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!"

Friday, December 26, 2008

With today's technology we should have already solved yesterday's problems

On December 10th, 2008, The BBC reported a "Muted Celebration for Computing".  The headline read, ''The 40 years since the "dawn of interactive computing" represent a lost opportunity which has been hijacked by commercialism''.

I reproduce the article below, placing what I think are the most important quotes in bold, and will argue afterward that it is incumbent upon us, the technology USERS, to employ today's powerful computing technology for achieving positive social and environmental ends, or we will have nobody but ourselves to blame for the misery and suffering and loss of life and biodiversity that our folly is creating.

I will also explain how I am preparing to use the new Ipod Touch 1G that I got for Christmas in our Solar CITIES work in Cairo and India.

First, the article that inspired this blog post:

"Muted celebration for computing
By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

The 40 years since the "dawn of interactive computing" represent a lost opportunity which has been hijacked by commercialism.
The claim was made at an event to celebrate the anniversary of the world debut of personal and interactive computing which took place in San Francisco on Dec 9 1968.
At what was dubbed "the mother of all demos", inventor Doug Engelbart also showed off the first computer mouse.
"There's been an explosion of technology but it hasn't reached the level of potential he envisioned in the early 1960's" Mr Engelbart's daughter Christina told the BBC.
"The vision people have for why they are building this technology is more towards commercialisation and maybe entertainment and getting documents to look nicer and crank them out faster.

"But the vision dad (Doug Engelbart) started out with was how can you make people more dramatically effective at how they work collectively to solve important problems in order to make the world a better place?"
"That vision of how do you harness the collective intellect in very powerful ways is missing from the paradigms in how things are being developed today," said Ms Englebart who is the executive director of the Engelbart Institute.
She said the kind of problems this approach would help today include things like world poverty, infectious diseases, clean technology and world hunger.

Doug Engelbart
Mr Engelbart said "the better we get, the better we get at getting better."
"It really is a race because if these problems are increasing in complexity exponentially and if we don't find exponential solutions as to how we work together to solve these problems, then we are sunk," stated Ms Engelbart.

"Innovation just stopped"
Back in 1968, Mr Engelbart's mission at the Stanford Research Institute in developing the technology was very clear. He wanted to solve humanity's most important problems by using computers to improve communication and collaboration.
At the time computing centred on mainframe machines with their punch cards, batch processing and time sharing as opposed to Mr Engelbart's notion of a personal computer and a new way of working.
At the anniversary, held at Stanford University, some of those involved in the project expressed quite vocally their own disappointment that four decades on from that seminal moment in computer history, there is not more to celebrate.
"It wasn't how are we going to sell this technology. It was about let's make the most useful thing we can possibly make," said Jeff Rulifson of the philosophy that drove the team."

Let's reiterate the key point:  Engelbart  "wanted to solve humanity's most important problems by using computers to improve communication and collaboration."  He wanted to "harness the collective intellect".  

And that is also the mission of Solar CITIES -- "Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems"

Five years ago we brought our laptop multimedia computers into the slums and informal areas of Cairo and showed photos and diagrams and quicktime movies I had taken of solar hot water production factories at work so that our colleagues, who had never had the chance to visit a solar factory, could work with us to figure out how we could build our own systems out of recycled materials.  At the time the laptop was the best, most "nomadic" technology available for "improving communication and collaboration".  Then, about 3 years ago I was able to obtain a Video Ipod (30 GB) and figured out how to use a shareware program called Floola to turn it into a portable harddrive/media player so that I could download those videos, and photos and diagrams and carry the ipod with me to our building sites and community meetings.  One thing I sorely missed, however, with the Ipod, was the inability to get on-line when we needed additional information (such as the best angle to position a solar collector in Cairo -- for that we had to hunt down a local internet cafe) or when we needed applications and tools such as spreadsheets and scientific calculators.  For that I had to rely on my HP Ipac palmtop computer, but when it's battery died and I found there was no way to replace it, and couldn't afford a new one, the party was over.

Now, with my new Christmas present -- the Ipod Touch (1st generation), I'm back in business.

The inspiration for getting this new gadget came from film-maker James Dean Conklin and nuclear biophysicist Alan Bigelow whose environmental activism rock band "Solar Punch" I will be joining in Mumbai in mid-January to do a series of U.S. State Department sponsored "musical goodwill ambassador tours" and environmental workshops throughout India with the IYCN (India Youth Climate Network).   When James and I were in California recently working on renewable energy educational materials for the Frank DiMassa Utility Consulting company, James showed me all the marvelous utilities he and Alan have loaded on to their Ipod Touch units for the goodwill tour.  Besides a host of great apps for doing measurement and translation, James and Alan even had an electric theramin and other synthesizer apps that they use in Solar Punch to create on-stage music.  For Solar Punch the Ipod Touch is not only a Star Trek like communicator, it is a bonafide musical instrument -- recharged by a small portable solar panel, of course.  Beam me up, Scotty!

Now Solar CITIES, like our brothers in Solar Punch, considers these devices an essential part of the toolkit for goodwill and welfare-enhancing sustainable development outreach.  Of course, the hardware has to be loaded with the appropriate software and accompanied by well-educated, well intentioned wetware! The choice we face is using these gadgets as toys or tools for our own personal gain, or vital communicators that enable us to boldly go where no one has gone before -- Twittering against terrorism in Mumbai, sharing how-to videos on self-help home power technologies with landless peasants and shantytown dwellers, connecting community catalysts integrating technologies for industrial ecology systems...

First, of course, I had to make my Ipod Solar CITIES ready.  This meant upgrading the firmware/software to version 2.2 (which cost 10 dollars).  And then I had to "Jailbreak" the ipod by installing QuickPwn and the Cydia Installer.  And to be able to use the Ipod Touch as an harddisk, from and to which I could drag files without using ITunes, I had to install  OpenSSH and a program called BossPrefs on the Ipod (through Cydia) and then install an open source program called MacFuse on my Macbook Pro, and a GUI to use it called MacFusion, so that I can access my Ipod through OpenSSH using a wifi connection. The best tutorial for that is found here:

In order to be able to encode videos I had created on renewable energy technologies so that I can show them to my colleagues in Cairo  in the field on my Ipod touch, I had to install a video encoder called FFmpegX (along with its binaries mencoder, mpeg2enc and mplayer -- btw don't get confused by the strange garbage you get when you click on the link to the mpeg2enc binary -- right click on the link instead and do a "save as" without an extension. When you launch FFmpegX it will ask for the location of that file and you will be fine).

And finally, so that I can Skype with colleagues around the world from the Ipod Touch (from Al Azhar Park, which has free wifi, or from any Egyptian McDonalds or Quiznos!) , I had to install an application on the Ipod called "Fring" and purchase the IVoice Pro microphone and speaker. Basically what I have done is turn my Ipod Touch 1st Generation into an Iphone, without needing to buy a phone contract.  And for a sustainable development worker  like me who works with the world's poor communities, is poor himself, and has to roam around the globe but can't afford roaming rates, this is a wonderful thing indeed.  See for details.

All this took an entire day and was fairly complicated, involving a lot of tutorial reading and experimentation. The best resource was the website

The result:  A jailbroken ("hacked") Ipod Touch that I can  use in the field to show videos and files about renewable energy technology, and take to anywhere that has wireless and surf the web with my colleagues for more info, or make skype calls to experts when all else fails (as if we were playing "Who wants to be a millionaire").

Solar CITIES Project 2:  Urban biogas

Already I have been able to put the following youtube videos on my Ipod using Firefox's "Video Download Helper" and the FFmpegX (yes, yes, I know, the Ipod Touch has Youtube on it, and I have bookmarked the videos I want to show, but to use that feature you have to be on line, and in the ghettoes where I work there isn't any wifi so...).

 How am I intending to show these videos to our fellow stakeholders in the slums, now that I have converted them to mp4s and put them on my Ipod Touch?  Unlike the 2nd Gen Ipod Touch, Gen 1 doesn't have a speaker.  The screen is a decent size (the ipod Nano I used to use -- which was a gift from James Dean and his newlywed wife, fellow film-maker Elisa Zazerra,  when they came to spend their honeymoon documenting our work with the Zabaleen --  made a curious sight  with crowds gathering in the streets of Manshieyet Nasser to peer down and wonder what it is we were trying to show on the tiny screen!) but still not good enough to make a demonstration to a workshop group, particular with language barriers and illiteracy standing in the way.

To solve this problem I am bringing the Hama AS-63 portable speaker system for larger gatherings; the IVoice Pro I ordered for doing Skype on the Ipod also has a small speaker as well as a microphone for more intimate presentations.  And to get the image onto a nearbye wall or screen, I'm bringing the 3M MPR0110 Handheld Projector, a portable data show no larger than the ipod itself, which uses LEDs to cast an image as large as 50 inches anywhere I shine it.

The beauty, of course, is that all of these devices, as Circus Guy and Solar Punch and Solar CITIES have shown on numerous goodwill tours, can be easily solar powered using our foldable Sunlinq CIGS cell solar panels.

We can also use the Solio pocket solar charger that our Solar CITIES colleague and Huffington Post writer  Andy Posner carries on his bicycle trips and President Obama uses, and the SolarStyle charger I picked up in Germany to power my cell phone.

The youtube and ipod revolution isn't going to have the impact we want it to if all we use it for is to share music videos and other "bread and circus" forms of entertainment with other privileged kids around the world, patting ourselves on the back because we can afford to use the "information superhighway" to reproduce trivia around the rich pockets of the interconnected globe.

If we want to make a real change, we must use today's mobile, nomadic computing power to get information into places where illiteracy and lack of access are still major barriers to development.

The technology is here -- it's available at "Best Buy".  Now let's put our best foot forward by taking it to "the other 90%" on the other side of the digital divide so that 40 years from now we aren't still saying, "we didn't do our best with what we bought. We could have done better."


Andy said...

TH, would you mind if i wrote an article for the huffington post in which i discussed your struggles adapting the Ipod toward making the world a better place? i want to argue for designing every day products--computers, software, ipods, gps units, etc--to be adaptable as much to wealthy consumers as to the poor in the US and in the developing world. i'd like to mention you by name and link to your blog and discuss your work as well. do you mind?

T.H. Culhane said...

I dont' mind at all, in fact I would be delighted. We need to move fast so that another generation doesn't abuse the potential of our technology and condemn so many people and other lifeforms to unnecessary struggle and suffering. I have now downloaded so may great apps for the ipod (scientific calculators, unit converters, counters, data loggers etc.) that, with the videos on building low tech climate solutions, it is going to be quite a useful field tool. I only wish (and wait for) a time when these units have built in infra-red temperature sensors (so I don't have to use my pocket digisense unit), light sensors (to calculate lumens) volt and ammeters, a compass, and other diagnostic data collection tools. It DOES have a carpenters level (because of its gravity sensor, very useful for setting up solar panels at the right angle) an Arabic translation service (only available when connected through wi-fi unfortunately) and an Arabic-English copy of the Qur'an (with audio, searchable!), so it is going to be really cool. But I dream of a portable "everything device" and suspect that will come soon. Woudn't it be cool if it also measured salinity and turbidity and told us if there was contamination in the water? That is the kind of thing you might put in the wish list in your article. And yes, after all the frustrations I've had dealing with development problems, tell everyone I said so. We know what is needed, and it isn't more apps that let us play PacMan while waiting at the airport!

Marcel said...


Hi T.H.

I've just received an AV cable for my iPhone and recently heard about these LED based video projectors and have just made the connection you are describing here. What a powerful tool!

I think we discussed a while back about taking uTube and similar content to the streets but of course the biggest problem is power. No More!

Glad to see you're using the tools!

Love to you and your family.


Marcel said...

Oh, btw, check out MxTube through Cydia... it downloads youTube videos onto your iPod/iPhone. It also gives you choices on download quality (wifi, edge) .
Zero faff.

May I ask how much the 3M beamer was? I've seen Aiptek do one...



T.H. Culhane said...

Hi Marcel,
So great to hear from you and to know that, as ever, we are on the same page! Re: the mini beamer, it looks like everything is always more expensive in GB; I paid $357.30 (with tax, 323.99 without) for the 3M unit through Best Buy (had to order on line creating a business account though; not available in stores. It is called "BestBuyforBusiness, BBFB."
I suspect they will come down in price now that there is competition from Aiptek. I'll let you know how it field tests!

T.H. Culhane said...

Aha, great tip Marcel. As a Cydia user you must also be a jailbreaker! Cool! Thanks for saving me a step and thus making it that much easier to get these instructional materials in the hands of the underprivileged!

T.H. Culhane said...

Wow! Hey Marcel, I just used MxTube to download a video called "mothers of invention" about women in China doing biogas as I head out to go to the airport to head to Cairo. Normally I would have said, "I don't have time to do this, so it will be too bad for my colleagues, who won't get to see this" because it would take to long to download to my laptop and convert. But now, thanks to you, I simply donwloaded the file straight to my ipodtouch. Wow! You have earned the thanks of all of us at Solar CITIES!

Marcel said...

Really glad that's already been of use to you! I hope you have an excellent trip. You have my prayers.

I'll check out that video.

God bless


Unknown said...

i totally agree to this blog and i think wat they are doing is right .............

coolkhush said...

im really proud of them coz thye hav made our country proud so they desreve ever part of the name and fame .........

coolkhush said...

hey does any one know wera re they haeding now on ???? i have no clue ....

Unknown said...

how do we preserve our enviornment ????????