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