Monthly Archives: April 2009

Solar Cooking Innovation

Via Boing Boing I caught this story on a simple invention that uses solar energy to create enough heat to boil water and bake bread.  Here’s an excerpt:

The ingeniously simple design uses two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, and an acrylic cover that lets in the sun’s rays and traps them.

Black paint on the inner box, and silver foil on the outer one, help concentrate the heat. The trapped rays make the inside hot enough to cook casseroles, bake bread and boil water.

What the box also does is eliminate the need in developing countries for rural residents to cut down trees for firewood. About 3 billion people around the world do so, adding to deforestation and, in turn, global warming.

By allowing users to boil water, the simple device could also potentially save the millions of children who die from drinking unclean water.

Read the whole story here: “Inventor turns cardboard boxes into eco-friendly oven”.

What does your city 'say'?

I ran across this short 2008 essay ‘Cities and Ambition’ by Paul Graham, and found it pretty spot on.  Here’s the opening:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

The whole thing is worth reading.  As Graham notes, you really need to live in a place for awhile to get a true sense of what it’s all about.

In thinking about Portland, I’d say the city sends the following message: “Jam Econo!”  (credit to the Minutemen, of course).  Or in other words, “do more with less”.  It’s not the grand ambition of the big cities, but a realistic ambition everyone can have some success with if they try.  And that’s OK – not every place needs to be driven by money and power trips.

Out of Our Heads – Alva Noë (2009)

Last night I went to a new book event at Powell’s City of Books, for the publication of Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads. Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at Berkeley, and his book is really trying to re-define the cognitive science approach to consciousness – not to deny that the brain is an important part of the picture, but to broaden the conception of consciousness out much wider.  He likens it to moving from a physics/chemistry type of approach to a more biological approach, where you focus on a complete entity in its environment rather than going reductionist. He feels the concentration on the neural basis approach actually doesn’t present anything new, because in a sense it’s just a new way of restating what Descartes wrote – that there’s something inside us that is a ‘thinking thing’.  We still don’t really know what that ‘thing’ is, and Noë is trying to reject the notion in any case.

Summing it up from the book:

I seek to demonstrate that the brain is not the locus of consciousness inside us because consciousness has no locus inside us. Consciousness isn’t something that happens inside us; it is something that we do, actively, in our dynamic interaction with the world around us.  The brain – that particular bodily organ – is certainly critical to understanding how we work.  I would not wish to deny that.  But if we want to understand how the brain contributes to consciousness, we need to look at the brain’s job in relation to the larger nonbrain body and the environment in which we find ourselves.  I urge that it is a body- and world-involving conception of ourselves that the best new science as well as philosophy should lead us to endorse.

Afterwards I got a book signed, and mentioned to him my parallel observation with regard to computers.  One can truly say that computers just boil down to 0’s and 1’s – but that explains almost nothing about what is interesting about computers, nor does it predict anything about what will be done with them (nor could you understand much what a computer is doing by simply monitoring the 0’s and 1’s at points within the chips).  He agreed, and spoke of the fact that computers have these various levels of abstraction, where programming languages work high above the 0’s and 1’s.  We concluded that both computers and people are ‘programmable’ – and that the programming clearly involves all sorts of interactions with ‘the world’.

Update:  Here’s a link to a video interview with transcription, to get a quick overview.

Pedaling Revolution

‘Pedaling Revolution’ is the title of a new book on bicycling in the U.S. by Portland journalist Jeff Mapes.  It’s a pretty comprehensive look at the state of everyday cycling (not bike racing), whether it be urban commuting or riding bikes to school.  Mapes takes a look at what’s going on in Portland, NYC, Chicago and Davis, CA among other places, in terms of the different approaches to making cities more bike-friendly. He also has a chapter on the evolution of cycling in Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Copenhagen.  One thing that seems true is that in Europe bicycling is not nearly as politicized as it has become in the U.S.; people there are happy to drive cars when it makes sense and they can afford it, but also respect cyclists on the road because they’ve been there in the past, and their kids are probably on bikes today.

I hadn’t realized that there is a major debate that’s been going on for years, about whether the best approach is to create separated bike lanes (as they do in the Netherlands, for example) or not.  Those against argue that there is increased danger at intersections when bikes come out of these lanes and surprise cars (especially right turners).  On the other hand, many people say that they would ride more if they had access to safer bike lanes.  One point that does seem pretty well proven by now is that the more riders there are on the streets, the more generally safe it gets to ride, presumably because drivers become much more aware of the possibility of cyclers.

Here in Portland, there are some devoted bike lanes, but also a set of so-called bike boulevards, that don’t have painted lanes, but are low-traffic streets that are set up with stop signs on cross streets to allow pretty quick cross-town bike rides.

Well worth a read for anyone interested in the topic.  I didn’t think much about the title when I bought the book, but it’s actually quite clever.  Here’s a blog entry from the designer of the cover.

While on the topic of bicycling, I must note that the NYT’s love-affair with Portland continues, with a story on Friday titled “Portland, Portland Style: Touring by Bicycle” by Matt Furber.  Here’s a taste:

For visitors, it’s possible to land at Portland International Airport and hop the MAX Light Rail to start a city tour.

“You can just load your bike on the train and head into town,” said Don Shepler, a Portland-trained chef who, together with his wife, Erin Zell, runs Galena Lodge, a Nordic skiing retreat and summer hiking stop in southern Idaho. The couple enjoy returning to Portland for biking-and- food tours.

“The last time we were there we rode to a bunch of different restaurants on Alberta Street,” Ms. Zell said. “We’d enjoy a drink and appetizers and ride somewhere else.”

Days of clear weather come and go this time of year, but it never really rains that hard, Mr. Shepler said, adding that he liked the flow of bicycle traffic in Portland. “On the side streets with bike lanes you’re on the grid, and you can just go,” he said.

Update:  One other thing on this topic:  a new magazine on this topic just got started, and it’s called Bicycle Times – ‘your everyday cycling adventure.’