stereotypes suggest.

In ‘The American Economic Review’ in June, Gary Charness, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Marie Claire Villeval, a colleague from the University of Lyon, published the results of a study in which they pitted ‘seniors’ (those over 50) against ‘juniors’ (those under 30) in three different decision-making tasks. These were formulated to test risk taking, competitiveness and cooperation.

As it turns out, the ‘seniors’ more than hold their own. The seniors were also more cooperative, contributing more to their group during the cooperation test. The seniors outperformed the juniors on one competitive word game — and were only ‘very slightly less’ competitive overall, Charness says. “Older workers,” he stresses, “don’t suffer from the deficiencies that a lot of people think they do.”

Waste tracking:
The current system of curbside recycling hasn't kept pace with today’s stream of high-tech garbage, which increasingly includes hardware that could be salvaged (like cellphone parts) and products that contain toxic materials that could be more safely disposed of (like some fluorescent light bulbs).

But now, a prototype technology called Smart Trash aims to better manage all forms of waste that carry product ID tags. “The whole information system falls off when things are disposed,” says Valerie Thomas, a professor of industrial engineering and public policy at Georgia Tech. She is developing the Smart Trash system to fix that.
It begins with a garbage can outfitted with a scanner. When an unwanted item is dropped in, its UPC barcode or radio-frequency identification tag is read — as in the checkout line on the day it was purchased.

The scanner tracks important information like the make, model and component parts and, when Smart Trash is fully operational, will send that data to a waste company’s website or a site like eBay to determine how much the item is worth to recyclers or in the secondhand market. That data can in turn be downloaded by the garbage collector at pickup, or relayed via a WiFi connection to the waste company, which will distribute the items accordingly — to e-waste handlers, recyclers and secondhand dealers. The user would get money for his trash in the form of rebates or sales proceeds.

If implemented, Smart Trash’s combination of a waste-tracking infrastructure and cash-for-trash incentives could help us rethink the garbage dump as a sorting facility like the post office — rather than a final resting place.

Printable batteries:
Though you may not be aware of it, the technology already exists to create a video screen thin enough — and flexible enough — to fit seamlessly into the pages of this magazine. Ultrathin electronic devices can be built using a special inkjet printer that squirts fine layers of complex compounds instead of ink. When the compounds dry, they leave behind sheer metallic films, which in the right combination could act as thermometers, light sensors, even computer chips. So why haven't you seen these gadgets yet? In part because they are hard to power: even the smallest lithium-ion watch battery is too bulky.
The solution is to print batteries too. This year, a research team at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Electronic Nano Systems revealed a 0.6-millimetre-thick battery.
It consists of a stack of metal pastes that act as anode, cathode and electrolyte, bound on top and bottom by carbon layers that collect electricity and deliver it to the attached device. This product can be built right into the device it’s powering, as part of the production process, so there’s no need for an additional assembly line. And the battery can be made as large or as small as needed, simply by printing more of it. The list of possible applications is endless — from bandages that release medication when they sense an increase in body temperature to wallpaper that changes colour at the flick of a switch.
We’re not talking megawatts, of course. According to Andreas Willert, one of the researchers, it takes about 15 square centimetres of printable battery to provide the same power as a single watch battery. But 15 square centimeters could be enough to power, say, a blinking magazine cover for a month. The Fraunhofer Research Institution introduced its battery at a nanotech expo in Japan in February. The next step is to open a small production line, which Willert expects will be ready next year. Which means that soon, instead of reading these pages, you might be watching them.
International Herald Tribune

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