March 1, 2007

Connecting Sony Playstations and the violence in the Congo

The article linked below describes the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and suggests that this is driven by the demand for Coltan-- the metal that conducts heat in Sony Playstation. It begins with the assertion:
"This war has been dismissed as an internal African implosion. In reality it is a battle for coltan, diamonds, cassiterite and gold, destined for sale in London, New York and Paris. It is a battle for the metals that make our technological society vibrate and ring and bling, and it has already claimed 4 million lives in five years and broken a population the size of Britain's."

Congo: The War the World Ignores
by Johann Hari, UK Independent

War-Devastated Congo, Your Remote Control, Playstation and Cell Phone.
AUDIO - Amy Goodman interviewing Johann Hari

Continue reading "Connecting Sony Playstations and the violence in the Congo"
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February 14, 2007

What changes when an essay is a visual essay?

That visual essays are potentially “read" by more people, more quickly, and contain "more" information, is a reasonable claim, moreover that we live in a visual culture. Why then, in this powerpoint age, don't we learn the craft of "writing" visual essays at schools and universities in the cross disciplinary manner that we learn written essays? What is a visual essay; just some snaps in temporal order; your photos album up on flickr? What are the techniques used by visual culture production professionals, and how do these strategies adapt to the web; and to the analysis of how stuff is made.

Lana Bernberg, a commercial and documentary television cinematographer, photographer and director before her graduate degree in Environmental Education, and joining the HowStuffisMade project, provides an introduction to storyboarding and how to plan shots to capture critical aspects of production, manufacturing and the art of documentation.
How do you depict industrial contaminants that might be health and safety risks?
How do you “see” the weight of the materials someone lifts? What is the quality of the social relationships at work? How do you depict the materials that come from 6 different countries? Much of the story of production is hard to see, yet important to translate into visual form.

Her lecture notes can be found on the WritingintheInformationAge Wiki in the curricula resources:

Francisco van Jole article:

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March 4, 2006

The Politics of Food: St. Cloud State

t.ore 2.png

Dr. Tracy Ore, an associate professor of sociology & anthropology at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, has been teaching a 'Sociology and the Politics of Food' class featuring an informative website:

"This website is put together by students from St Cloud State University in a "Sociology and Politics of Food" class. Students in the course examined how the production, distribution, preparation, consumption, and/or representation of a particular food or consumed item creates reinforces, or challenges structures of power among specific groups of people. The goal of the class was to make the information gathered both available and useful to those outside of the class. This web site is the result, serving as a “clearinghouse” of information on the politics of food. The purpose of this site is to provide information about a variety of ordinary items we consume and the actions that we can all take regarding the politics of food in our everyday lives."

It's refreshing that the course is designed to produce good public information. The students' PDFs are great introductions, emphasizing 'things you should know' and 'things you can do.' This structure, however, makes it diffulcult to get a sense of how a particular commodity chain operates from start to finish. Similarly, while labor issues an environmental costs are addressed, they're not cleary organized. Once we complete our website redesign, we'd like to approach Dr. Ore and assess her interest in a possible HSIM / St. Cloud State collaboration.

The Politics of Food, Class Website

Feral Trade


Having fallen off the wagon over the past few weeks, we're reentering the fray with Kate Rich's Feral Trade project. Kate's a good friend of Natalie's and via Feral Trade, has established a remarkable series of informal, alternative distribution networks of otherwise locally produced goods - coffee from El Salvador, Sweets from Iran and St. John's Wort from Bulgaria. Shipments are rigorously catalogued, providing visual documentation of people and places along the way and informational packaging that together create an informative narrative of socially driven commodity chains. States Rich:

"Feral Trade is an initiative to develop new trade relations along social networks. The use of the word 'feral' denotes a process which is wilfully wild (as in pigeon) as opposed to romantically or nature-wild (wolf). The passage of goods can open up wormholes between diverse social settings, routes along which other information, techniques or individuals can potentially travel.

The first registered feral trade was initiated in 2003, with the import of 30kg of coffee from Sociedad Cooperative de Cafecultores Nonualcos R.L. in San Pedro Nonualco El Salvador, to the Cube Microplex cinema co-op in Bristol UK. The coffee is now traded on through the UK and Europe over social, cultural, familial and occupational networks.

Design and production of documentary product packaging is an integral part of the feral trade process, with a view to rendering diverse currents in global shipping, international relations & network mobility from the extreme local point of view of the feral trade product."

Feral Trade

February 16, 2006

Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica

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For those who missed the recent encyclopedia smackdown (we're still playing catch-up here) Nature published a study in December of 2005 comparing the accuracy of 42 science articles in both Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. The results: Wikipedia's entries, created by a diverse group of public participants, were found to be only marginally less accurate than Britannica's entries, created and vetted by credentialled experts and editors (162 vs. 123 errors total, respectively - or on average roughly 4 vs. 3 errors per article).

This is good news for Wikipedia which currently contains over 2.5 million articles and is the 37th most visited website on the internet. It's also good news for HowStuffisMade, which is wiki-based (though still responsible to standards of evidence overseen by academics), and for B.I.T.'s continuing work on 'distributed lay interpretation,' a central thesis of the OOZ project.

Nature Special Report

February 11, 2006

NatureWorks PLA


NatureWorks has innovated production of a new fiber, polylactide (PLA), derived from an annually renewable resource - corn. This new process basically captures plant carbon by isolating lactic acid which is converted to polylactide, a spinnable fiber with robust, competitive material properties. Applications for polylactide are promising (NatureWorks products are already widely distributed) - including everything from food packaging to clothing and home product fibers. Indeed, not only is PLA estimated to reduce fossil fuel production inputs by 50% over traditional petroleum-based products, but it's also compostable (the above image spans 58 days at 60°C, 95% humidity).

Sound too good to be true? Some consider that to be the case. NatureWorks is a subsidiary of Cargill, a mutilnational agribusiness that has effectively cornered the market on genetically modified corn. Cargill's claims that cost-effective corn-based PLA production prohibits it from sorting ge from non-ge corn has been heavily criticized by several environmental organizations. In 2001 Patagonia terminated a developing partnership with NatureWorks (to replace some of its petroleum-based apparel products with NatureWorks' PLA-based Ingeo fibers) on the grounds that the unknown ecological risks of ge corn outweighed PLA's environmental benefits. For its part, NatureWorks claims that it will explore PLA production from other non-ge plant sources, but for now, genetically modified corn seems to be their carbon source of choice. It's a first step.

CorpWatch Article
More on Biodegradable Thermoplastics:
What Makes Green Plastics Green?

February 5, 2006

2D Barcodes: Shop with your Cell Phone


The day when shoppers will be able to walk into a store and use their cell phone to decide which products they want to buy is not far off. Semacode, a Canadian telecommunications company has developed opensource technology linking 2D barcodes with cell phone cameras and urls - in other words, scanning the barcode with your phone camera automatically links your display to the encoded website (2D barcodes can store much more information than their linear predecessors - the above barcode contains HSIM's mission statement and url).

Dara O'Rourke, assistant professor of Environmental and Labor Policy at Berkeley, has proposed applying this technology to product traceability - in theory, empowering consumers to make choices on the basis of back-end production information (i.e. how something was made) that could provide a competetive advantage to best-practice manufacturers. So, the next time you're at the supermarket wondering what 'free-range' really means, you might be able to see for yourself.


How the New York Times is Made


The New York Times' print circulation averages about 1.1 million for the daily edition, and just under 1.7 million for the Sunday edition. At over 8 million newspapers at week, or 430 million a year - that's a lot of paper. Of the Times' 19 nationally distributed printing facilities, one is located in New York in College Point, Queens. The Times offers a 'virtual tour' of the plant - an exciting prospect, but not well executed. To be sure, it raises some interesting questions, but the pictures are blurry, information is spare, and in nearly all of the photographs nary a worker is to be found. Given their willingness to provide some information on their production process, perhaps they could be convinced to team up with HSIM to produce what could be a compelling essay - one that includes not just the technology and resources required to churn out over a million newspapers a day, but labor issues and environmental costs as well.

NYT College Point Virtual Tour

February 4, 2006

Edward Burtynsky: China


This fall the Toronto-based landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky introduced a new series of photographs from China. In particular, his 'Manufacturing' series, taken in factories throughout China's southern province of Guangdong, mark a departure from his previous work, characterized by technically skilled but often romanticized depictions of industrial landscapes. His earlier 'Shipbreaking' series, for example, documents the incredible dismantling of enormous steel ships in Chittagong, Bangladesh as a purely formal exercise with little or no reference to the laborers or the life-threatening conditions in which they work.

Most of Burtynsky's work in China continues in this vein, but his manufacturing series is arresting - for once, his formal interests in scale intersect with the organization of human labor. While statistics on the growth of China's manufacturing sector are by now well rehearsed, Burtynsky's photographs attest both to the immediacy of visual information, and more importantly, to the social restructuring effecting this growth.

Edward Burtynsky

January 30, 2006

Timberland and the information politics of "Nutritional" Footprint


Check it out!!
Seems like this is a call for HSIM to do exactly that, CHECK IT OUT, aka provide imagistic verification in a populist visual form to show what these numbers actually look like on the ground. It does set a great industry standard that we can promote, and help ground in multiple forms of evidence rather than it becoming another abstraction around which tweeks are made. And as the venerable Michael Dorsey suggests, we could incorporate this format and help along its propogation to other companies interested in exploring the transparency. Here is *the* article on it:

January 25, 2006

similar encyclopedia


Thomas Gale has published this 7 volume (100 product per volume) How Products are Made at on the web and added a discussion forum which makes the $135/volume resource more accessible, and a good site search engine. This makes a good cross reference for HowStuffisMade entries. The primary difference between these two encyclopedic efforts is HSIM emphasis on visual documentation of actual manufacturing, including the labor conditions and the specific people involved, as opposed to the general information and diagrams of the HowMade equivalent. The HowMade is similar to HSIM in that it does begin to elaborate the environmental issues in a section that is included in most of the entires called: Byproducts/Waste. Likewise it also points toward future design innovations in the Future section.

The description on the website is:
How Products Are Made explains and details the manufacturing process of a wide variety of products, from daily household items to complicated electronic equipment and heavy machinery. The site provides step by step descriptions of the assembly and the manufacturing process (complemented with illustrations and diagrams) Each product also has related information such as the background, how the item works, who invented the product, raw materials that were used, product applications, by-products that are generated, possible future developments, quality control procedures, etc.

How Products are Made (web version)
Thomas Gale