Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

You can't change people but you can change their light bulbs; BE the change you want to see in the world...Be the light of the world...


"You can't change people, but you can change their light bulbs"
-- Frank DiMassa, Energy Consultant to Roseville Electric Utility.

Many of us in the "environmental concern circle" have over the years been deeply troubled by the slow pace of iconic reform because we understand that semiotics subtend social transformation. We live in a linguistically mediated reality and we know that symbols (products of a linguistic mind) have inordinate power. Think of how inspiring religious icons can be (for le bien et le mal!). Think of the power of a flag. Think of... ADVERTISING!

As William Burroughs was fond of pointing out "images are tangible and material -- neither ephemeral nor temporary." And Frankfurt School Philosopher Herbert Marcuse warned us "domination has its own aesthetics, choice is illusory -- to view is to surrender".

That is certainly the case when the imagery we view limits our choices to consumer goods that further the domination of a fossil-fuel worshipping military-industrial complex (to add the necessary gloss to Eisenhauer's warranted paranoia!)

The case in point here is THE LIGHT BULB. While a trip to the Bochum Coal Mining Museum here in Germany vindicates the suspicion that we have had energy saving lighting technologies for well over a half a century (including, suprisingly, compact fluorescent bulbs to replace incandescents, useful because they would neither ignite coal gases in the shafts nor require massive, heavy batteries for the long hours needed for working in the dangerous mines), the general public never gave a thought to such developments -- developments which would have cut our lighting energy consumption and hence greenhouse gas emissions from that sector over the past 50 years by up to 70% (!). Whose to blame in this, yet another, example of the pernicious "zeitgeist conspiracy" I keep talking about?

I blame semiotics. In particular I blame the unquestioned symbolism embedded in the image of an incandescent lightbulb.

This one:

It's found on everything from record album covers to advertisements for the work of the world's top game designers:
In fact, it is the FIRST image that comes up when you do a Google Image search for the word "IDEA" (try it yourself!).

Er... except the incandescent light bulb is a really BAD IDEA.

In fact it has been a bad idea for more than half of the time it has existed .

Yes, I agree that when the long lasting tungsten filament was invented by Coolidge in 1910 to replace the quick burning carbon filaments (> 1500 hours) of Edison and Latimer (patented in 1882) it was a rather good idea, but we must ask why it took so long to get there, considering that the first carbon filament light bulbs were created by Humprhy Davy a whole century earlier, in 1800; it took another 78 years for them to be refined and and put into operation by Swan (England) and Brush (America) before Edison finally found out that using a vacuum could extend the life of the arc-light.

And the more important question -- why are we still celebrating this outmoded, outdated and dangerously energy consumptive technology when a better technology, compact fluorescent lighting, was perfected in the 1980s (when we also began using those recently perfected devices called desktop computers --- shame that technology didn't spread either :)) was unarguably superseded and in functional form by the 1970s, was actually being used in German coal mines in the 1950s (as the Bochum exhibit proves) was first sold commercially by General Electric in 1938, and was patented by Berlin born Edmund Germer as early as 1927!

Yes, Philip's marketed what we now call the first "true" compact fluorescent in 1980, because before then, though compact versions of fluorescent tubes did exist, the phosphors didn't last long enough for them to compete commercially with incandescents in terms of a price/performance ratio, and Philips refused to liscence the "bridge technology" that promised them the success the world was hoping for-- a typical case of "hording the secrets that could prevent immiseration in the ungodly pursuit of higher profits":

"We didn't license that bridge weld - it was a very significant piece of technology."
Steve Goldmacher, marketing division, Philips, 1996

But though you can bicker about what construes a true compact fluorescent (efficiency, durability, marginal cost) , we have to own up to the fact that, much like the fuel cell, the idea has been around for one and a half centuries (Alexandre E. Becquerel experimented with and demonstrated the effect and theorized useful fluorescent lights in 1857!)

You would think, given the loooong history of the compact fluorescent bulb we would have changed the icon for "great idea" a long time ago to this:

I am not the first to say this of course. There is even a debate on the Ubuntu forum where enraged Geeks on both sides of the semiotic fence argue about whether Ubuntu's brainstorm icon should be changed from incandescent to fluorescent. The thread reads as follows:

"Written by andrewpmk the 1 Mar 08 at 02:25. Category: Brainstorm.
Incandescent light bulbs are obsolete and soon to be banned in many countries. We should change the light bulb in the ubuntu brainstorm logo to an energy-saving Compact Fluorescent light bulb. :)

Greyor wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:33
This is kind of ridiculous.

dhardy wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:34
I have to give this a vote up! What you think about, you bring about--

Vertelemming wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:37
I daresay that even when light bulbs are just a faint memory, they will still be the iconic image for an idea. It's just too firmly ingrained in the public consciousness.

timwylie wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:37
Why not just skip the flourescent and go straight to an LED bulb. :)

Timwylie's comment is the most prescient of the lot. While Vertelemming believes the incandescent is much too firmly ingrained in the public consciousness, and others think it is "kind of ridiculous" to consider such a change, our colleague Andy Posner and his fellow students at Brown University have already dismissed this hold-over from the zeitgeist of a stupid era. Andy's new logo, we have discovered (by way of a sneak preview "news leak" made available through undisclosed sources ) is the following:

This remarkable young man is as indicative of the new zeitgeist as he is considered unusual by the old guard. He, like many young people in their early 20's and younger (most of them Obama supporters or fellow dreamers in a new era of reconciliation and hope) have nothing "ingrained" in their consciousness that smacks of "wrong wrong wrong". Or, if it has been ingrained by the subtle zeitgeist conspiracy of semiotic reinforcement, in nests in the parts of the hippocampus that link to our limbic sense of reptilian stupidity. It is filed away under "wrong idea", and people like Andy (and older folks like me) look forward to a time when you can google "bad idea" and immediately see the famous Edisonian incandescent as its iconic representation. As for the symbol for "great idea", Andy's hypostatized, reified rendering represents a sea change for all of us.

Fortunately, lest you think these young folks are alone, our "en-lightened" policy makers, young and old, are rapidly moving in the right direction: Australia has already "BANNED THE BULB", phasing out all dumb idea bulbs within the next 2 years, and California, governed by our brilliant Arnold Schwarzenegger (no dim bulb that one!) will be the terminator of the incandescent as soon as he can get the federal government to stop interfering with state politics (er... which presidents have used the party line that we should eliminate big government interference in state-led initiatives? Perhaps we should think of lighting our houses by "Burning Bush?")

I argue, however, that even as we try to implement laws to discourage the manufacture and sale of this barbarian technology, as long as our societal imagery bank makes us associate great ideas with energy wasting incandescents, we risk hanging on to what industry insiders call "heaters that give off a little light" (as opposed to "lights that give off a little heat").
So we not only have to change our light bulbs, we have to change our icons.

So while we are rushing headlong into the 1950's, scrambling to replace our doomed incandescents with the kind of bulbs the Bochum coal miners were carrying into the veins of hell (CF bulbs) , we should stop and ponder Posner's logo. Shouldn't great ideas be symbolized by the revolutionary LED! Shouldn't we be led by our symbolic flags of a new reality to the LED lit world?

We should let our imagery help us think of leapfrogging past the fluorescent to the "reversed solar cell" we call a "light emitting diode". For the LED may be the brightest idea we've had in a long time, and the true candidate for an icon for genius.

The white one which the Light Up the World Foundation is using to provide long lasting, safe, clean, mercury free, light to third world countries, invented in Japan by Shuji Nakamura, winner of the Helsinki Millenium Prize, uses only a fraction of the energy of even a compact fluorescent, and because it is a very efficient semiconductor -- basically a solar cell in reverse -- it can be run off of solar panels very easily. The idea is -- sunlight hits one semiconductor and turns into electricity, and is stored in a battery. At night that electricity makes the reverse trip, through another type of semiconductor, and turns back into light. The losses are minimal since almost none of the energy is lost as heat.

Of course we'd better jump on this LED bulb bandwagon soon -- this technology, which was first discovered by one of Marconi's technicians in 1907 (!) was rediscovered in 1922 and patented four times by the Russian inventor O.V. Losov between 1927 and his death during World War II (when his records were destroyed), then repursued by K Lehovec in the early 1950s until commercially introduced in the late 1960s, will soon be replaced by the even more efficient "Quantum Dot Light Technology".

Yeah, that's right, there is a new kid on the block, an even better idea to serve as the candidate for the new icon for "great idea". Hell, we could have been switching to regular old, vanilla LED lighting back when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. How passee!

In this context, you wonder why the incandescent is allowed to persist. Must be part of that awful zeitgeist conspiracy!

Hey Andy -- how would you design a logo that showed a quantum dot bulb? I understand from our solar cities rocket scientist friend Ted Stern (who works on quantum dots for solar applications and has toured Egypt with us as part of the Circus Guy Musical Goodwill Ambassador Tour Program from the U.S. State Department) that we will be able to literally paint these lights on to the surfaces we want to emit the photons we live and play by.

Might it look something like this?


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Solar Slums and Urban Design with Blender

(Image shows AKTC models imported into Blender for proper spatial alignment with Google Earth maps per the instructions in Yorik VanHavre's tutorial "Urban Design with Blender". The Google Earth image was loaded into Blender using the "View-Background Image" command and the view was set to Orthographic Top. A transparent plane was created 250x250 Blender Units large and the image was sized to its maximum of 250x250. Models were brought in as .obj files and snapped to the plane (z coordinate 0) then rotated on the Z axis and moved in x and y space and scaled until they fit the map. )

(Image shows the same screen rotated in perspective mode. Note that the background image from Google Earth disappears, leaving only the three dimensional models, now properly situated in space. The beauty of using Blender and Elder Scrolls Oblivion for Urban Design is that now we can have our avatar walk through the community to buy white goods (appliances) for heating water or to buy glass, copper and aluminum sheet for solar hot water systems in REAL-TIME, demonstrating just how difficult and time consuming it is for the urban poor, most of whom have no transportation, to exercise consumer choice. I hypothesize that the transaction costs, as opposed to merely the financial costs, associated with obtaining materials and goods is one barrier impeding the poor from adopting new and/or more environmentally and economically friendly technologies. The simulation technology of off-the shelf computer game engines can help us model these transaction costs. This is one example of how these tools can aid us in Urban Design and the creation of Solar Cities.)

At Solar C3ITIES the acronym "C3ITIES" stands for "Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems". It's a mouthful, but it reflects our guiding philosophies as on the ground planners in Cairo, Egypt: a) the tools and resources and human capital are all out there, but we have to connect the community catalysts who can mobilize them effectively and b) drawing on the work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart and Egypt's own Salah El Haggar and Salah Arafa, we must manifest ecologically intelligent design and create Industrial Ecology Systems (cradle to cradle recycling with sunlight as the subtending negentropic force) -- and fast.

But the word "C3ITIES" in Solar C3ITIES also reflects our unique concern with urban design and urban issues, because we live in a unique and ecologically delicate time in history when more people live in cities than in any other habitat type. Additionally, as Mike Davis points out in "Planet of Slums" we live in a time when most people live in a slum.

Most of these slums are the byproduct of, as McDonough puts it "an industrial system that takes, makes and wastes."

Industrial Ecology Systems, on the other hand, he points out "can become the creator of goods and services that generate ecological, social and economic value."

When Industrial Ecology Systems are applied to the slums and ghettoes of the world, and are powered by solar energy and its derivatives (biomass, wind, hydro, groundsource heat) it is my contention that these areas will cease being slums.

Our work living among the urban poor of Cairo, living in the slum with them and daily visiting the garbage recycling community of the Zabaleen, has shown us that while pollution is "the right thing in the wrong place at the wrong time" it is not enough to move what we have now discovered are recyclable materials into a "safe place". Even when we learn to see "waste" (production and consumption residuals) as "the right thing" for new industrial processes we must not learn to see the city as "the wrong place" for waste. When we move wastes away from labor (which is concentrated in the cities along with the waste) we also remove opportunity from labor. Let's face it -- the reason the Zabaleen live among garbage is because it is the most efficient way to recycle garbage (lower transaction costs -- no transportation, fewer property rights issues).

What urban designers (including community stakeholders of course, who should be empowered as urban designers) need to do is to find clean, healthy ways to deal with residuals in-situ. And that means putting clean industries into mixed zoning areas where people live, dispensing with the current Egyptian obsession to move factories out into the desert into far off proto-cities like Madinat Badr, where the PrimaPlast factory is located -- an hour or two from the zabaleen who must supply it with shredded plastic bags.

The problem with our Cairo ghettoes is that they are filthy and polluted and their small scale industries contaminate the neighborhoods with toxic chemicals and smoke.

But the answer is not moving the industries and the raw materials out of the neighborhood to remote locations where they can supposedly degrade their environments with impunity! The answer is creating industrial ecology systems within the community itself. And to power these clean industries, we need to make use of the one factor input that Egypt is blessed with more than almost any other country on the planet:


Harnessed solar energy creates no smoke or carcinogenic byproducts, and requires no transportation. Coupled with closed-loop industrial cycles, sunshine can be part of a clean industry soltuion for the urban poor. Almost all the big slums in the world are located in "developing countries" and most of those countries are in the tropical and subtropical regions of the planet which receive the most sunlight, so Solar Slums are a no brainer .

While many planners push for the development of large scale solar energy systems in deserts and fields to get the economies of scale big industry wants, we advocate a more Proudhonian approach - locally scaled industrial ecology systems that make use of local factor inputs and local energy sources.

You can argue that industries' historic push for ever larger economies of scale has radically increased the returns to scale and thus the profits of industry. But we don't see that translating into more liveable cities -- certainly not for the other 90% of the people on the planet. The deadweight losses are enormous, the negative externalities are enormous, the human immiseration is enormous.

Since the urban poor are burgeoning in number even as industry moves out to the hinterlands, can we really see the development of even a clean renewable energy economy that is external to the city necessarily helping improve their lot, even if the basic energy infrastructure of our civilization suddenly gets cleaner?

Do the urban masses really know or care if their electricity and gas come from clean renewable sources and their consumer goods come from factories that have clean and efficient recycling facilities if those factories are far away? If their home neighborhoods are still choked with production and consumption residuals that weren't worth removing and taking to those far off places, what was the advantage to them (looked at through their eyes)?

Part of what makes the slums unliveable are precisely those items that nobody can make a profit off of that are scattered about the landscape. Another part is the decaying or incomplete infrastructure that nobody can afford to fix.

Does it just come down to a lack of money?

I argue no -- money is a liquid carrier of value (that's where we get the term "liquidity") and most value is a representation of some form of energy. When energy is available work is possible. When it isn't nothing can get done.

The thing about urban development in the third world is that solar energy and biomass energy (in the form of city garbage) are ubiquitous. They are availabe to almost everybody. They just aren't captured and transformed and stored efficiently.

We argue that attention to urban re-design with an eye toward capitalizing on the solar and biomass energy that is locally available, when coupled with waste-free recycling (which is easier to achieve at the local level -- i.e. the mess maker is more likely to clean up that mess if the mess taker is nearbye ) will go a long way toward increasing the liveability of what are now slums.

Such solar slums would be the first step toward the creation of integrated solar cities.

And Solar Cities, I argue, are essential for our survival.

Getting to the eutopia I describe is not as easy as all of us simply deciding to "go solar", whatever that means. We have to take a radical BIM (Building Information Modeling) approach where we put our design technologies to work re-envisioning urban slums.

As I keep stressing with every blog I write, the tools are now out there, many of them at low cost, but the "experts" who can apply these tools are rare and usually expensive.

Today's discovery is that two of those experts are generous enough to share their experiences re-thinking urban design using FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and are providing tutorials for us laypeople.

The couple are Yorik and Maira VanHavre, freelance architects
from Brazil who are part of the open source community and have a passion for innovative urban design in developing countries.

Today I am working through Yorik's tutorial on Urban Design with Blender:

It shows how to bring Google Earth maps into Blender to create the foundation of your modelling -- something I need to be able to do to precisely position the buildings in old Cairo for export to the Elder Scrolls Construction Set.

Since Google Earth is probably the best way to visualize the spatial problems we face as we develop the earth, allowing precise measurements of distances and the ability to visualize space in x, y and z dimensions, it is extremely important to be able to use its output as the starting point for interactive modeling and simulation programs wherein we can test our ideas for slum resdesign. How better to see if we can put a biogas facility using urban garbage and pig waste in Muqattam hills than modelling the upwind/downwind impact of site placement first in a sim? And how to relate that sim to the real world if we don't know where it really is? Thus the need to couple Google Earth images with FOSS modeling packages.

I am aware that this process is almost automatic in Google Sketchup, which I love. But since Google Sketchup's free version does not allow those beautifully geo-referenced models to be exported, and the Sketchup Pro fee of $50 is a months salary for a teacher at the Zabaleen school... well, you do the math!

Thanks to Yorik and Maira, with their generous sharing of their Google Earth/Blender solution, we are another step closer to our Solar CITIES dream -- the dream of a true Solar Slum evolving toward its proud emergence into a world of true Solar Cities.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

1st Machinima Tests using Oblivion for Darb Al Ahmar

Machinima Test 1: Al Azhar Park to Darb Shoughlan

Machinima Test 2: Solar CITIES office to Darb Aslan mosque and back

These are Solar CITIES first attempts at importing the AKTC architectural models of the Darb Shughlan Complex and neighborhood at Al Azhar Park into the Oblivion Game Engine using the Elder Scrolls Construction Set along with Blender.

This Machinima Test was created not only to demonstrate the possibilities of using blog technology to offer mimesis, and extend the non- diegetic potential of the web to go beyond text and static imagery to convey information, but to communicate spatial information to visitors to our Solar CITIES projects.

Though this initial attempt to bring the AKTC architectural models into the Oblivion Game Engine -- and create a simulated fly-through (walk-through/ride-through) from Al Azhar park to our first solar installation on the roof of building 72 and back -- is far from complete or accurate, it could be used to successfully navigate your way from the park to the site if coupled with Google Earth Maps, as hinted at in the second machinima video above.

The first video shows the approach to the old Ayyubid Wall of Medieval Cairo from the park, takes you through the Darb Shughlan Complex where the Aga Khan architects work, and on into the Darb Al Ahmar community to our first solar roof on Building 72 where RSD technologies donated a Sunshore evacuated tube solar hot water system to the project.

The second video shows our Solar Cities office/apartment near the Darb Aslan mosque on Abu Hureyba street with its home built solar hot water panels. It also demonstrates how you can give visitors a sense of the real-time travel time needed to get from the mosque to the office by following the avatar, and how you can change daylighting regimes.

In particular, since Oblivion lets you set the time of day or night, one can place solar hot water or photovoltaic systems on various simulated roofs and see whether or not shadows or shading would be a problem before committing to experiments in the field. This is a tremendous asset for planners that should be open to poor communities as well.

The videos show the potential for using game engines to communicate ideas in third world development projects . This work was inspired by the work of Dr. Andrew Hudson-Smith at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. His phenomenal work using game engines for serious urban planning can be read about in The Escapist Magazine: London in Oblivion.

How to make your own?

Step one is to read the brilliant tutorials over at Dr. Andrew Hudson-Smith's Digital Urban site. This guy has become my urban planning hero!

Part 1, which shows how to set up your landscape in Oblivion, is here:
Part 2, which details how to import sketchup and 3d files into Oblivion is here:

Since I can't afford Studio 3D Max and hate 8 hour or 30 day trials gumming up my system, I used Blender -- but be warned, Blender is a very complicated program. It's great advantage is that it is Open Source and Free.

Here's what I did:

AKTC architect Mahmoud Qotb was kind enough to give me two .pla files (Archicad Plan Archive) of the models their team (
Nivine Akl, Mohamed Ebaid, Heba Foda, Kareem Ibrahim, Mahmoud Qotb, Mohamed Said, Nadine Samir, Roberto Simeone, and Ibrahim Zakareya) had created. One was a detailed file with lots of textures of the Darb Shughlan school complex, the other was a general model of the entire project area, including the topography of Al Azhar park.

Because these files were so huge I had to work in sections. I took the Darb Shughlan complex and selected it in the 3D view and exported the model as a Wavefront .Obj file. Then I went into the general model space and found that the best way to work was to open another instance of Archicad. In the first instance I painstakingly selected each building or group of buildings that I wanted and copied them and then pasted them in place in the second instance. Memory issues are of vital concern so it takes trial and error to figure out how many models you can work with at a time. For example I did the group of buildings across the street from the Darb Shughlan complex as one .obj, the complex itself as another, the section of the Ayyubid wall as another and the topography of Al-Azhar park as another. When I tried larger groupings either Archicad would choke on export or Blender would freeze on import, or, if I could get them into Blender, it would behave sluggishly and crash (I'm running Windows XP in bootcamp on a MacBook Pro with 2 GB or Ram). Better to isolate sections and put everything together in TES CS.

When I had a group of models pasted into the second instance of archicad I exported them as a group as a .obj file (I tried .3Ds files but found that they didn't import properly into Blender -- they would come in looking like they had gone through Brendel-Fly's matter transporter. Ugly.)

I then closed Archicad and opened Blender.

Importing into Blender was fairly simple (I toggled autosmoothing without really understanding why), but sometimes the center of the models was horribly displaced. To get it back one must click on the center of the model and click "center cursor". Then came the difficult task of aligning the models, rotating them and sizing them. I found that by scaling 100 times the Archicad models became proportional to the NPCs in Oblivion.

In Blender it was necessary to remove ALL textures that the Archicad export contained in order to re-export for Oblivion. Since I don't know how to see a list of all textures, this meant clicking on each and every mesh object and manually removing the textures. If I missed one, and tried to export as an .nif mesh for Oblivion, I got error messages. Since each error message only appears after a long processing wait, you can waste hours trying to get a successful export and end up with nothing.

Word to other newbies like me -- be very thorough in removing any textures if you haven't any experience with UV mapping and such. What I did was get rid of all textures and then create new materials for each surface and color them. I experimented with texture mapping but didn't get very far, so for now all the surfaces are textureless.

Once each surface had material properties set I went into the Logic Mode (F4 -- the picture of the pacman face on the panel) selected Bounds and Added Collision properties for some of the objects, following these tutorials:

While I experimented a lot with NIFSkope, which appears to be a very powerful and useful tool, and while I read through this tutorial,
I felt overwhelmed and abandoned trying to use this tool at this stage of my education. For this reason my .esp plug-in has limited physics -- you can walk all over the topography of the park and on the staircases, but most of my buildings you can walk right through. I learned that you have to set the Bounds properties as "Static TriangleMesh" to get arbitrary surfaces (like the Al Azhar Park) to work, but I still have problems with other objects. One of the worst problems is that my models would appear fine in The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, but when I went into Oblivion to interact with them they would be totally invisible! One Google Search suggested that my normals weren't set up correctly but I couldn't figure the nuances of remapping normals out. My work around was to import two NIF's -- one with collision properties set, the other without, so one would be an interactive surface and the other would be the visual model. Seemed to work at times, though there are still invisible objects in my .esp and I still don't know how to easily construct staircases inside the buildings that my character can climb.

One issue that constantly plagued me was having meshes with two many vertices. I never got the hang of "decimating" the mesh so it would export to a proper .Nif so I went with the idea of separating complex geometries onto several different layers in Blender and exporting one layer at a time.

(I should say however that I always tend to bite off more than I can chew because of my impatience -- rather than working through tutorials and learning the basics I just kind of jumped in and started working with these complex AKTC architectural models because I was in a rush to explore the possibilities. Now it is time to go back and learn the subtleties of these complex but fascinating programs and tools.)

For the solar panels on the roof of Building 72 I used Google Sketchup 6. I built the table and the cold water storage tank in Sketchup and imported a Silicon Solar Inc. standard evacuated tube solar hot water system from Google 3D Warehouse. Then I cut off the extra vacuum tubes and sized it to be the same as the Chinese Sunshore unit on our project roof and made my own cylindrical hot water tank for the remaining tubes. I made them all one group and then downloaded a trial version Sketchup Pro so that I could export the model as an .obj file to Blender.

I also experimented with importing the .obj files from Archicad into Sketchup and placing them on the proper Google Earth image to get the right relations between buildings. Then, when I exported them into Blender (as new .obj files) they were properly aligned. I also found I could size the buildings better in Sketchup than in Blender. Sketchup Pro is a must for this kind of work if you want to get things done quickly. Unfortunately even the Pro version of Sketchup won't export to .nif meshes (which are necessary for Oblivion) so Blender is essential for those of us who can't afford the expensive programs (don't forget to download the .nif export plug-in for Blender!)

The beauty of working with Sketchup is that Google 3D Warehouse has all sorts of "green cities" objects you can download and use: solar hot water systems of various types, photovoltaic panels, windmill generators, composting toilets, PV polycrystalline surface textures, heat pumps, Energy Star refrigerators and other white goods appliances -- so while I spent hours to model my first SHW systems by myself in Blender and Sketchup, you can now get them ready made. I can now start populating my virtual Darb El Ahmar with the consumer goods that I feel would make for healthy sustainable development (imagine, I can put a virtual Envirolet composting toilet in my Solar CITIES apartment in Darb Al Ahmar and invite virtual visitors to come in and try it!) .

Since there are sheep and camels living in the street where we live and have our Solar CITIES office, I also want to model them and put them into our virtual simulacrum. The problem with using the excellent models available in Google 3D Warehouse is that they lack animation properties and behaviors, so they won't be useful for creating a lifelike ambience for the neighborhood. The best alternative I can find is to mod the horses already found in Oblivion. The tutorial I'll be working from is here:

So the basic workflow is as follows -- take 3D models from Archicad or Sketchup and export as .obj files. Import the .objs into Blender. Eliminate textures and recolor using your own materials (unless you understand texturing -- you have to save textures out as .dds files for Oblivion, and I haven't gotten that far yet. I'm experimenting with it using the GIMP though...).
Export as .Nif file (mesh file for Blender). Open The Elder Scrolls Construction Set (TES CS). Now follow the Digital Urban Tutorials linked to above.

To get the images into Youtube, I used FRAPS to capture the gaming screen. Unfortunately FRAPS only outputs .avi files which are useless in Final Cut Pro.

DivXDoctor II was supposed to work on my Mac for converting AVI's to MOV's but failed miserably, so I went but to the Windows side and tried a great program called Super@ found at
Super@ is freeware, from an idealistic group of programmers who care about the rest of us and is excellent but even though I installed it on my external hard drive it demands 20 GB free space on the internal hard drive to work properly (god knows why!) and my entire internal bootcamp partition is only 20 GB with only 2GB free space. So that option failed me!

After clogging my hard drive with innumerable trial versions of AVI to MOV converters that either didn't work or only exported 50% of the file (unless you buy), I finally decided that the best way to do it was to use the excellent AVI2VCD and convert my .avi's to .mpg files and store them on an external hard-drive that was FAT32 formatted (so that it can be read by both Mac OS and Windows XP; my other drive is NTFS formatted so it only shows up in Windows -- the advantage of NTFS is that it can take files larger than 2 GB so I can use it for Ubuntu and other Linux based Open Source Programs).

I then booted up my Mac partition and used QuickTime Pro (worth the $25) to convert the mpeg files to PAL .mov files.

It would be nice, however, if Quicktime Pro, charging that money, could read and convert .avi files without having the hassling of converting to mpegs first. Arggh. It means double the conversion time. Oh well....

Then and only then was I able to import the MOV files into Final Cut Pro without rendering and cut them together into the film above. (Note to others wandering down this tortuous path -- some people advise using Compressor, which comes with FCP, to do the conversion, using "Advanced Conversion, PAL" or "Advanced Conversion NTSC", depending on your format. For me Compressor failed utterly to convert AVI files and it said it wouldn't convert mpegs because it couldn't output the audio (there wasn't any). Finally I learned that I could convert the mpegs to m2V and then convert THAT to a .mov, but it was a hassle considering I could use Quicktime Pro to simply convert the mpeg to .mov. So no compressor use for me!)

I created the music in Soundtrack Pro, which came with the Final Cut Pro Student Edition. The narration was done using FCP's "voiceover" feature -- very handy -- and the internal mic that comes with the MacBook Pro (for better quality I sometimes use a professional microphone plugged into the M-Audio Firewire Solo, but for youtube stuff the internal mic is just fine!) Experimenting with various music streams I learned that .mp3s don't work in FCP without being rendered - you need to convert to WAV or to AIFF.

Now that I have the beginnings of a virtual Darb El Ahmar I can wander through and explore and interact with, I want to be able to quickly screen capture my journeys in this development simulacrum and post them on YouTube. For example, we have guests coming from National Public Radio (NPR) in two weeks, and I would like to show them how to get to our Solar CITIES office once I import those models. Since I want to be able to quickly create the simulation as a video, I don't want to have to keep switching from PC to Mac to PC (I use Bootcamp because it is free, and I can't afford Parallels, so I have to literally shut down the machine and reboot each time). Thus I need to find a way to avoid having to use Final Cut

Windows Media Maker is an AWFUL program, so I won't touch it.

One thing I can do is use WINFF to batch convert my .avi files from FRAPS to .MP4 files, ready for youtube. And I found that I can cut out the parts of the AVI files I don't like (bad camera angles and such) using a brilliant little freware program called AVITrimmer. It is great for prepping your avi files before converting for editing, and if you don't want to do a full edit job and rearrange footage but just want to snip out all the bad frames or sections from your screen capture, you can use AVI trimmer to make your little movie and then convert it for youtube using WinFF.
Later this week I will install and try out AVIEdit which is supposed to let you do a bit more than AVITrimmer (including import mp3s for soundtracks) and will report back to you.

I've read that with a certain plug-in The Gimp can do some avi editing, but I haven't tried it yet:

I have also tried using a couple of Open Source Editing programs on the Windows Side of my PC, but haven't got them working yet. Jahshaka was the easiest to install, but froze each time I tried to use it with multiple files , and it didn't support the avis. I will try it again later and see if I can get something working in it. I am going to try a LiveCD install of Cinelerra, the Linux video editing program, which looks terrific, but I haven't put Ubuntu on my computer yet and haven't learned how to compile the source code, so we'll have to wait awhile for that.
There is a linux program called AddLinux that is supposed to let you run Linux from Windows without rebooting but I haven't installed it yet either.

I think what plagues most of us who do this stuff is deciding whether the cost-benefit ratio is favorable. Do I really want to spend all this time configuring my computer with all these systems and programs and learning how to do it all? The learning curve is STEEP, and many hours are lost dealing with bugs, crashes, misintallations, uninstallations, reinstallations, file shifting, defragging etc, to say nothing about learning to navigate all these different gui's and command line syntaxes. Uggh.

But the dream is alive: Won't it be nice when we can make it easy for non-Geeks without formal education, living in undeserved poverty on our Planet of Slums, to be able to, as William Burroughs put it, "Storm the Reality Studio and Retake the Universe"? Won't it be nice when we can learn to see the world "through different eyes, alien eyes; not with the eyes, from the perspective, the subject position, of the dominant discursive formation." (Anne Cranny-Francis, "Feminist Futures: A Generic Study" in Alien Zone, p. 223)

To do this we have to make modeling the world "in your image" and getting your simulacra on youtube as efficient and easy as possible. Google Earth and Google Sketchup were a good start (but COME ON Google -- stop charging people for the use of the export function! Or make free versions of Pro available to NGOs and educational institutions and poor communities!!), and once Blender's generous developer community gets around to simplifying the program for third world people it will be a great tool. Game engines could get easier than Elder Scrolls Construction set (which is very hard to navigate in) and I'm sure the mod community would welcome a simple way to get things in and out of the physics engines. And given the number of kids who spend hours crowding the few internet cafes in the slums of Cairo to play MMORPGs, the idea of participating in a game in which you can create your own eutopian vision of your own community's future is far more thrilling than some fantasy world that will always remain a "never-never land".

If my experience working with Solar South Central in Los Angeles with a few former gang kids who spent hours playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (preferring it to all other games because it faithfully modeled Watts and the surrounding community) and then went on to start creating their own video games, is any yardstick, we can be sure that the power to share simulacra that can be HYPOSTATIZED through their manifest connection to reality , guided toward a tangible positive vision of that reality, will be emancipating in Cairo and everywhere else.

In the meantime, I encourage you to download our evolving SolarCities.esp, open your Oblivion game -- load the plug-in -- and start exploring -- and modding -- Darb Al Ahmar!

Friday, March 14, 2008

(R)Evolution in Environmental Education?

Our dear friend, patent holding inventor and artist manager Colin Filkow, who has been supporting our efforts to bring multi-media tools and music and video production sensibility to ghetto education since his days as a music executive for Priority Records and EMI, got some producer friends of ours to put together this pitch trailer for what we hoped might turn into a Discovery Channel show last season.

While an actual TV program never materialized from the effort, the fact that I found it posted on somebody's site on Youtube underscores how broad-band user-controlled multi-media can make a difference -- as we all know now, in the age of Youtube, you don't have to watch the Discovery Channel or other network shows anymore to learn, for example, about the Zen Electric car shown here.

My German wife hastens to point out, however, that we must always take what we read or see in non-peer reviewed media with a grain for salt -- yes the Zen Electric car is calming and cool, and yes we did travel to Cairo using many types of vehicles, but, she'll tell you " T.H. does NOT speak 6 languages fluently -- his English is great, his Spanish and French adequate, his Arabic and Indonesian functional, but as for his German ... well let's just say he'll even have trouble talking to his newborn son...!".

So das ist wahr, ja gut -- don't trast everizing ju zee on ze jutube.

(And anyway -- note to ze Frau -- "Unser Baby wird mit seinen Haenden sprechen weil ich Ameslan (American Sign Language) gelernt habe, und, wie unsere Freunde Brian und Ashley Transeau es mit ihrer Tochter Kia erfahren haben, koennen wir auf diese Weise viel frueher mit unserem Kind kommunizieren. Und wenn wir wollen, auch mit Schimpansen und Delphinen! Na gut, ich gebe zu, auch diese Saetze sind nur mit Hilfe meiner Frau entstanden... gewusst wie:-)

I do, however, solemnly swear that sometime in the next decade, before my son turns 10, I WILL be fluent in his mother tongue, and the others of the countries we do our work in. I think it was more of a perception of the producers, being Americans and thus surrounded by monolingual citizens, that because I can at least get by in those 6 languages without needing a dictionary, I am, in a sense "fluid" if not "fluent" in "den anderen Sprachen."

In other cases, as in the video Frank DiMassa and I created for the Tree Hugger Video Contest shown below, everything about me is delibrately a big fat greek wedding of a lie: I don't live in a big Sonoma County house with a swimmng pool, I haven't talked with a New York "Sopranos" accent since graduating from Dobbs Ferry High School back in 1980, and I don't got no SUV neither -- in fact I don't gots no car at all (I do, however, have the electric motor for the one I'm gonna build, sitting in a box in the garage).

But part of the power and joy of dramatic multi-media and its ability to impact social change is, to quote Paul Virilio again, "the energy resulting from the effect of varying degrees of speed of movement upon ocular, optical and optico-electronic perceptions -- the state of the art simulation industries put this third form of energy (cinematic energy) into action in the form of a new driving force -- the cinematic machine."

The cinematic machine's energy has been used by propagandists (call them advertisers, politicians, multi-nationals) for a century to shape society, and youtubers are challenging that hegemony today.

As an academic and a scientist I am honor bound to caution everybody about the hype that the simulation industries (call them media outlets, personal or corporate) can create and the misperceptions they can generate. We need peer-review. We need solid references and bibliographic trails. We need statistical data and empirical, testable results. We need proof.
But as an artist and a cinephile I also believe in the importance of not misrepresenting reality, but re-presenting reality -- presenting it again, in a new way, coloring it through honest but subjective filters of personal perception -- how WE personally see others, how WE personally see ourselves, how WE personally see the world.

Like the main character in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", if in our day job we are a simple clerk, but in our night dreams we are a winged hero, who is to say which of these personas is the one that will help us through the crises that befall us when the world goes mad? Which should we bank on?

Irving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" explored the dynamics of our relationship to the outside world, and Eric Berne's books on transactional analysis "Games People Play" and What do you Say After You Say Hello" introduced many of us to the concept of the theatre of the self and how we wear our personalities and personas like T-shirts broadcasting to the world.

With YouTube we have the chance to think about that presentation of self and how we want to represent our attitudes toward "reality" , and for the first time we have at our fingertips (our digits!) the same "digital" tools that big Media used to manipulate those images and perceptions. The power of cinematic energy is now on our PCs.

I think it would be a mistake to limit people concerned with our environment and with social change to strive only to tell "dry" tales of supposed factual integrity. Ever since Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions we have digested the idea that we should mistrust the conclusions of scientific establishments as much as those of any establishment. It is up to every individual, inspired by texts, sounds, images and other third party experiences, to investigate the truth of the representation for themselves.

We must remind ourselves that while "the 'real world' pre-exists and determines representation", that representation does not portray the real world in unmediated fashion.

Annette Kuhn, (related to Thomas Kuhn?) in Alien Zone (p. 53)

"takes issue with the view that the relationship between [these] two terms (the representation and the real) is one of unilinear determination. In critical theory, this position is expressed in certain kinds of attitudes towards the instrumentality of cultural productions; in particular the view that representations may have effects of their own [and] can themselves impinge on the realm of the social.
"For example, the real-representation relation can be regarded as dialectical - interactive and potentially contradictory - rather than simply reflective. Suc a view implies that representation possesses some degree of autonomy, and can thus be active in teh production of the 'real', as well as vice versa. This has implications for our understanding of the nature of meaning, of how processes of signification work in representations. If representations are no longer seen as simply mirroring the real, then the production of meaning can be regarded as an ACTIVITY, and representations understood as systems of meaning. If meanings are produced, then the questions for cultural theory must be: How are they produced, and with what consequences? What, in cultural terms, does signification do?
"In producing meanings, representations may in effect shape our understanding of the world we live in. This is a process of ideology, which in one of its several definitions is understood precisely as a society's representations of itself in and for itself, and the ways in which people both live out and produce those representations. In a divided society, of course , ideologies can be heterogeneous and meanings contested -- and indeed ideology is commonly associated with power and hegemony, which suggests that meaning is never neutral, but always caught up in relations of power. At the same time, though, ideology works to conceal this fact from us. If meaning presents itself as already there, immanent and not constructed, then representation in a way invites us to adopt a reflectionist stance. Ideology, in consequence, rarely proclaims itself as such, but is invisible, naturalized. Unravelling the work of ideology calls first of all for it to be denaturalized."

We do live in a divided society, and the things we post on youtube are not neutral, even when the camera is pointing to a physical object like a solar panel or an electric car. By becoming the framers of reality we are inserting our ideology.

I think, however, that the more people produce media on their PCs and share them, the more real media literacy and a tacit understanding of the process of unravelling the work of ideology will organically take place. When I taught film-making and animation and media literacy back in the early 90's as part of our inner-city program for at-risk youth, as soon as the kids made their first videos they started looking at television in a new way. They would say "hey, we were able to manipulate the viewer using editing, pacing, music and special effects -- how do we know what we seein' on TV ain't done the same way? Man, you can't trust nothin' these days -- hell, if I can use photoshop to change a picture of me and what I was doin' you damn sure know them politicians are doin' the same thing..."

When, instead of being consumers of media, we all become "pro-sumers" (to use Alvin Toffler's excellent term) we will see a real (R)Evolution in Evironmental Education and Practice.
Caveat emptor will always be wise advice.
But "Caveat productor" will be our new caution to those who traditionally controlled the images and narratives we were forced in the past to consume -- there is competition in the market place, and other channels for us to make our discoveries about the world in.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Video in the Classroom: Accelerated Learning for all of us when students share their discoveries in environmental science

Tonight we at Solar CITIES are celebrating the publication of Andy Posner's Fuel Cell Video! Andy, as many of you know, is a Solar CITIES founding board member and Tree Hugger contributor and his Fuel Cell video has started to be promoted by major environmental organizations.

Heck, I can remember when Andy first cottoned to the idea of using multi-media to represent his passion for environmental science.

When Andy Posner was still an undergraduate at CalState Northridge in 2003 he used to ride his bicycle all the way down to UCLA to audit my Global Environmentalism Seminar with his friend Danny Barth, who was enrolled in the class. In my UCLA seminar, the third part of the interdisciplinary Global Environment Class run every year as a freshman cluster by Keith Stolzenbach , Randall Crane, Richard Turco, and Gregors Hodgson, I demanded of the students that their final project be a multi-media report depicting the kind of environment they would like to live in. During class labs they were assisted in mastering video and audio editing programs like Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro, and asked to write scripts that were technically accurate (reflecting the environmental science they were learning) but emotionally engaging and narratively compelling. In essence they were to take what they were learning and follow the dictum of the Pulitzer Prize winning scientist Rene Dubos (who is credited with inventing "Think Globally, Act Locally", and whom I spoke with at his St. John the Divine Church lecture on urban ecology when I was in high school) : "Creating a Desirable Future Requires more than foresight; IT DEMANDS VISION."

The beauty of audio-visual technologies, I taught my students, is that they give us the ability to share our vision. Visually. And now, with non-euclidean interactive multi-media, they enable us to demonstrate our foresight with five senses! (what, you've never licked your computer screen, inhaled the sweet aroma of your overclocked CPU burning up? Okay, okay, THREE senses -- with a dual-shock controller -- but five senses is coming soon, and it sounded better, "foresight with five sense", nice and alliterative, so I couldn't resist!)

Andy trekked all the way to UCLA, and did all the homework in a class he would never get formal credit for, because we offered the chance to learn environmental science with an interactive audio-visual-tactile twist that encouraged students to en-vision and embed the vision of their own eutopia so it could be shared with the world. And that was before You Tube!

A couple of years later, while studying abroad in Granada, Spain, Andy and Danny came to intern with us at the Wadi Environmental Science Center built in an olive grove in the desert on the Alexandria Desert Road between Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea. There I was continuing my mission to bring multi-media based science education to impoverished Egyptian youth, working with friends from iEARN, the International Education and Resource Network.
While their visit was brief it was impactful. Having two former students of mine come all the way from California and Spain to share their experience and enthusiasm for learning film-making as an integral part of science education helped galvanize a group of Egyptian children and teenagers from villages and urban slums to produce local award winning documentaries on the environmental issues they faced. One of those videos, called "Protect the Nile" was later taken by the kids themsleves to present at a UNESCO conference in Sharm El Shaykh and to the World Water Conference in Mexico.

It was during the making of that video that we met the young iEARN youth instructor Mahmoud Dardir who, equally inspired by the vision of giving the kids on their personal environmental justice mission a face and a voice and a chance to tell things their way, became one of Solar CITIES founding members and coordinators. Later, when Andy came back to Egypt for the second time with his fiance Michele Finnel to make his own personal documentary about the Solar CITIES work, he interviewed Mahmoud and put this young Egyptian from the poor village of Abu Nimrus, onto the world stage on Youtube.

The point of all this is just this:

The glamour of Hollywood and TV, much of which obtains from the power of giving personal perspectives on the world the specular (and spectacular) leger-de-main of focussed framing, has long attracted some of the best and brightest minds. But it has too often put them in the service of telling stories and delivering images that encourage us to continue exploiting our resources in an unsustainable fashion merely to amp up and sustain our status.

Meanwhile, serious minds studying science and engineering and political science have been discouraged from mixing the arts into their studies, as though the zeitgeist conspirators somehow knew that you can truly divide and conquer by cleaving the arts and the sciences in twain.

I have always been a champion of giving environmental science students with a passion for advocacy the opportunity to learn multi-media production techniques in my science classes and that is why I am so psyched and proud of Andy for reaching a large audience with his videos, each one better than the last as he grows in the art of film-making put to the service of environmental science.

Back when I taught Biospherics (an amalgam of chemistry, biology and environmental science) at Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles in 1989, I brought my ghetto students on weekends to the Beverly Hills Community Access Television to learn how to bring their textbooks to life with our "Melodic-Mnemonics: Science Education thru Music Video" program. One of those students, Robert Jones, is now a television producer in California, another, Damian, worked on the special effects and animation for the film Godzilla (he used to animate dinosaurs in my biology class!)

Throughout the 90s we went on to build the D.E.M.M.O. Productions Program (Digital Engineering for Multi-Media Occupations) training inner-city science and vocational students (mostly so called "gang kids") how to "give up the real" , using dramatic storytelling techniques to give marginalized kids a voice and an opportunity to interpret their discoveries in science in their own way.

This program, begun at Jefferson High School in the Harlem of Central Los Angeles, culminated in a program for at risk youth at Hollywood High where, in partnership with Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Jet Propulsion Labs, NASA and the U.S. Army, we built a small production studio out of recycled movie sets where at-risk youth could make films about their future participation in space missions and the possible creation of "Marsville" - a eutopian sustainable community on Mars (part of an ongoing NASA education program) that demands students understand the environmental biospherics of the earth intimately before attempting anything as ambitious as terraforming our dead and inhospitable sister planet.

In all these programs working with youth, particularly at-risk youth who must survive in compromised and degraded environments, the combination of dramatic storytelling technology and serious study of environmental issues has proven to be a winner.

When formerly disenfranchised young men from the ghetto stop hanging out with gang bangers and drug dealers and start turning their homes into eco-homes, and when they start sharing their vision and achievements on youtube, like my former multi-media student Al Silva, who formed the organization "Solar South Central" with his friend Ramon Navarro, and edit their videos in a self-built solar powered production studio, you know the times they are a changin'!

Now that we have youtube and blogspot and twitter and a host of technological assets for getting the word out about what kind of desirable future YOU want, we should be able to fix things here on Earth in short order.

No longer can one say, as former Senator Paul Simon said to me in Damascus, Syria when he was promoting his book "Tapped Out, The Coming Water Crisis" years ago,

"Fuel Cells as a source of domestic electricity and fresh water generation? Never heard of that! We politicians depend on young people like you who understand technology to advise us on such things and nobody in Washington that I know has ever talked about such applications for fuel cells! As far as those of us in Washington representing you know, fuel cells are only things being planned for automobiles. I would love to learn more about the applications you brought up in my lecture."

While at that time I had to physically pull a demonstration fuel cell (Skip Staats' Eco-Soul unit) out of my backpack (to the consternation of the Syrian Security Guards, who thought it was a bomb) to show the Senator what a regenerative unitary fuel cell looks like and how it works, a young person like Andy Posner today can now simply put a compelling video on you tube and send his senator a link via email.

Seeing is believing. Soon, with integrated physics engines and simulation in our presentations, we will be able to invite people to safely walk up to the virtual fuel cell power station and try it out for themselves, and view the visual affadavit that proves that it also exists and works in the real world.

Thank you Andy, for spending the time to document and share your discoveries, inspiring others to bring film-making into science classes, and most of all, congratulations, again, for getting your work discovered and out to a larger audience!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Digital Urban: A Revolution in Development Praxis

"What we are witnessing here is more important than might appear... After the long, long development of 'dynamic' moving vehicles, we are now entering the era of the static vehicle: an audiovisual vehicle, vector of apparent motion, of that sense of inertia induced by travelling vast distances -- which is a substitute for physical displacement that has become more or less redundant with the immediacy of tele-communications technologies. Hence the spontaneous generation of videodiscs, and of interactive screens simulating visits to all sorts of places -- cities, stately homes, museums. Simulator of a thoroughly eccentic course, the statis of [the computer screen] becomes a palpable metaphor for time travel, a time capsule for movement without displacement, a temporality of running on the spot."
-- Paul Virilio, 1990 p. 170 in Alien Zone, edited by Annette Kuhn.

In my last post I introduced the Solar CITIES Tour of Cairo, and put a link to a .kmz file that could help you plan your trip and navigate using Google Earth. But even if you can't come and visit the real Cairo, there are powerful reasons for why you might think of visiting Cairo in virtual reality, with Digital Earth Earth technology, and getting involved on the screen, if not on the scene.

Here I will make the argument for why it is so important to get the world community on-line helping to complete the Digital Urban landscape in detail.

When I was at Harvard my professor E.O. Wilson impressed upon us the need to use the computer to catalouge every living thing to stave off what he called "The Eremozoic Era" -- the awful age of loneliness that this great extincition spasm is plunging us into. Years later, when I worked as GIS/GPS coordinator for the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, we presented our work plotting all the vegetation at the Zoo and along jungle trails in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize at numerous Association of Zoological Horticulturists (AZH) conferences and met with Dr. Peter Raven, who is E.O. Wilson's partner in the biodiversity cataloguing and mapping effort, to see how we in the zoo and garden world could better assist in the effort.

In order to preserve life on earth, we not only had to begin mapping the biological landscape, but the hardscape of the built environment as well, for as humans and our sprawl take up more and more of the habitable earth we need to find creative ways to use land and space so that multiple uses can coexist in a non-competitive way.

The current debate over biofuels production and land use, and the furor over the placement of wind generators and solar electric fields, is intimately linked to the need to know where all the life-forms are, who and what they are, and how they can co-exist in time and space. For this we need the kind of virtual time and space travel machine Paul Virilio talked about. And that machine exists today on your computer.

Just as the SETI project helps us link up all our computers to lend processing power to the effort to search for life elsewhere, I'm calling for us to link all our computers together to make the built environment more livable here on Earth and use digital urban technologies to construe new ways of using our cities, particularly all that wasted but solar inundated roof space.

I used to look down on the planet with fascination and dismay every time I rode in an airplane, marvelling at how much surface area there was available for growing food, producing power and creating wildlife habitat all over our cities and suburbs. Now I do it voyeuristically in Google Earth, jealously eyeing warehouses and shopping malls and parking lots (oh the parking lots!!) and wishing I could paint solar panels and vegetation and windparks and biodiversity hotspots on top of all that tar and cement.

Well, now we can.

We can model the city and the sprawl and get up on those roofs and figure out how to use them best, and share our results with others, build consensus and then get out there and DO IT.

Last time I was at UCLA, advancing to candidacy and applying for the fellowship I'm now on, I had an inspiring couple of meetings with my professors Robin Liggett and Donald Shoup.

They shared with me ideas and papers they had written about the virtual modeling of urban environments -- integrated environments for urban simulation -- and told me how they had used projections of these simulations on a big screen in planning meetings with the mayors office in L.A. to demonstrate how one could green the city without simultaneously providing cover or hideouts for criminals. This was particularly important in ghetto areas where there is a paucity of much needed tree cover and vegetation but reluctance to invest in beautification. As we were installing Second Life on his office computer, Don Shoup said "all we had to do was change the species of trees in the simulation during the demonstration until everyone could agree which trees or shrubs could be placed where."

The subtlety of the approach ended the usual binary division between yay sayers and nay sayers -- it is hard to argue with something you can see, walk around, and test at different times of day and night and under different lighting conditions. They even showed what greening the city would look like from the mayors window.

At the time when Liggett and Shoup and Jepson were doing all this landmark work in the mid 90s, such tools were not available to the general public. But now that we have Google Earth and Google Sketchup and Second Life and a host of online multiplayer gaming environments connecting kids and adults from internet cafes in the slums of Cairo to computer labs in first rate universities, it is time to devote our design attention to bringing the digital urban to the masses, and what better way than in the form of MASSIVE MULTIPLAYER ONLINE ROLE-PLAYING GAMES?

When Karl Marx dreamed about putting the means of production into the hands of the masses, he couldn't have conceived of the possibility of the MMORPG as a gentle, nonviolent tool for eutopian revolution, and I am sure that the fact that so many MMORPGs do involve simulated violence frightens a lot of policy makers who can't see the bright side of detailed interactive models of the ghettoes of places like L.A. or Miami or Cairo (many only know them as the backdrops for Grand Theft Auto).

But the Digital Urban is here, and for those of you who want to participate in this (R)Evolution, there is an excellent blog filled with tutorials and stunning examples over at in England. It is one of our particular favorites.

From DigitalUrban's site I have recently learned how to take the architectural models of Darb Al Ahmar provided to Solar CITIES by Kareem Ibrahim, Naveen George and Mahmoud Qotb, export them from ArchiCAD 11 as .obj files, import them into Blender and retexture them, combine them with Google Sketchup Models and Google 3DWarehouse models of solar panels, set collision properties and bounding boxes, export them as .NIF mesh files with .DDS texture file associates, import them into the Elder Scrolls Construction Kit, and save them as .esp expansion pack files to be opened in Oblivion.

Now I am able to have my avatar walk up the ancient stone stairs through the Ayubbid wall at the base of Al Azhar park into Darb El Ahmar, climb up into building 72 across from the Darb Shughlan Community Center Complex, inspect the solar hot water system we have built on the roof, and, by pressing the T key and setting the slider, see how it looks at 10 in the morning or at 4 in the afternoon or any time of day or night because the game engine MODELS THE SOLAR CYCLE.

Yes, that's right, without buying an expensive SOLAR PATH FINDER or visiting our construction sites every hour of the day to see if we are getting shading or sun, I can now march my avatar up onto the virtual roof of the building models the AKTC architects have given me and WATCH. I can watch the shadows from walls or adjacent buildings every hour over 8 hours and do it all in less than 5 minutes.

Now THIS is a revolution! When I had gone to Zamalek with Roberto to see if we could put solar panels on his roof I had to get a boab (security guard) to let me into the tallest building across the street three times during the day so I climb up to the roof and look down on Robertos apartment. It took all day to determine that the movement of shadows would not favor any location on his roof to justify the cost of a solar hot water system.

If the Solar CITIES team has to spend a day every time they want to assess the potential of a roof for solar power we will never get the job done. Even if we could justify the expense of buying solar pathfinders we would still have to commit to going out to every site and talking the residents into letting us on their roofs and besides the time and energy that takes we face the dilemma of disappointing them when, after convincing them to let us invade their property with the promise of this great technology, we have to inform them that their roof is not suitable because their neighbor decided to add an extra story to his building for his son's marriage.

We have seen horrible altercations break out between neighbors when we have done this and are reminded that in ancient Rome there were laws against blocking your neighbor's sunlight.

To avoid all that and pre-determine the suitability of a roof for solar energy, all we, as urban planners, need now do is take the superb models the architects give us, bring them into Oblivion and virtually climb up there and look. And nobody has to lose time or heart.

It truly is a revolution, this Digital Urban thing.

And I invite all of you -- and yes I also mean you, the gamers, the modders, the Second Lifers and Google Earthers and Sketcheruppers, to get involved in this revolution with us and help us get this digital earth modelled in detail fast -- with the wartime urgency Al Gore challenged us to engage in to fight Global Warming, so we can get the digital urban simulating out of the way and get out there and turn all that real urban roofspace into the powerhouses (literal "POWER-HOUSES) that are going to end our obsession with and addiction to oil.

Seminal papers to read on the subject from UCLA:

Jepson, W., Liggett, R., and Friedman, S., "Virtual Modeling of Urban Environments," Presence, Volume 5.1, 72-86, Winter 1996.

Liggett, R. and Jepson, W., "An Integrated Environment for Urban Simulation," Environment and Planning b, Vol. 22, 291-305, 1995.

Liggett, R. and Jepson, W.," Implementing an Integrated Environment for Urban Simulation: CAD, Visualization and GIS," In A. Koutamanis, H. Timmermans, and I. Vermeulen (eds.) Visual Data Bases in Architecture: Recent Advances in Design and Decision Making, Avebury, Aldershot, U.K., 145-160, 1995.

Liggett, R. and Jepson, W., "Use of Real Time Visual Simulation Technology for Urban Planning/Design Decision Making," Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Computers in Urban Planning and Management, Melbourne, Australia, 51-64, July, 1995.

Liggett, R., Friedman, S., and Jepson, W.,"Interactive Design/Decision Making in a Virtual Urban World: Visual Simulation and GIS," Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual ESRI User Conference. Palm Springs, CA, May, 1995.

Jepson, W., Liggett, R., and Friedman, S.,"An Environment for Real-time Urban Simulation," Proceedings of the Symposium on Interactive 3D Graphics, Monterey, CA, ACM SIGGRAPH, ACM Press, 165-166, 1995.

The International Conservation Trail - Extending the Methodology: The Role of L. A. Zoo's GPS/GIS/Database and Mapping System in Real World Conservation Initiatives by T. H. Culhane
in Branching out : AAZK 29th national conference (held jointly with the Association of Zoological Horticulture), October 6-10, 2002

American Association of Zoo Keepers. Conference (29th : 2002 : Kansas City, Mo.)
ISBN: 1929672098