Not much rubbish

There’s not much rubbish now in our black bin. It used to be full at the end of each fortnight. I took this photo at the end of a week at home on my own and assumed things would be different once there were more of us — but no, not really.

Everyone knows without thinking about it that a lot of packaging must now be recyclable, but it’s still surprising when you can see the difference recycling makes — and more surprising to realise how much household waste (now we make our own compost) is packaging.


That’s one week of recyclable waste, with half of a smallish Labrador included in the picture for scale.

Marlborough Recycling Centre

What’s made the practical difference is the recent opening of our own local household recycling centre. It’s been done very well and turns out to be an appealing place to visit. Waste centres really did use to be tips.

Marlborough Recycling Centre

At the black bin end of things, I wonder when the “secret” chip will start to be used? Remember that story from August 2006?

There’s even a Wikipedia entry: Bin bug.

‘My client is civilisation’


There’s an interview with Stewart Brand in Volume, 24 — Counterculture: ‘With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community’. Fred Turner country. From Jeffrey Inaba’s introduction to the issue:

At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era. For instance, concern for the planet, which was cast as flaky and indulgent, is shared by the majority of people despite the ideological differences between the counterculture and popular American opinion now. Sustainability is so much a part of our collective economic consciousness that its importance is cited in business sectors – like real estate development – which once ardently resisted entertaining pro-environmental stances. Similarly, the communal principles of the counterculture – such as participation, sharing information, erring on the side of social inclusion, networking and identifying areas of agreement with others in order to form collaborations – are the basic axioms for building social capital now.


SB: My client is civilisation and my approach is that of a hacker: to figure out the shortcuts that make things happen. …

JI: … What’s your definition of a hacker?

SB: Lazy engineer. The aspect of hacking that appeals to me is looking for the fiendishly clever shortcut. A ‘real’ engineer will do the homework – do the calculations, run the prototypes – all the necessary stuff to make something work. A hacker is usually looking for an easy solution. The code still has to run – it has to do whatever it is you’re attempting. But a hacker tries to find a way to do it with minimal effort, which is considered good; or with great cleverness, which is considered extra good. Fun is finessing an outcome. Stuff like that is just being lazy, and lazy is not necessarily bad. I was trained in the army to be a lazy officer. The worst officer is stupid and industrious. The best officer is brilliant and lazy. I don’t think I would be accused of industry. …

JI: … Would you consider yourself a hacker of policy? From what you say in your book, stewardship of the planet involves vigilance in monitoring all technologies and then deciding to employ some with great speed. Do you look for shortcuts to put into service technologies because the process of governments, institutions, and concerned individuals carefully weighing a technology’s consequences takes time?

SB: Some technologies take off on their own. Cell phones took off in very short order to the great benefit of all. Wikipedia and Google took off that way. The things that people see as beneficial and that don’t do recognizable harm can move quickly. But like you say, by far the best approach with complex systems is diplomatic negotiation with a lot of vigilance to ensure that things don’t go astray.

JI: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline is on statecraft. You start it with the Marshall McLuhan quote: ‘After Sputnik there is no nature, only art’. What significance does that statement have in relation to the responsibilities of governance and policymaking?

SB: It’s probably the most radical comment he ever made. Sputnik was shorthand for acting at a planetary scale. We consequently bear a completely different relation to everything on Earth and can no longer treat it, meaning nature, as existing independent of our own artifice – our own purposeful intentions.

‘the more I write, the more I shall have to write ... I shall never overtake myself’

I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term … the pattern becomes clear. — Tom Armitage, ‘Telling Stories’ (Reboot 8, Copenhagen, 2006) (pdf)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months paring and pruning, trying to focus more closely on the things which really matter to me. I’ve got something to put down here soon about attention and curation, but before this new year runs away with me and everything, yet again, tilts Tristram Shandy–wards, I thought I might look back, sum up, take stock (a bit).

Here’s something I wrote for our annual school magazine about last year’s talks. (It goes over some of what I’ve written about here during 2009–2010 and I’ve given the links, in square brackets, where that’s the case.) It's very … potted.

ICT Talks 2009–10

This year, our talks continued to cross disciplines. We kicked off with Andy Huntington (RCA graduate, designer, musician) on interaction design [see 20.9.2009 entry]. In Digital Ground (MIT, 2004), Malcolm McCullough set out how interaction design ‘studies how people deal with technology — and how people deal with each other, through technology. As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century’. Andy, who has worked on interactive objects and experiences for clients from the BBC and the Science Museum to Nokia and the Bartlett School of Architecture, talked us through tapTap (‘The system is built up of individual knock boxes. Each box has its own memory and is completely self-contained. As you tap on the top of a box, the box waits for a few seconds and then taps back what it has heard. If you want more you add another box, and another, and another, tap, tap, tap’) and Beatbox (‘a physical programmable drum machine’). Later in the autumn we were delighted to welcome Usman Haque, architect and co-founder of Pachube (‘store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world’):

Usman Haque

The domain of architecture has been transformed by developments in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centered design, contextual awareness, RFID systems and ubiquitous computing. These technologies alter our understanding of space and change the way we relate to each other. We no longer think of architecture as static and immutable; instead we see it as dynamic, responsive and conversant. Our projects explore some of this territory. — Haque Design + Research

Playing with tapTap and Beatbox, thinking how objects are now interacting with us through the internet, reflecting on how we can use Pachube … Ubiquitous computing has well and truly arrived and, as McCullough foresaw, educators need to address interaction design as a matter of urgency.

Also in the autumn, Adrian Hon came to talk about his games company, Six to Start [see 30.9.2009 entry]. He began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the striking role now played in our lives by online text. The main part of his talk focused on We Tell Stories — a project developed for Penguin: ‘six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks’. Adrian, who left a career in neuroscience to co-found Six to Start with his brother, sets great store by narrative: ‘Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves’. His ambition for games is, indeed, remarkable: ‘Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world. … It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities.’

Professor Chris Frith, FRS, talked about how our brain generates emotions and thoughts and he was followed soon afterwards by Professor James Paul Gee, the distinguished American scholar, on games and learning. In his book, Making up the Mind [see 22.9.2009 entry], Frith argues that, ‘on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating’. In Gee’s thought, the world of a complex game mirrors the functioning of the mind: ‘We run videogames in our heads’ [see 30.10.2009 entry]. At the heart of his critical understanding of games is the idea of situated meanings and their role in learning. Games are about problem-solving. Today’s problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. Today, we must be able to work way beyond standard skills, learning how to be part of a cross-functional team — a very high order skill common to play in many games.

Another theme this year has been how we are living in a time when information is becoming more accessible. We welcomed Timo Hannay, publishing director of Web Publishing at Nature Publishing, to talk about open science and in March we had the opportunity to hear Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia [see 22.3.2010 entry]. Timo spoke about the nature of early scientific publishing and the rise of the expensive (and therefore relatively inaccessible) specialist journal. He explained projects he has helped to develop at Nature, including Connotea, a social bookmarking service for scientists, Nature Network (a social network for scientists) and Nature Precedings (‘a platform for sharing new and preliminary findings with colleagues on a global scale’). Jimmy, arriving straight from Heathrow, spoke to a packed hall on the origins, vision and role of Wikipedia. One thing to emerge from this very well-received talk: about 80% of the students present had edited Wikipedia. Next day at a Guardian conference for heads of media, the same question from Jimmy revealed that only about 30% of that audience had edited the online encyclopaedia.

Another highlight of the year was the chance to hear Stewart Brand and Brian Eno talk about the Long Now and Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand & Brian Eno
The idea of the active intellectual is very important, Brand said, and we’re very pleased that St Paul’s is the first school in the UK to join the Long Now and engage with its commitment to long-term thinking and sustainable living. This takes us neatly back to Pachube and the way we interact with technology. The future requires that the young grow up learning about the history of technology, of man’s long journey of inventiveness in manipulating nature and of the possibilities, for good and ill, that lie in this relationship we have with our world.

"If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future" …

Artworks in general are increasingly regarded as seeds — seeds for processes that need a viewer's (or a whole culture's) active mind in which to develop. Increasingly working with time, culture-makers see themselves as people who start things, not finish them.

And what is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our news selves first in simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. We imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future. …

As artists and culture-makers begin making time, change and continuity their subject-matter, they will legitimise and make emotionally attractive a new and important conversation.
Brian Eno.

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Freesheets: growing like Topsy

Last August, Bruno Giussani wrote:

The rapid growth of free newspapers in European (and, for now to a lesser extent, American) cities is one of the most interesting phenomena in recent publishing history.

His post is dense with information about this phenomenon, the newspaper and advertising industries and the subversion of both traditional newspaper economics and editorial mix. He concludes:

… many of the freesheets do not shy away from writing about that scarecrow of many traditional newsrooms: products and commerce. It always amazes me how a gigantic pan of our daily life is fenced out of most traditional newspapers because "it would constitute free advertisement": we buy clothes, use cell phones and cameras and tons of other gadgets, go to restaurants, play videogames, want to be informed if a new grocer opens in the neighborhood or a new Apple store opens in town or a new route is opened by a low-cost airline, but most of this stuff never shows up in the editorial pages of most dailies, or only within specific columns. Books and movies and music pass muster because they're "culture", but cell phones apparently aren't, and "serious" newsrooms want Nokia and Samsung to appear only in the ad pages. Free newspapers don't care about this: they know that most of us spend more time using our cell phones than going to movie theatres, and when a new cool model comes out, they deem it newsworthy. In this sense, free dailies are way more modern and in tune with the times than most traditional newspapers.

That's one take on the freesheet phenomenon. Here's another … On 12 February, 2007, the FT published this letter:

Sir, Surely by now every last Londoner has been approached on the street by a distributor of one of London's "free" daily newspapers. These papers may be free to readers, but they also carry real costs for other social groups in the city.

Free dailies externalise their production costs in at least three ways. They clutter and detract from the appearance of our streetscapes and public spaces (costs to all Londoners); they generate great volumes of rubbish which then become the disposal problem of boroughs (costs to borough residents); and they create extra cleaning costs for Transport for London when papers are left behind on trains and in stations (costs to TfL and therefore transport users). 

Given that 400,000 copies of each paper circulate daily (19m pages), these costs are not insignificant. We might be wise to ask whether free London dailies are really free - and if they are not, then who pays? 

David Grover, 

Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics, London

The letter was reprinted by Roy Greenslade who, today, highlighted Justin Canning's Project Freesheet. Firstly, here's Project Freesheet ('We want to see an increase in the number of freesheets being recycled and we want to see the freesheet publishers paying for the waste they are creating'), drawing on and quoting from an article published in The Ecologist by Jon Hughes (linked to below):

In 45 different countries around the world there are 35.8 million freesheet newspapers being printed every day. The environmental impact of a product that has a designed life span of 20 minutes is being seriously overlooked. (what's it all about?) …

The more sinister side of the freesheet phenomenon is its ultimate impact on paid for newspapers. The current crop of freesheets are aimed at those who are too busy to read a newspaper or have no inclination to buy one. Rather than address the reason why the paying public is shunning their products, newspaper publishers are seeking to create revenue by numbers alone. Advertisers will be seduced with the argument that while only half a million editions of say, Metro, are published, readership will be well over a million because it is dumped on the public transport system.

Freesheets such as Metro et al operate on very tight margins. As they become more nationally embedded, whole elements of them will become syndicated, beginning with TV pages and pop gossip through to national and international news. They might tell you the what, but not the why or the how. Investigations and campaigns will become rarer than they are now. Coverage of politics above the tittle-tattle of personality, less and less.

To supply the newsprint on which all this trash is printed, whole swathes of Europe are being turned over to plantation forests, which is wiping out bio-diversity. (the knock on effect)

Roy Greenslade (today):

Canning's major concern is about the environmental impact. He cites an article in The Ecologist magazine that deals with London's 1.5m daily freesheets. That equates to the felling of 400 trees every day after use of recycled pulp. Then, using those figures as a guide, he contends that 8,000 trees are being felled every day "for a product that has the attention span of about 10 minutes. That doesn't seem very good use of valuable resources." 

He continues: "On top of that, the product is not being recycled... [because] papers do not have any retention value. The second reason is the sheer volume that are being circulated. Most end up as street litter and go straight to landfill. Westminster council has said that it will need to spend an extra £500,000 over the next two years just to keep up with the quantities involved." 

Canning writes: "We are living in an age when corporate responsibility is supposed to be being addressed. Is it possible to carry on letting the newspaper publishers of the world churn out a product that serves no real purpose other than to provide opportunity for advertising? Basic economics is one thing. Stupidity and irresponsibility is quite another."

The Ecologist article dates from last November and claimed then that the London freesheet facts were:

… 1.5 million … are being given away in and around the capital’s Tube stations each day. The breakdown is as follows: Associated Newspapers’ Metro 540,000; London Lite (also published by Associated Newspapers) and News International’s thelondonpaper around 400,000 respectively, and City AM 65,000. Soon to be added to this is a free afternoon paper to be distributed, like Metro, on the underground system, rather than outside Tube stations like the other three. And on the last Friday of September, two free sports newspapers were unleashed on an unsuspecting public. This is a problem that is growing like Topsy, which has an unchecked motion all of its own.



I was six when Silent Spring was published, but eight years later I read it and it made a profound and depressing impact on me. Rachel Carson, we need you now:

Hydroelectric power's dirty secret revealed

Contrary to popular belief, hydroelectric power can seriously damage the climate. Proposed changes to the way countries' climate budgets are calculated aim to take greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs into account, but some experts worry that they will not go far enough.

The green image of hydro power as a benign alternative to fossil fuels is false, says Éric Duchemin, a consultant for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "Everyone thinks hydro is very clean, but this is not the case," he says.

Hydroelectric dams produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels. Carbon emissions vary from dam to dam, says Philip Fearnside from Brazil's National Institute for Research in the Amazon in Manaus. "But we do know that there are enough emissions to worry about."

… large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir's bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane. This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam's turbines.

Seasonal changes in water depth mean there is a continuous supply of decaying material. In the dry season plants colonise the banks of the reservoir only to be engulfed when the water level rises. For shallow-shelving reservoirs these "drawdown" regions can account for several thousand square kilometres. In effect man-made reservoirs convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into methane. This is significant because methane's effect on global warming is 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide's. New Scientist