Monthly Archives: May 2010

Getting better informed about nanodispersants and oil spills

I was saddened and discouraged to read that the ‘top kill’ solution for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn’t work. I can only imagine how people who are directly affected feel. As this crisis continues, I begin to  better appreciate how interconnected we are on this planet.

Specifically, I’ve come across a local (Vancouver, Canada) debate about oil spills and liability. One of the daily newspapers and a news station recently featured information about a local marine oil spill (from a Chevron refinery) which occasioned debate on a Vancouver civic blog about environmentalists, hyprocrisy, the desire for oil, and reflections on crime, punishment, and what’s occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. has a May 29, 2010 posting (Oil refinery irony) which makes some harsh points about environmentalists going to check the local oil spill via a motorboat. The points are true and the option suggested, canoeing to the site, is difficult for me to grasp as being a serious option which drove home for me not just the dependency on oil but also the unconscious reliance on how and the speed at which news is conveyed.

The piece managed to attract a very focused and  succinct summary about BP’s culpability. First, the quote which mobilized the comment (from the May 29, 2010 posting),

As Vancouver technologist and Twitter fiend Tim Bray said yesterday:

Unlike apparently everyone, I’m not pissed at BP. You gonna live on fossil fuel, shit gonna happen. BP drew the short straw.

It’s certainly concise (how could it be otherwise with a 140 character limit?) and, I think, true in its way. We do live on fossil fuel and as the sources diminish we will be extracting that fuel in more complex and dangerous ways. Still, Sean Bickerton pointed out in his comment (May 29, 2010 posting on the CityCaucus blog) a few issues with BP,

While our need for oil drives exploration in more and more technologically challenging environments, it’s not demand that produced the worst environmental disaster in American history – that would be the negligence, fraud, incompetence, and greed of a reckless BP that:

* bypassed even minimal safety precautions

* used the cheapest casing and sealants known to have exploded on other rigs

* ignored clear safety concerns of their own crews and engineers

* ignored the fact their own well was out of control, insisting underlings cover up the explosive gas coming up the pipe

* refused to undertake adequate testing of the blowout valve despite known problems

* had no backup plan or equipment in place despite mounting dangers on the rig.

We have every right to insist that risky exploration and drilling be done to the highest environmental and safety standards, and that companies put their worker’s safety and the environment before gouging another penny of profit out of the most lucrative business in the world.

Whether a sin of commission or omission, If terrorists had done what BP has done, killing eleven workers on that rig and fouling the entire Gulf Coast and much of the Gulf of Mexico, the full might of the international community would have been mobilized to attack the entity responsible and all of their assets would have been seized.

Where crimes have been committed, those responsible should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the list other than to observe that with a catastrophe of this size, more than one thing went wrong and this list covers major points.

Meanwhile, the debate over the attempts to mitigate the damage have fostered a controversy over a solution that claimed to be nanotechnology-enabled. Andrew Shneider at AOL News has written a piece, which has some good points and some misinformation all pulled together into a toxic brew.

The company, Green Earth Technologies,  has applied to use what they claim is a nano-enabled dispersant for the oil spill in the Gulf. There has been strong opposition to this as noted in Schneider’s article. At this point, Schneider finds an expert who makes comments that suggest he is not familiar with any of the nanotechnology research he appears to be referring to.

Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science provides an analysis of the company’s (Green Earth Technologies) product and notes that the company did not do itself any favours by being overoptimistic in its product safety claims.  Andrew excerpts the company’s website product description in his posting,

G-MARINE Fuel Spill Clean-UP! is a unique blend of plant derived, water based and ultimate biodegradable ingredients specifically formulated to quickly emulsify and encapsulate fuel and oil spills. These plant derived ingredients are processed to form a colloidal micelle whose small particle size (1-4 nanometers) enables it to penetrate and breakdown long chain hydrocarbons bonds in oils and grease and holds them in a colloidal suspension when mixed with water. Once oil has been suspended in a nano-colloidal suspension, there is no reverse emulsion; the oil becomes water soluble allowing it to be consumed by resident bacteria in the water. This dispersant formula is protected by trade secrets pursuant to Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) Standard CFR-1910 1200. The ingredient list has been reviewed by the US EPA and contains no ingredients considered hazardous by OSHA.

Here’s where the company went overboard,

Does G-MARINE OSC-1809 Oil & Fuel Spill Clean-UP! have any adverse affects on humans / animals or the environment?

None whatsoever. G-MARINE OSC-1809 Oil & Fuel Spill Clean-UP! has shown absolutely no adverse effect on humans or animals. [emphasis mine]

Yes and a peanut can cause an adverse effect if you’re allergic.

Do read Andrew’s textual analysis of how the NGO’s got it confused, a description of how the term nanoparticle is being used as a synonym for carbon nanotube and, for fun, read the comments. Schneider’s expert showed up to question Andrew’s credibility as an expert.

I also found this post by Tim Harper, principal of Cientifica and author of the TNT Log. From a May 29, 2010 post he made prior to attending the latest World Economic Forum meeting,

I often despair when policy on environment and health issues seems to be made without any recourse to science, whether on MMR vaccines, GMO’s or the Louisiana clean up.

The real question I’ll be looking at in Doha [where the World Economic Forum is being held] is [how] much longer are we going to have to wade through obfuscation from all sides while the planet dies?

I quite agree with the sentiment. We don’t have time and I am tired of obfuscation from all sides.

Pour revenir à mes moutons (meaning: getting back to where I started, the literal meaning: returning to my sheep), I think the impact of this oil spill will be felt in ways that we cannot yet imagine and those ways will be profound and global.

Mongoliad, nanotech novelists: Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear, and e-lit futures

Kit Eaton at Fast Company recently featured  some information about a ‘new’ novel (both in form, it’s an app and in content, it’s being written by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others). From Eaton’s May 26, 2010 article,

Late yesterday in San Francisco, at the SF App Showcase, a sneaky little startup company called Subutai demonstrated some of the tech that’ll be going into the Mongoliad app. This oddly-named creature is actually what we’re interested in–a reinvention of the novel as a serialized publication through a dedicated app. Stephenson isn’t the only one taking part, as both Greg Bear and Nicole Galland will be writing too, but Stephenson is really the core of the project.

This is exciting, as anyone who’s familiar with his [Stephenson] Diamond Age novel will attest: This book imagines a future where a super-smart, partially artificial intelligent book is created, and acts as a young girl’s life guide. The hope is, obviously, that Stephenson uses his imagination to leverage novel and unexpected aspects of smartphone or tablet PC tech to transform the resulting publication into something surprisingly new … possibly even more of a transformation than paper-based magazine publishers are attempting as they rejig their content models towards the iPad. Words like “para-narrative,” “nontextual,” and “extra-narrative” certainly suggest this.

Both Stephenson (Diamond Age, 1995) and Bear (Blood Music, 1988) wrote, at a fairly early stage,  stories/novels that featured nanotechnology. For example, Diamond Age’s  ‘partially artificial intelligent book’ is made possible with nanotechnology. Unfortunately, no details about the novel’s content were revealed either in Eaton’s article or on the company’s, Subutai, website. Eaton’s article does offer this,

Speaking at the SF event yesterday Subutai’s CE Jeremy Bornstein revealed that there would be gaming and social media events wrapped around and inside the novel, and even demoed a user profile page that included a measure of a user’s “standing” in the Mongoliad community. There was also scope for users to “rate” portions of the story as it progresses. And while it seems that user interaction won’t play a role in the actual text of the publication, it’s going to be such a blended-media thing that this means user’s inputs still affect the overall performance.

This doesn’t sound like anything outside of the ordinary community-building exercise that many authors and media publishers are engaged in these days but, as you can see in the first excerpt from Eaton’s article, they’re hoping Stephenson will come up with an unexpected way to exploit the capabilities of mobile technology.

As for the show where Mongoliad was announced, here’s a little more information about it (from an article by Daniel Terdiman on CNET’s geek gestalt blog,)

On Tuesday night, Socolow and Dale Larson, his partner in a consulting firm called SF App Studio, hosted the sixth iteration of their app showcase, the SF AppShow. And before a packed house of more than 200 people–their biggest crowd so far–at the famous 111 Minna Gallery here, the two gave a series of app developers the chance to get up on stage and take six minutes to explain their projects.

Part DiggNation, part Demo, and part real-world App Store front end, the SF AppShow seems to have a growing influence in the world of app development–be it for Apple’s iPad or iPhone, Google’s Android, or the BlackBerry–and the people who create the mobile products and evangelize them.

This all brought to mind Kate Pullinger, a writer who works both in the traditional media (she won the 2009 Governor General’s [in Canada] award for literature, The Mistress of Nothing) and is well-known for digital novels such as Inanimate Alice. This is from her April 29, 2010, posting titled, A Writer’s View of the Future of Publishing,

Over the past ten years I’ve been deeply enmeshed in discussions about the future of writing, and the myriad ways in which the new technologies have the potential to change literature. My interest is in text, and what happens to text when you put it on a screen alongside the full range of media computing offers. I write ‘digital fiction’, works that are not digital conversions but are ‘born digital’, using text and multimedia to tell a story that is meant to be viewed on a screen.

However, as well as digital fiction, I also write books – novels and short stories – and have been functioning as a writer within the traditional publishing industry for more than twenty years. I’ve watched as the publishing and bookselling industries have struggled to come to terms with the new technologies and what they have to offer to both readers and writers. I’ve had many discussions with agents and publishers about what the future will hold. I’ve stumbled down my share of blind alleys, waking up to discover that last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).

Kate first wrote this piece for The Literary Platform (from their About page),

The Literary Platform is dedicated to showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology. It brings together comment from industry figures and key thinkers, and encourages debate.

The key word circulating in book publishing at the moment is ‘experiment’. The showcase will demonstrate how traditional publishers and developers are experimenting with multimedia formats, how established authors are going it alone, how first-time novelists are bypassing publishers and how niche literary magazines are finding wider audiences.

Getting back to Mongoliad, I look forward to following the project’s progress especially in light of Kate’s comments about fiction for mobile phones, “last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).”

Two final comments. First, I was a student of Kate Pullinger’s at De Montfort University’s Masters of Creative Writing and New Media programme, which is now defunct. Second, I got curious about Subutai and it turns out it’s the name for a Mongolian general (from the essay on New World Encyclopedia which, in turn, has been modified from an essay originally found on Wikipedia)

Subutai (Subetei, Subetai, Sübeedei; Classic Mongolian: Sübügätäi or Sübü’ätäi) (1176–1248), also known as Subetai the Valiant, was the primary strategist and general of Genghis Khan (Temüjin) and Ögedei Khan. The son of a blacksmith, he rose through the ranks and directed more than 20 campaigns during which he conquered (or overran) more territory than any other commander in history. He gained victory by means of imaginative and sophisticated strategies and routinely coordinated movements of armies that were more than 300 miles away from each other. He is most remembered for devising the battle plan that destroyed the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces almost a thousand miles apart.

I am amazed that someone who didn’t have telephones, telegraphs, or any other form of communication (pony express?) that could have traversed 1000 miles within two days to give updates and deal with changing conditions managed to destroy two armies at that distance from each other.

Canada’s new copyright bill being introduced June 3, 2010 (we think), NFB, RIP!, and student copyright video

Last week’s handy dandy National Film Board (NFB) newsletter directed me to their blog post about copyright, documentary filmmaking guidelines, and the video, RIP!  From Julie Martin’s May 19, 2010 posting,

The Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) released a set of guidelines last week that help filmmakers make sense of how to use copyrighted materials in their films. The Guidelines draw on existing fair dealing provisions set out in the Copyright Act.

In addition to finding out more about the guidelines, you can also access, embedded in the posting, a related  NFB documentary RIP! A Remix Manifesto by Brett Gaylor (approx. 85 mins.), if you follow the link.

Meanwhile,  Michael Geist offers two postings of interest, one about a student-produced video (he offers the English language version and a link to the French language version) calling for fair copyright. In his second posting, Geist offers information about the government’s new bill which is to be introduced (according to reports) this Thursday, June 3, 2010. From the posting,

This is copyright week in Canada as multiple reports indicate that the long-awaited copyright bill will be tabled on Thursday. The recent round of reports are noteworthy for several reasons. First, they confirm earlier reports that the government plans to introduce DMCA-style anti-circumvention legislation.

There’s more including possible changes to fair use and the suspicion that the government may try to fast track the legislation by holding summer hearings.

June 2010: upcoming poetry events and a drumming event in Vancouver

Let’s start with the poetry (Note: This is for Vancouver, Canada). On June 1, 2010,

Café Deux Soleils – 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC
Time: 8:30pm – 11:00pm
Cost: Suggested donation of $5-10.
Radio Show Recreates Unnatural Disaster of Epic Proportions

Vancouver, BC – Return with us to the thrilling days of 1937, when the Hindenburg and Amelia Earhart had folks rethinking air travel for the first time. In the movies Clark Gable didn’t give a damn and the golden age of radio drama was in full swing.

Wax Poetic Radio proudly takes you there with a one-of-a-kind live event on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive in support of CFRO Vancouver’s Independent Cooperative Radio Station.

Experience the spine tingling glory of “The Chicken Heart” – a frenetic tale about a lab experiment gone terribly wrong, written by legendary radio writer/producer Arch Oboler .

The original “Lights Out” version left such an impression on funny man Bill Cosby, that he recounted his experience of hearing it for the first time on his “Wonderfulness” album in 1966 (You can hear Cosby’s version here).

You can hear the original NBC broadcast of “The Chicken Heart” here on YouTube.

Then keep tuning in to Wax Poetic and hear it broadcast on a future program. Like all our shows, we’ll also be storing the episode online to hear and share at your convenience.

We have an ever growing lineup of cast members including Martin Vansteingburg, SR Duncan, Diane Laloge, Alla Shiskov, Aedan Saint, Norah Holtby, Chris Gilpin, Duncan Shields and RC Weslowski–with music by CJ Leon and sound effects by YOU THE “STUDIO AUDIENCE.”Plus, we’ll have performances by:

Come be a part of radio history and support your favorite spoken word program, Wax Poetic!

Vancouver Youth Poetry Slam team member and Wax Poetic Volunteer Paul Fischer, Duncan Shields, and your hosts Diane Laloge and S.R. Duncan

And a special onstage interview by The Vancouver Storyteller Society’s Naomi Steinberg

Plus, door prizes, 50/50 draw, and SR’s world famous meat draw (guess what he’ll be giving away!)

You can get more information about this event and others at the Wax Poetic website.

Now I have a block of poetry events being produced by Pandora’s Collective,



WEDNESDAY June 9th, 16th & FRIDAY 25th
Location: TBA

Workshop Facilitators: Bonnie Nish & Warren Dean Fulton
To register please contact

This workshop is aimed at the poetry novice, those new to the poetry game, or those wishing to learn some new tricks to get the ink out onto the page. Through exercises developed to get those fingers moving, the words flowing, participants will be encouraged to write, write, write, and edit later. In this workshop, through a variety of approaches and poetic forms presented, by the workshop leaders, in a supportive, tolerant and respectful environment, we will celebrate poetry and overall creative expression.

Sunday June 6th, 2010 – 12:00 noon – 5:00 pm

Pandora’s Collective presents a ‘Poetry Picnic’ Fundraiser
(weather permitting)
@ Trout Lake ( John Hendry Park )

East 19th Avenue side of the park,
(near the lake, playground, concession,& restrooms)
Hosts: Warren Dean Fulton and Bonnie Nish

Featured Readers: Nikki Reimer, Sandy Shreve & Shannon Rayne

An outdoors Word Whips + a picnic + an open mic,

12- 1 Word Whips Take the challenge. We provide the writing prompts and the opportunity for sharing. Ten – fifteen minutes to write to each prompt. See what you can whip up.

1-2 Picnic
2-3:00 Features
3-4:00 Open Mic
4-5:00 Mix and Mingle
Suggested donations sliding scale $10-$20

Nikki Reimer is the author of [sic](Frontenac House, 2010) and fist things first (Wrinkle Press Chapbook, 2009). She is a poet, blogger, curator, arts event planner and photographer of cats in East Vancouver , and a member of the Kootenay School of Writing collective.

Sandy Shreve is the author of Suddenly, So Much, (2005, Exile Editions) has published 3 other books of poetry and edited two anthologies. Her work is widely anthologized, has won the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry and has been short-listed for the

Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and a National Magazine Award.

Shannon Rayne is an accomplished performance poet and storyteller who has facilitated creative writing workshops for over five years. She is the workshop facilitator at the Fearless Writers Circle in Vancouver ‘s vibrant Downtown Eastside and has led writing and performance workshops in elementary and high schools in the Greater Vancouver area and in cities across the country when on tour.

Pandora’s Collective and Vancouver Artists Collective present: Word Whips: Inspired by “Child Out of Time”

Thursday, June 24 2010, 7: 30 pm
Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery
at the Jewish Community Centre
950 W.41st Ave. Vancouver, BC
Join us for an evening of art and poetry collaboration.

Poetry writing and reading: Featured poets Dennis Bolen, Lisa Richter, Rob Taylor, Natasha Boskic, Warren Dean Fulton, Robin Susanto, Steve Locke and Ryan Fletcher will read poetry inspired by the art exhibit, ‘Child Out of Time’, paintings by Janet Strayer.

The audience will be given time and encouraged to write to the exhibit as well and to share their words during the open mic portion of the evening.

Art Exhibit: ‘Child Out of Time’ emanates from the concept of childhood as enduring beyond time and place: as embodied memory, reverie, yearning, and hope. In this exhibit, Janet Strayer uses a monochromatic palette to convey a sense of timelessness while also emphasizing the subtleties and strengths of tone: the distinctiveness and drama of evocative images rendered solely in terms of shapes, forms, and light.

“My artistic vision is influenced by my personal inclinations as a humanist who is much affected by the imperfect beauty and contradictions of being human and alive to the worlds within and around us.” Janet Strayer

The art exhibit runs from Wednesday, June 9 to June 27. For more information on art exhibit visit or call Reisa at 604 257 5111 ext 244.

For more details and contact information, go to the Pandora’s Collective website.

Finally, the drumming event,


Chief Leonard George’s drum call and anthem will introduce an enchanting evening of percussion, Drums for Compassion for Haiti at the CULTCH on June 13, 7 pm. Special guest Takeo Yamashiro, born in Hiroshima, Japan, will blow winds of change on Shakuhachi. Talking drum and drum beats, individual solos, and group collaboration in poly-rhythmic syncopation displayed by local and international drummers now living in Canada. An audience participation will top off the evening. Charlie Demers a local author, Comedian and television personality will be the emcee for the evening.

“For the first time in history artists and thinkers of rare ability are LIVING in one country. No other nation could match this claim!” (Harry Aoki, Jan. 17/97)

Tickets are $30+tx. at the door. Or order in advance, information below. Proceeds to Doctors Without Borders and Partners In Health medical relief work in Haiti. For more detailed information, including on performers, go to

They have an amazing lineup (if you’re familiar with the Vancouver drumming community) which includes: Celso Machado, Brazil; Alpha Yaya Diallo, Guinea; Raphael Geronimo, Phillipines; Janet Noade, Canada; Sal Ferraras, Puerto Rico; Fereydoun Faheminia, Iran, etc.  Do check out their website.

Nano Magazine’s print version of April 2010 issue

I commented on this issue’s (Nano Magazine April 2010) which features a special country focus on Canada at the end of April. Yesterday I received the print version and as I suspected, there was more to the focus than I was able to access online.

As the feature offers an overview of the nanotechnology scene in Canada, I was particularly pleased to see a range of agencies and laboratories that I would not have found on my own. Some of the  information isn’t up to date, for example, Nanotech BC no longer exists (they still have a website but nothing is happening there). Most of the laboratories listed are part of the National Research Council national chain of laboratories.

On balance, I’m thankful the editors had sufficient interest in the scene to feature Canada. I suspect part of the difficulty in getting information is due to something they noted, “In Canada there is no unifying national nanotechnology initiative …” It would be difficult even to estimate how much money is being devoted to  nanotechnology technology as autonomous funding agencies involved.

Thinking about nanotechnology, synthetic biology, body hacking, corporate responsibility, and zombies

In the wake of Craig Venter’s announcement (last week) of the creation of a synthetic organism (or most of one), Barack Obama, US President, has requested a special study (click here to see the letter to Dr. Amy Gutmann of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues). From Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog (May 26, 2010) posting,

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House. But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

The new “synthetic biology” epitomized by the Venter Institute’s work – in essence the ability to design new genetic code on computers and then “download” it into living organisms – heralds a new era of potentially transformative technology innovation. As if to underline this, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will be hearing testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential on May 27th – just days after last week’s announcement.

Andrew goes on to suggest while the ethical issues are very important that safety issues should not be shortchanged,

The ethics in particular surrounding synthetic biology are far from clear; the ability to custom-design the genetic code that resides in and defines all living organisms challenges our very notions of what is right and what is acceptable. Which is no doubt why President Obama wasted no time in charging the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the technology.

But in placing ethics so high up the agenda, my fear is that more immediate safety issues might end up being overlooked.

Hilary Sutcliffe in an opinion piece for (writing to promote her organization’s [MATTER] Corporate responsibility and emerging technologies conference on June 4, 2010) suggests this,

Though currently most of the attention is focused on the scientists exploring synthetic biology in universities, this will also include the companies commercialising these technologies.

In addition, many organisations may soon have to consider if and how they use the applications developed using these new technologies in their own search for sustainability.

This is definitely an issue for the ‘Futures’ area of your CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategy, but there is a new ‘ology’ which is being used in products already on the market which may need to be moved up your priority list – ‘Nanotechnology’ or (‘nanotechnologies’ to be precise) – nano for short.

What I’m doing here is drawing together synthetic biology, nanotechnology, safety, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). What follows is an example of a company that apparently embraced CSR.

In the wake of BP’s (British Petroleum) disastrous handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notion of corporate social responsibility and  ethics and safety issues being considered and discussed seriously seems unlikely. Sure, there are some smaller companies that act on on those values but those are the values of an owner and are not often seen in action in a larger corporate entity and certainly not in a multinational enterprise such as BP.

Spinwatch offers an intriguing perspective on corporate social responsibility in an article by Tom Borelli,

To demonstrate “responsibility”, BP spent huge sums of money on an advertising campaign promoting the notion that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide is to blame for global warming and its investment in renewable energy was proof the company was seeking a future that was “beyond petroleum”.

The message was clear: oil is bad for society and BP is leading the way in alternative energy.

The BP experience shows there are serious consequences when companies demagogue against its core business. …

… “If you drew up a list of companies that Americans are most disappointed in, BP would definitely feature,” said James Hoopes, professor of business ethics at Babson College, Massachusetts.

Ironically, BP’s experience delivered the exact opposite of CSR’s promise: the company’s reputation was ruined, the company is the target of government agency investigations and Congressional hearings and its stock price lags far behind its competitors and the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of BP’s failures, many critics blamed corporate greed – not CSR – as the cause. They believed the profit motive forced the company to skimp on basic pipeline maintenance and worker safety.

This conclusion is far from the truth. If profit were its only goal, BP would define its role in society as a company that safely producing oil while providing jobs and energy for the economy.

This article was written in 2006 and presents a view that would never have occurred to me. I find Borelli’s approach puzzling as it seems weirdly naïve. He seems to be unaware that large companies can have competing interests and while one part of an enterprise may be pursuing genuine corporate social responsibility another part of the enterprise may be pursuing goals that are antithetical to that purpose. Another possibility is that the company was cynically pursing corporate social responsibility in the hope that it would mitigate any backlash in the event of a major accident.

Getting back to where this started, I think that nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies require all of the approaches to  ethics, safety rules, corporate social responsibility, regulatory frameworks, and more that we have and can dream up including this from Andrew (from May 26, 2010 posting),

Rather, scientists, policy makers and developers urgently need to consider how synthetic biology might legitimately lead to people and the environment being endangered, and how this is best avoided.

What we need is a science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result. Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.

Synthetic biology is still too young to second-guess whether artificial microbes will present new risks; whether bio-terror or bio-error will result in harmful new pathogens; or whether blinkered short-cuts will precipitate catastrophic failure. But the sheer momentum and audacity of the technology will inevitably lead to new and unusual risks emerging.

And this is precisely why the safety dialogue needs to be grounded in science now, before it becomes entrenched in speculation.

You can read more about the science behind Venter’s work in this May 22, 2010 posting by Andrew and Gregor Wolbring provides an excellent roundup of the commentary on Venter’s latest achievement.

I agree we need the discussion but grounding the safety dialogue in science won’t serve as a prophylactic treatment for public panic. I believe that there is always an underlying anxiety about science, technology, and our place in the grand scheme of things. This anxiety is played out in various horror scenarios. I don’t think it’s an accident that interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies is so high these days.

I had a minor epiphany—a reminder of sorts—the other night watching Zombiemania ( you can read a review of this Canadian documentary here) when I heard the pioneers,  afficionados and experts comment on the political and social implications of zombie movies (full disclosure: I’m squeamish  so I had to miss parts of the documentary).This fear of losing control over nature and destroying the natural order (reversing death as zombies and vampires do) and the worry over the consequences of augmenting ourselves (werewolves, zombies and vampires are stronger than ordinary humans who become their prey) is profound.

Venter’s feat with the bacterium may or may not set off a public panic but there is no question in my mind that at least one will occur as synthetic biology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology take us closer to real life synthetic and transgenic organisms, androids and robots (artificial humans), and cyborgs (body hackers who integrate machines into their bodies).

Let’s proceed with the discussions about safety, ethics, etc. on the assumption that there will be a public panic. Let’s make another assumption, the public panic will be set off by something unexpected. For the final assumption, a public panic may be just what we need. That final comment has been occasioned by Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’ (Wikipedia essay here). While the notion is grounded in economics, it has a remarkably useful application as a means of understanding social behaviour.

China, nanotechnology, and a roadmap update

I was happy to find an article offering an overview of China and its nanotechnology efforts (with a special emphasis on its nanobio efforts) as I’m always eager to learn more about one of the juggernauts in this field of research. The article by Al Scott and Eliza Zhou in the Life Science Leader offers this nugget (amongst others),

In April 2005, China became the first country to issue national standards for nanotechnology, thereby laying the groundwork for international standards and improving its clout in the global nanotechnology market.

This article is a welcome addition to the little information I have about China’s nanotechnology efforts. I had a few niggles. I didn’t find as much detail about the standards and China’s efforts to lay the groundwork for international standards (are they participating in international organizations’ efforts? are they leading their own international efforts?) in the article as I would like. Also, the authors don’t offer any citations, sources, or links for more information.

Luckily, the joint China/Springer [publishers] project is the process of rolling out a number of books about China and its science and technology plans as per this announcement,

Springer and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announce the publication of strategic reports planning the next 40 years of progress in science and technology (S&T). … All reports are co-published in English by Springer and Science Press. The Chinese edition is published by Science Press.

The first volume of the book series, the general report, analyzes the evolution and laws governing the development of science and technology [emphasis mine], describes the decisive impact of science and technology on the modernization process, and calls for China to be fully prepared for this new round of S&T advancement. Supported by illustrations and tables of data, the volumes will provide researchers, government officials and entrepreneurs with guidance concerning research directions, the planning process, and investment. The CAS invited the nation’s most experienced and respected scientists and engineers to contribute to the reports.

Currently available,

– General Report – Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-04822-7

– Energy Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05319-1

– Space Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05341-2

– Marine Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05345-0

– Science & Technology of Public Health in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05337-5

– Advanced Materials Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05317-7

– Science & Technology of Bio-hylic and Biomass Resources in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05339-9

June 2010 is when the nanotechnology roadmap, amongst others is due,

– Mineral Resources Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Ecological and Environmental Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Water Resources in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Agricultural Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Information Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Hydrocarbon Resources in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Advanced Manufacturing Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Regional Development in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Large-Scale Scientific Facilities in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Key Interdisciplinary Cutting–Edge Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

Nanotechnology in China: A Roadmap to 2050 [emphasis mine]

– Country and Public Safety in China: A Roadmap to 2050

Each road map is individually priced, for example,  the general report is $59.95 and the energy road map is $99.00 (both presumably in US dollars).

Researcher infects self with computer virus

It’s called body hacking—the practice of adding a magnetic chip or computer chip to your body—and a UK researcher recently became the first person to deliberately infect a computer chip he’d previously inserted into his body. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Dr Mark Gasson, from the School of Systems Engineering [University of Reading], contaminated a computer chip which had been inserted into his hand as part of research into human enhancement and the potential risks of implantable devices.

These results could have huge implications for implantable computing technologies used medically to improve health, such as heart pacemakers and cochlear implants, and as new applications are found to enhance healthy humans.

Dr. Gasson goes a little further than pacemakers and the like in his speculations,

“I believe it is necessary to acknowledge that our next evolutionary step may well mean that we all become part machine as we look to enhance ourselves. Indeed we may find that there are significant social pressures to have implantable technologies, either because it becomes as much of a social norm as say mobile phones, or because we’ll be disadvantaged if we do not. However we must be mindful of the new threats this step brings.” [emphases mine]

An interesting contrast to last week’s discussion of synthetic biology (on the occasion of Craig Venter’s May.20.10 announcement) where the focus is on creating new life forms, this more closely resembles the biotech discussion with its emphasis on genetic modifications and transgenic organisms although in this case, it’s not two biological organisms which are being grafted together but a biological organism and a machine.

I first came across body hacking last year in Tracy Picha’s article in Flare magazine’s August 2009 issue (blog entry here and here in my series on human enhancement and robots) but was focused on related questions.

This time after doing a little research about body hacking specifically, I found the queen of body hackers, Quinn Norton who is an early adopter (she hacked herself in 2005), a journalist, and a public speaker on the phenomenon. There’s a 2007 article by Cory Doctorow in Boing,  Boing (here) which leads you to a slide show put together by Norton, there’s a YouTube clip (here) of a talk Norton gave at the 23rd  (2007?) Chaos Communication Congress (Wikipedia entry about this hacker’s conference). If you’re squeamish (I am), you may not want to view Norton’s slide show or talk as she mentions there’s blood. From the 23rd Chaos Communication Congress webpage about Norton’s presentation,

What happens when we leave behind cosmetics and start to modify our bodies and minds to enhance who we are and what we can do? In this talk, journalist Quinn Norton explores how technology and flesh are coming together.

She’ll explain what’s possible and what people are doing, inside the established medical system and in the growing grey and black markets of body hacking. She’ll touch on her own experiences and talk about what’s coming next- and the ethical questions we will soon face as people choose to become something post human.

In September of 2005 journalist Quinn Norton began to explore the world of functional body modification with an implanted rare earth magnet that gave her a sense for Electro-Magnetic fields- until it began to go wrong. Since then she’s research the edges of what’s currently possible and what’s likely to become possible in the near term. Technology that was the traditional purview of the medical establishment is migrating into the hands of body hackers, and the medical establishment itself is finding ways to enhance humans, not just cure disease, and faces a new dilemma about whether and who should be enhanced. All of these advancements come with health dangers and unanticipated possibilities, as well as an ethical debate about what it means to be human. This talk will touch on the latest medical advances in neurological understanding and interface as well as physical enhancements in sports and prosthetics. But more time will be given to how the body hackers and renegades of the world are likely to go forward with or without societal permission. Quinn will touch on sensory extension, home surgery, medical tourism, nervous system interfaces, and controlling parts of our bodies and minds once thought to be nature’s fate for us.

How society is likely to react to enhancement technologies or enhanced humans? Early adopters face dangers including pain, disfigurement, and death- how will that shape progress? Technology and flesh are going to come together, but will they come together in you? Bring your own stories of modification, and you own ideas about what constitutes post human- and whether that’s a good or bad thing.

I don’t know if a practice that was transgressive in 2005 has become ‘normalized’ in 2010 such that an academic, Dr. Mark Gasson, can choose to study a hacked body (his own) as part of his research but it seems to have been rapidly adopted. Even Vancouver (which I consider to be a bit of a backwater) had body hackers by January 2006 as Gillian Shaw of the Vancouver Sun notes in her article,

Amal Graafstra and his girlfriend Jennifer Tomblin never have to worry about forgetting the keys to her Vancouver home or locking themselves out of Graafstra’s Volkswagen GT.

They can simply walk up to the door and, with a wave of a hand, the lock will open. Ditto for the computer. No more struggling to remember complicated passwords and no more lost keys.

As Graafstra puts it, he could be buck naked and still be carrying the virtual keys to unlock his home.

“I did it for the very real function of replacing keys. …

Think of the tiny ampoule that your vet implants under the skin of your dog or cat for identification if the animal is lost. All it takes is a special reader flashed over the skin and Fido can be on his way home.

Graafstra did much the same, only the three-by-13 millimetre chip was put under the skin of his left hand by a surgeon. A second one, measuring two-by-12 millimetres, is in his right hand.

Using his computer skills, Graafstra was able to modify the locks on his car and his house so they would be activated by a built-in reader.

There is a picture that goes with the story if you want to see what Graafstra’s ‘chipped’ hand looks like.

Dr. Mark Gasson’s chip, like Graafstra’s, gives building access but also includes mobile phone access and allows Gasson to be tracked and profiled. As for what happened when Gasson’s chip was infected—two things,

Once infected, the chip corrupted the main system used to communicate with it. Should other devices have been connected to the system, the virus would have been passed on.


While it is exciting to be the first person to become infected by a computer virus in this way, I found it a surprisingly violating experience because the implant is so intimately connected to me but the situation is potentially out of my control. [emphasis mine]

If you want to know more about the experience, Gasson will be presenting at the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] International Symposium on Technology and Society in Australia next month (June 2010).

ETA May 28, 2010: Amal Graafstra will be at the IEEE meeting (aka ISTAS 2010) to offer his thoughts about it all. I’m not sure if he’s presenting or if this will be done on a more informal basis. If you want a preview, you can read this posting on the Amal Graafstra blog.

On a related note, I have previously posted on the idea of implanting devices in the brain:

Stephen Fry, Cambridge University, and nanotechnology (read the part about the video and Mark Welland’s speculations about a telephone in your brain)

Nano devices in your brain (a device that could melt into your brain)

Thinking about Canada’s copyright act, property rights, and slowing innovation

A new copyright bill is supposed to be introduced to Canada’s Parliament sometime this week according to both Michael Geist and the National Post. From Geist’s blog(May 19, 2010),

The National Post’s Don Martin reports that the copyright bill could be introduced next week with confirmation of the broad outlines of the bill I reported on earlier this month. Martin, who, describes the forthcoming bill as heavy-handed, reports:

All signals suggest Heritage Minister James Moore has triumphed over the objections of Industry Minister Tony Clement, setting up Canada to march in excessively protected lockstep with a United States that boasts the toughest laws against pirated music or movies on the planet.

In Geist’s latest post (May 25, 2010) on this issue,

The foundational principle behind C-61 was the primacy of digital locks. When a digital lock (often referred to as digital rights management or technological protection measure) is used – to control copying, access or stifle competition – the lock supersedes virtually all other rights. The fight over the issue has pitted the tech-savvy Industry Minister Tony Clement, who has reportedly argued for a flexible implementation, against Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, who has adopted what many view as an out-of-touch approach that would bring back the digital lock provisions virtually unchanged.

Moore has declined to comment on his position, but his approach raises some difficult questions …

I have posted elsewhere about the impact that intellectual property law (which includes copyright, patents, and trademarks) can have on the practice of science/innovation, i.e. crippling it, and on how the number of patents received are used as a measure of scientific progress. It’s interesting that a measure for progress can also function as an impediment to it.

In contrast to the usual discussion about copyright, Mike Masnick (Techdirt) has written an article (May 24, 2010) that highlights the notion of fairness-based legal liability. From the article,

His [Marshall van Alstyne] most recent paper, co-authored with Gavin Clarkson, explores both how strict intellectual property rights lead to socially inefficient outcomes, and how “fairness” principles could be much more efficient. The paper uses a combination of real world examples, previous research and game theory to make a rather compelling case.

Basically, it explains all the reasons why intellectual property leads to hoarding of information that slows innovation:

Property rights provide incentives to create information but they also provide incentives to hoard it prior to the award of protection. All-or-nothing rights, in particular, limit prior sharing. An unintended consequence is to slow, not has- ten, forward progress when innovation hinges on combining disparately owned private ideas.

Apply this thinking (“… they [property rights] also provide incentives to hoard it prior to the award of protection”) to nanotechnology and the other emerging technologies all of which are highly dependent on interdisciplinary cooperation and you can see what starts happening. Then add some of the current copyright craziness (a YouTube clip of This hour has 22 minutes),

As the video makes clear, once ownership has been awarded, i.e. you have a copyright, there are the issues of control for the purposes of your business model.

It would seem that if the ‘new’ bill resembles the old bill, Canadians will be faced with the possibility of less innovation via this new law despite the feedback the government received during last summer’s public consultations and at a time when it’s been recognized that there is too little innovation in Canada.

Sunscreen season and the latest from the Environmental Working Group

Last year (July 9, 2009), I wrote about the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and their meta-analysis of the studies conducted on the use of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens. Much to the EWG’s surprise, they gave the sunscreens with nanoparticles a passing grade. The EWG still examines sunscreens and, according to an article by Ariel Schwartz on the Fast Company site, have some concerns,

Sunscreen is supposed to protect us from cancer, but a new report from the Environmental Working Group claims that many products don’t do what they’re supposed to. Some sunscreens contains ingredients that might even trigger skin tumors and lesions, according to the EWG’s 2010 Sunscreen Guide.

This year’s problem (from the EWG site),

A surge in exaggerated SPF claims above 50 and new disclosures about potentially hazardous ingredients, in particular recently developed government data linking the common sunscreen ingredient vitamin A to accelerated development of skin tumors and lesions.

If you plan to spend some time investigating  the EWG’s report on sunscreens, be prepared to receive a request to sign up (but it’s not required) before viewing the report.