Bar, Hack, Lab, Fix: The Genius of Play and the Power of Opportunity

Link suite overview: On creating a bottom up culture of distributed innovation, making tools, making tools that make tools, fish songs; and a thought

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Want to see a happy man? Watch Dale Dougherty, editor of MAKE magazine, wax poetic about the glories of motorized muffin-cars, electric drill-powered scooters and the “Sashimi Tabernacle Choir” (a mash-up of plastic “singing” fish and an old car, created by a physicist with a taste for the benign bizarre and time on his hands).

All of us are makers. Makers are enthusiasts. They are amateurs. They are people who love doing what they do… (They ask): ‘Can I do it? Can it be done?’

Although the inventions often dive into the realm of the sublime ridiculous, there is genius in the journey and delight in discovery.

Bar / Hack / Lab: Fix,” the new link suite on TrackerNews, explores one of the most encouraging trends to emerge over the last few years: group-organized collaborative “doing.”

Rather than wait for a vaguely defined “Them” to fix things, people all over the world are gathering in hackerspaces, innovation labs and accelerators, or meeting up at BarCamps, Maker Faires and hackathons. Guided by an open source ethos and joy of community, information is shared and help offered. Disciplines cross-pollinate effortlessly:  techs work with crafters, who work with builders , who work with mechanics, who work with electricians.

It seems almost to good to be true—the world as you thought it was supposed to be back in kindergarten. In fact, a hackerspace can feel a little like a kindergarten for adults: a room full of toys, a place to play, humor welcome. “Maker” culture is full of promise. Anything is possible. Really.

In a kind of conceptual loop-de-loop, hackerspaces segue neatly into the tinkerer / education movement, best personified by Gever Tulley. Tulley, famous for the Tinkering School and the book, Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do), is opening a k-12 school called Brightworks this fall to build on his ideas about learning through doing.

What if the goal of education were to produce a resourceful generation for whom innovation was simply part of the mix? In a world where change, often rapid and extreme, has become the “new normal” (see climate), the ability to adapt will require both collaborative networks and the confidence to invent.


When you come to any hackerspace in the world, you are among friends.

— from Dinosaurs and Robots (video)

One the key moments for me was the day one of the developers told me about “Hello World of the Month”… an exercise to take something they knew absolutely nothing about and figure out how do something useful with it… ‘We want to feel comfortable with learning new things. We need to feel comfortable not knowing so we can look for the answer.’ Now that’s the right attitude. We could all learn from that.”

Eduardo Jezierski, CTO, InSTEDD / “iLabs: Community, Connection and a Culture of Innovation

In the connect-the-dots style of the aggregator, the forty-plus links describe just the surface of a quirky, fascinating, constantly iterating (tech-speak for evolving…) global movement. From the fun and froth of a Maker Faire to the establishment of “labs” designed to help build tech sectors in developing countries, the work is infused with optimism. It is at once bold and humble, an attempt to find better answers through a bottom-up distributed culture of innovation.

Among the suite’s highlights:

…and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)



Discoverability: the holy grail of digital content. Between search engine “filter bubbles,” the frenzy surrounding iTunes rankings and the graphically dismal world of wiki’s, a staggering amount of interesting content regularly falls through the cracks.

Does anyone ever get beyond the second page of a Google search?

We think about this a lot at TrackerNews, usually while on the hunt for one-off diamond-in-the-rough links.

There is a limit to what even the cleverest machine algorithms can deliver. Determining what information is useful at any given time, or for any given project, is very much an individual decision—one that must take into account the “human algorithm” of personal experience, online and off.

Curated aggregation, of course, is TrackerNews stock in trade, and a powerful combination. But a personal aggregation tool could be a game-changer. Imagine if anyone—everyone—could more deeply mine and share digital content. This, too, is a bottom up rather than a top down approach.

Hackathon anyone?

Frack, Baby, Frack: The Insti-Environmental Nightmare

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How scheme sold as pro-energy independence & climate-friendly unleashed environmental disaster in 5 years; From U.S. to Australia, Poland & India; Clean water as legal casualty; Green lesson from Bangladesh

Hydraulic fracturing - fracking. Click through to the "Gasland" website for more detailed explanation

The devil really is in the details: Fine print can kill. In 2005, as part of Bush/Cheney Energy Bill, a then obscure natural gas mining technique –  hydraulic fracturing – was given an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Corporations were now allowed to keep the chemical contents of fracking fluid, used to break up shale deposits, a proprietary trade secret. Since Halliburton, where Dick Cheney had been CEO prior to becoming vice president, was one of the few producers of fracking fluid, the exemption became known as the “Halliburton loophole.”

Freed of any legal constraints, the fracking gold rush was on. It didn’t matter how many dozens of carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic compounds environmentalists discovered and documented in the “secret sauce,” the energy companies had the law on their side. Indeed, they had the law in the bag.

Within a matter of months, drilling began on the first of what would soon be tens of thousands of wells, mostly in the West –  including wells on public BLM lands opened up under the patriotic banner of energy independence. Thousands of millions of gallons of water – 3 to 7 million per well – mixed with sand and fracking fluid were then injected under high pressure to create mini-earthquakes designed to release natural gas that had been sequestered in the rocks for millennia.

It worked. Released from its underground stone matrix prison, the gas surged to surface. And immediately began bubbling up in all sorts of unintended places, producing some pretty spectacular special effects such as flammable tap water. More spectacular, though harder to see, were the effects on humans and other animals.


Beyond the breathtaking speed at which this environmental nightmare roared forth, is the gobsmacking stupidity that put energy company interests over clean water safeguards. While there are alternative sources for energy, there are none for clean water.

Josh Fox, whose much-acclaimed documentary, Gasland, galvanized public outrage against fracking, offered fracked water to the few energy company executives he managed to interview. There were no takers. Perhaps legislators should be required to do without clean water for a few days before voting on any legislation relegating it to expendable status.

Yet as heroic and laudable as Fox’s personal investigative foray may be, it is also deeply unnerving to realize that this is what it took. The mainstream media was years late to the story. And though public outrage recently led to a temporary fracking moratorium in New York state, the practice, along with its proprietary poisons, has gone global.

  • Australian "60 Minutes" segment on shale gas drilling in Queensland

    In Australia, “gas is the new gold.” Mining contracts are potentially worth $100 billion, with government royalties estimated at $850 million (less than 1% of the profits), while landowners receive a one-time payment of $1.500 per well. Australian law favors mining interests, allowing drilling without landowner permission.

  • Poland sees fracking as the route to energy independence – and independence in general  – from Russia, which currently supplies more than 50% of the country’s natural gas needs. Also, in an effort to meet European Union greenhouse gas emission standards, Poland needs to reduce its reliance on coal. Fracking recently began in a region near the Baltic Sea. (On the flip side, Russia’s enormous investment to develop its vast natural gas reserves may prove a bust, with would-be buyers “fracking their own – which has raised some concern about geopolitical ramifications.)


Industry supporters insist that fracking can be done cleanly and aquifers kept safe. But like the BP Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, even if the risks are small, the costs, should something goes wrong, are incalculable. No amount of money can undo all the damage to the environment or repair blighted futures.

With fracking, the price is pretty steep when all goes right. Any gains that natural gas may offer as a cleaner fossil fuel are lost in the collective exhaust of the thousands of tanker trucks hauling millions of gallons of water to drill sites.

Leaky wells also release methane -20 times more potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 – directly into the atmosphere. Nobody keeps track of these rogue emissions. If just 1% of the wells are leaky (and the rate is likely far higher), the tally quickly spikes to hundreds, if not thousands, of wells.

So: Jobs, royalties, bountiful natural gas supplies, fat profits for energy companies and reliable dividends for investors versus polluted water, sick people, mounting medical costs, dead wildlife, bankrupt farms and ranches, lost income, depressed real estate values, lost income and real estate tax revenues and rich corporate lawyers churning out non-disclosure agreements.

Why is this even a debate?


Despite the literally earth-rattling arguments of pro-fracking interests that insist global energy demands and emissions targets can only be met in the near term with natural gas (no matter how costly in GHGs it may be to get it…), breakthroughs in solar, wind and wave power, along with improvements in efficiency and conservation, suggest otherwise.

In just the last week, researchers at Stanford announced a way to triple solar efficiency using cheap, easy to obtain materials, while scientists at Cornell and China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University used biomimicry to reinvent the urban wind turbine.

The technologies dazzle with potential, yet the transition to broad commercial adoption has been difficult, in large part due to policies such as the Halliburton loophole that “un-even” the playing field.

The answer to energy supply is not the 20th century paradigm of one-size-fits-all (coal, oil, gas, nuclear), but a mix and match of macro and micro technologies that can be adapted to local needs. Imagine if the $100 billion in Australian shale gas deals were diverted to such technologies: Jobs, tax revenues, unpolluted natural resources, healthier people…


A few months ago, Eduardo Jezierski, a colleague from InSTEDD, was interviewed for The Space Show. Although Ed spends his days developing technologies to improve disease surveillance, humanitarian response and local resiliency here on planet Earth, there is considerable overlap between working in the developing world – often the aftermath of a natural disasters – and the kinds of challenges facing space exploration. How do you make the most of limited resources in difficult environments?

When the conversation turned to energy, Ed talked about his about a trip to Bangladesh to visit Grameen Shakti, the microfinance pioneer’s “green” spin-off, where he watched their solar program in action:

They bring in the separate parts for solar panels, converters, adapters,  etc.,  Local village women come in and gather the resistors and capacitors and cables and LEDs and boxes and panels which they put into baskets to take homes to assemble. They bring them back at the end of the day assembled, and for each solar converter they create, for example, they get 8 cents.

They get some training in soldering and the converters get tested. Even though you might not think it is an efficient way of doing the manufacturing, it is very self-sufficient. Now you have a work force in every village where the women can actually fix solar converters, where the school girls are trained in trouble-shooting the solar systems. It creates a local economy, a local self-sufficiency to the point that sometimes the grid vendors – the electricity grid – might reach a village and the people say, “No. We’re fine. We have electricity. It’s essentially free. We’ve paid off all the microloans for the panels. We have light. We can charge our cell phones. We’re fine.”

Well over 100,000 solar panels have been installed through the program.

Clearly this is not the answer to energy supply and distribution, but an answer tailored to a specific need and place. Still, it shares characteristics of many other good answers: It is modular, scalable, affordable, replicable and green.

These are the kinds of answers we need to encourage. These are the ones that lead to real energy independence.


“Gasland” on HBO, produced and directed by Josh Fox

“Hydro-fracking and earthquakes? Uh oh…” by Kate Mackenzie, FT / Energysource

“A Colossal Fracking Mess” by Christopher Bateman/ photographs & video by Jacques del Conte, Vanity Fair

Pro Publica coverage on fracking (search list)

As You Sow, organization that promotes corporate environmental and social responsibility through shareholder advocacy, grantmaking and innovative legal strategies 

“Post COP15, Part 2: Five Ideas That Could Help Save the Climate (Really)” by J. A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog

Global Drought: What do Argentina, Australia, Afghanistan, Kenya, Somalia, The Middle-East, China and Parts of India and U.S. Have in Common?

China: wheat crop failure

China: wheat crop failure

It is a one-size-fits-all news story, good for almost any part of the world right now: Cue the video to a farmer standing in a field of parched and stunted plants. Then cut to b-roll of cattle carcasses dotting the landscape, rivers barely trickling, reservoirs sinking fast and caked mud at the bottom of village wells. Under unrelentingly cheerful skies, tell a tale of thirst, hunger, devastation and death.

Kenya: 2 years, no rain

Kenya: 2 years, no rain

A drought is a stealth disaster. There are no headline-grabbing satellite images of hurricane swirls, no “iReporter” videos of towns blown apart by tornados, no families perched on roofs desperate to escape rising floodwaters, no photographs of cities buried under snow. A drought has a different, much slower rhythm. The signs — a warming ocean, a shift in the wind — are subtle. But the effects can reverberate across continents, last for years, even decades, and spare nothing in its path.

Argentina: dying cattle

Argentina: dying cattle

Like recessions, droughts are declared official well after serious damage has already been done. It takes time for a patch of pleasant sunny weather to morph into a severe drought. And although scientists have become better at interpreting data for predictions (reading teak rings in Indonesia), options for prevention remain pretty much non-existent. Whether or not man-made climate change is at least in part responsible for the current spike in droughts — as many suspect — the odds of man changing the climate back any time soon are pretty slim.

Taking more of an address-the-symptom-never-mind-the-cause approach, the Chinese bullied a few inches of snow to fall in Beijing by assaulting the heavens with a barrage of  silver iodide-loaded cloud-seeding missiles. But beyond a brief uptick in the number of  tourists at the Great Wall and a little frosty fun in the city, not much changed.

Australia: the "big dry"

Australia: the "big dry"

Meanwhile, the best plan to prepare for lean harvests remains the old biblical stand-by of stashing away surplus reserves from good harvests. But what do you do when global grain stores are running low and almost every “bread basket” farming region in the world is buckling under the same wilting weather report?


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The Carbon NEGATIVE Option: Why Tim Flannery & James Lovelock Love Biochar

climatefriendlysoil“Sustainable” isn’t sustainable. It isn’t even achievable, according to several researchers presenting at the annual meeting of the  American Association for the Advancement of Science. Global carbon emissions have accelerated so dramatically over the last eight years, we are “now outside the entire envelope of possibilities” reviewed by the IPCC. Sure enough, sea levels are rising and rising faster than predicted. Meanwhile, biofuels, the great green hope of so many, have only made things worse, leading to a increase in slash & burn farming in the tropics. Indeed, we could find ourselves “effectively burning rain forests in our gas tanks,” noted one scientist.

TrackerNews has been full of  stories over the last few months painting the same grim picture:

  • The Sea of Japan absorbs only half has much CO2 as it used to. Scientists suspect warmer water temperatures have changed the pattern of vertical currents known as “ventilation.” The water on top has essentially become saturated with CO2.  If it turns out this is happening in other oceans, the ramifications are immense. Oceans absorb about a quarter of human-generated CO2
  • All this CO2 is making the oceans more acidic, which is destroying coral reefs, along with anything else unfortunate enough to rely on a calcium carbonate shell. That, in turn, is making it more difficult for stressed fisheries to recover, leading to higher food prices and hunger. The circle may be even more vicious. Researchers have just discovered that fish play a key role in marine carbon sequestration. Fish excrete vast quantities of calcium carbonate as a result of drinking seawater. Scientists speculate that climate-warmed seas would speed up fish metabolism leading to increased excretions. But fewer fish means a net decrease and less calcium carbonate in the water to neutralize acidity.
  • Canadian forests are now carbon emitters. A combination of drought, logging, beetles, milder winters (warm enough to allow beetles to survive) and fire have turned 1.2 million square miles-worth of carbon sink solution into part of the problem.

Clearly, if we are going to make any headway with this disaster, we are going to have to come up with goals considerably bolder than “carbon neutral.” Optimistically, we are thisclose to an irreversible tipping point. According to yet another depressing study, global warming could trigger massive marine “dead zones” persisting for thousands of years.


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Predicted, Not Prevented: Oil, Pirates and Power

Reported Incidents of Somali Pirate Attacks and Hijackings in the Gulf of Aden - UNOSAT

Reported Incidents of Somali Pirate Attacks and Hijackings in the Gulf of Aden - UNOSAT

When the Great Somali Pirate story broke into the headlines last week, the media’s first reaction was to make a joke of it. Pirates are Jack Sparrow, popcorn, a night on the couch for a cable-movie marathon and one of the best film scores ever. Piracy is a fake Fendi. Yes, buckles are swashed (if not copied), alcoholism is a job requirement, and mythic monsters are part of the scenery. But pirates are heroes. The villains are the bloodless bureaucrats driven only by corporate greed. Ask any little kid: Who wants to be the tea-sipping dressed-for-success executive from the East India Company for Halloween? Who wants to swill a bit o’ rum and sing about rotten eggs as Captain Jack?

While the pirates of Disneyland swaggered around an imaginary 17th century Caribbean, the 21st century pirates of Somalia, a rag-tag bunch of 1,500 men with nothing to lose and millions of dollars to gain, patrol the Gulf of Aden, holding the world hostage. Still, it is difficult, at least for me, not to take a moment to savor the image of a supertanker stowing $100 million worth of a climate-threatening fossil fuel literally stuck in the water – a perversely green turn of events.

"The Fragility of Domestic Energy," by Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, The Atlantic, November, 1983

"The Fragility of Domestic Energy," by Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, The Atlantic, November, 1983

News of a robust modern pirate trade took many by surprise, though not the folks at UNOSAT, who have been diligently charting and mapping attacks for some time. Nor was it a surprise to relief workers, who started using escort vessels courtesy of NATO and the Netherlands in 2007 to protect shipments of vital food aid for 2 million people.

Nor was it news to Amory and L. Hunter Lovins who, 25 years ago this month, penned a long article for The Atlantic magazine spelling out in great detail the dangers of sprawling energy delivery networks:

On shipping: (emphasis added)

…The lumbering supertankers that bring Middle Eastern
oil halfway around the world to Western ports are also
insecure. Naval planners shudder at the tankers’ vulnerability
to submarines, but even pirates in small boats manage
regularly to board and rob tankers
off the coasts of
Singapore and Nigeria. Moreover, it is not at all unusual.

Somalia may have been left off the list, but the point is made. As for Nigeria, protesters / militants seem to prefer pipeline sabotage.

(Also see the Bowoto vs. Chevron case currently working its way through U.S. Courts. At issue: Whether the oil giant, enlisting the Nigerian military, used lethal force against unarmed peaceful protesters who occupied an oil platform.) Continue reading

On Haikus, Headlines and a One Size Fits All Pill


It has been a real learning curve over the last few weeks figuring out the natural rhythms of TrackerNews: How often should the story list update? Is there enough balance in the mix of health, humanitarian and tech? What adds meaning and real value to a grouping of stories?

The idea for TrackerNews grew out of series of conversations bemoaning the “silos of expertise” that make it difficult to see the bigger picture, identify opportunities or develop collaborative relationships across disciplines. The hope is that a sparky enough story mix will eventually begin to draw an equally sparky mix of readers.

I am often asked about metrics. Good question. In the coming months we will no doubt be obsessing over clicks and click-through’s, but to me the most important metrics are intangible. Did someone see a story or a grouping on stories on TrackerNews that started a conversation, sparked a new line of thought or perhaps even began a chain of events leading to a collaboration? (extra credit for something cross-disciplinary…)

A part of me wonders whether people are secretly so comfortable in their oft-decried silos, they will find TrackerNews’ format more overwhelming than enlightening. We purposely decided not to segregate stories by subject, or create a typical news site with a standard navigational structure. TrackerNews is as broad as you can imagine and one page deep. Stories, or groups of stories, cycle through the columns, just as one moment follows another. The only hard-wired hierarchy is the green bar banner where one suite of stories gets special focus for a limited time.

The Haiku Challenge

In these first few “learning to walk” weeks, one of the biggest issues has been figuring out how to cover breaking news, such as hurricanes or the rumblings of war. It makes no sense to duplicate what other, much larger news organizations are doing. If the weather is going kerflooey, tune into Weather Channel, or check the wires, fergoshsakes. Rather, I have tried combining links to those larger news services, with links that provide background (research and/or older news stories) or tools (e.g., streaming audio from Congo’s only national radio station, Radio Okapi). If another website does a better job aggregating information, TrackerNews links to them (hats off to Andy Carvin’s work at the Hurricane Information Center and for coverage of Gustav and Ike).

The minimalist nature of TrackerNews’ links makes the selection of those links that much more critical. Much like syllables in a haiku, the limitations become a strength and a challenge. And, as I am fast learning, there is an art to it, too… Continue reading

Ratatouille on a Mission: From Land Mines to Medical Diagnostics, HeroRATS Do It All…



I knew I’d seen that face before. Those cheeks. Those whiskers. That long, long tail. The giant African pouched rat – a.k.a., the giant Gambian pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus) – was all over the headlines five years ago, fingered as the likely culprit in a first-ever outbreak in the U.S. of monkeypox (a smallpox relative).

Shift continents and the villain becomes a hero. In fact, a “HeroRAT,” with a genius for sniffing out landmines and diagnosing TB.

Bart Weetjens, an engineer with Apopo, a Belgian organization focused on “vapour detection technology,” with a emphasis on land mines and disease detection, hit upon the idea of using pouched rats about 10 years ago. The rats are smart, thrive on repetitive tasks, have a top-notch sense of smell, are cheaper to train than dogs ($3,000 to $5,000 vs. $40,000+) and literally work for peanuts. Despite its giant-by-rat-standards size (a pouched rat can weigh as much as 9 lbs), it’s too light to trip off a mine. In any case, as one journalist noted, “(t)he bonds between rats and humans are looser.”

Maybe. But on the HeroRAT website, you can read all about Allan, Chosen One, Kim and Ziko, and even Adopt-a-Rat. In their own little pouchy way, they’ve got Ratatouille charisma. Jane Goodall’s a big fan.

They’re pretty efficient, too. In 30 minutes, a rat can sniff out an area that otherwise would take a couple of days to clear. And they’re just as good at detecting plastic mines as metal ones.

There are an estimated 100 million landmines in over 90 countries, so the scale of the problem is beyond daunting. Using existing technology, it would take centuries to remove all the mines. In the meantime, dozens of people are maimed and killed each day, while social fabric fractures when people are kept from their homes and farmland is kept out of production. Continue reading