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Hello, Sunshine!

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Link suite overview on solar scale up: better tech, lower costs, variety, better batteries and bottle bulbs

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

The shades may have been drawn on Solyndra, but the sun still shines on solar. Despite Big Carbon’s industry front group-funded campaign to sell us on a fossil-fueled future, solar is going mainstream fast. Even heads deeply buried in tar sands can sense the shift.

There is no “one” solar answer. Solar comes in all shapes and sizes: from rooftop panels and peel-and-stick window film, to boats and backpacks, solar “ivy” and solar “leaves,”  giant concentrated solar arrays and recycled plastic bottles. Almost daily there is news of improved efficiency, better batteries and more products available off-the-shelf.

Costs are tumbling, too—and not just because the Chinese have heavily subsidized the manufacture of photovoltaic panels, undercutting everyone else in the market. Solar, finally, is enjoying the benefits of scaling up.

This year, the Department of Energy’s biannual Solar Decathlon saw home construction costs come in third cheaper than in 2009. The expense and learning curve of prototypes has  given way to the savings of lessons learned.

There are also more jobs—and better-paying local jobs, too—in installation than in manufacturing, lessening the sting of market share  loss to China. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, groups such as the Make It Right Foundation created “a teachable moment,” to train builders and appliance installers to work with greener technologies. Even the cleanest of coal (energy’s reigning oxymoron) cannot compete against a smartly designed solar home whose monthly electric bill comes in under $30.

It is that kind of bargain-happy free market decision-making that has Chevron—yes, Chevron—scrapping pricey natural gas in favor of a concentrated solar power (CSP) array to heat water for steam to to make heavy crude oil thin enough to pump: new sun to mine ancient sun. Beyond the obvious irony, this promises to quickly ramp up into a multi-billion dollar business.

Elsewhere, vast arrays of photo voltaic panels are sprouting everywhere, from  a capped garbage dump turned “energy park,” to a Victorian-era London bridge. Both are pilot projects, but expect many more to follow. There are an estimated 100,000 aging landfills in the US prime for PV.

Cutting right to the chase—no power generation required—in the Philippines, soda bottles are being recycled into 55 watt wireless lights through an ingenious design courtesy of MIT’s D-Lab. “Bottle bulbs” inserted into tin roofs bring free daylight into otherwise dark interiors, reducing the need—and expense—of air-fouling kerosene.

So let there be light! And power. And cheaper energy. And a cleaner planet, too.

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Hello, Sunshine ranks among one of the larger TrackerNews link suites, with more than 40 stories. Among the highlights:

(All links on the aggregator become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.)

The Age of Old: The Population Bomb We Should Have Seen Coming (link suite overview)

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On demographic destiny, boomers as geezers, population pyramids, the Singularity, dementias, Simon & Garfunkel, why humanitarian & public health policymakers have even more to worry about and areas ripe for impact investing and social enterprise

“The Age of Old”—  New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

The future, it turns out, isn’t all that hard to predict. No oracles required. Just some actuarial tables and possibly a good stiff drink. The picture that emerges from the tea leaves of data sets looks pretty good, at least until you look a bit deeper: More people are living longer than ever before.

The first American baby boomers turn 65 this year, marking the start of a geezer boom that will see as many as 10,000 erstwhile hippies qualifying for senior discounts every day for the next 18 years (globally, the stat tops 125,000 per day). As all things baby boom, it is a marketer’s dream, complete with an MIT lab devoted to designing products and services to help seniors “‘do things’ throughout the lifespan,” and anti-aging hucksters lining up for a piece of a multi-billion dollar pie.

The bigger story, though, is about demographic distribution, visualized in “population pyramids.”

population pyramids over time

When a population is young, the graph looks like a pyramid, with children at the bottom far outnumbering their elders. Epidemics, wars and natural disasters chip chip away at a pyramid’s profile, but nothing chips more dramatically than contraception. It is no coincidence that the US baby boom ended a few years after “The Pill” was approved by the FDA in the early 1960s. Contraception has also played a key role battling skyrocketing birth rates in developing countries, with collateral benefits for women’s rights and economic improvement.

Yet as intrinsically good as improved health care and family planning may be, it turns out there are some serious unintended consequences.

Journalist Ted Fishman’s new book, “Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation, goes into great jaw-dropping detail about those consequences, noting that two other 21st trends—urbanization and globalization—are actually making things worse.

“A Shock of Gray” is a guide book to a world that’s coming. We are just in the first ten minutes of a demographic denouement that’s been unfolding for 100,000 years. For the first time in history, there are more people over 50 than there are under 17. And that turns the world upside down.

Rarely at TrackerNews have we come across a story with so many tentacles. Like climate change, “the gray tsunami”—as some have termed it—puts a twist on everything.

Globally, the median age is 28, meaning there are just as many people older than that as younger. In less than a decade, there will be more people over 65 than under the age of 5. By 2045, there will be more people over 60 than children, period.

Interestingly, 2045 is also the year futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts for the “Singularity,” the moment  when machine intelligence and technological know-how matches, then surpasses, human capabilities, leading to a “transhuman” future unbounded old fashioned slow-and-steady evolutionary constraints.

The most important perspective in my view is that health, medicine, and biology is now an information technology, whereas it used to be hit or miss. We not only have the (outdated) software that biology runs on (our genome), but we have the means of changing that software (our genes) in a mature individual with such technologies as RNA interference and new forms of gene therapy that do not trigger the immune system. (from Technology Review)

Even without fancy “Borg-ish” interventions, demographers predict there were be 3.2 million centenarians in the world by 2050, a more than 6-fold increase from the current numbers.

Humans are turning into Energizer bunnies that just keep going, though sadly not without operational glitches.

The rates of age-related chronic illnesses—diabetes (exacerbated by an obesity epidemic), cancer, impaired vision and dementias—are spiking upwards with no end in sight. Beyond the incalculable heartbreak, the economics are staggering. According to a new study released by Alzheimer’s Disease International, “the worldwide costs of dementia will exceed 1% of global GDP in 2010, at US$604 billion.”

Even diseases that don’t affect the elderly directly can have a tremendous impact on them. Pandemic influenza, for example, usually takes its biggest toll on adults in the prime-of-life. But since those people are also the caregivers, their loss can easily cascade into another round of tragedy.

Although the problem is one of demographic relativity—the ratio of old to young—the answer is not more babies. The absolute population numbers are still rising—expected to hit 9 billion by mid-century—while limited natural resources are either under siege or running low and food production barely keeps pace with demand.

Kurzweil, ever the optimist, is hopeful that the Singularity will also deliver a bounty of tech solutions for all manner of catastrophic developments.

Meanwhile, the fuse has been lit on a population bomb—albeit an evil twin of the one Ehlich warned about—and the clock is ticking.

“How terribly strange to be 70,” sang Old Friends Simon & Garfunkel in 1968 at the ripe age of 27. This year, they will be 70. Maybe not so strange any more?

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Additional links include:
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Vaccines!: The Good Fight, Funding Struggle, Breaking the “Cold Chain” and a Bit of Biomimicry

TrackerNews “Tumblr” posts are short intros to new link suites on the aggregator.  However, the Vaccines! post ran a bit longer than usual, so we have decided to reprint here as well. – Ed.

Few things bring as much “bang for the buck” in global public health as vaccines. It is simply a lot cheaper to prevent a disease than to pay for treatment and the cascade of downstream costs (orphaned children, food for people too ill to farm or keep jobs, etc.) Yet in the current economic downturn, funding cuts have forced even high profile programs such as polio eradication and HIV vaccine research to make some fraught decisions about which initiatives to pursue and which to drop.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of money vaccines. Sales jumped nearly 30% between 2007 to 2009, from $18.5 billion to $26 billion, with flu jabs accounting for $5 billion, and Gardasil, Merck’s controversial vaccine designed to prevent cervical cancer, hauling in just over $1 billion. Per year.

Some vaccines provide subtle but significant side-benefits. Use of vaccines against diarrheal and pneumococcal diseases, for example,  have led to a decrease in antibiotic resistance in local populations. Fewer antibiotics overall are needed, which cuts down on the opportunities for resistance genes to evolve. Those who need antibiotics are more likely to actually benefit from them.

Likewise, GALVmed’s focus on livestock and poultry vaccines not only benefits animals, but also the hundreds of millions of rural poor in developing countries who rely on them for food and income. A measly 5%  of international aid goes toward agriculture, yet it is much cheaper to help people grow their own food than to ship stockpiles of emergency grain.

Breakthroughs in vaccine delivery and storage have significantly increased the effectiveness of immunization programs. Breaking the “cold chain” has become a rallying cry for a raft of new technologies. Traditionally, vaccines have had to be kept chilled throughout the entire journey from high-tech lab to off-the-grid clinics. A new bi-chambered syringe, which keeps the vaccine in a freeze-dried form until needed, may change that.

Vaccines with longer shelf lives should also cut down on costs. An estimated $260 million worth of swine flu vaccine had to be thrown out in the U.S. when it hit its expiration date over the summer.

Research continues on “edible vaccines,” a.k.a. “plant-based pharmaceuticals,” a.k.a. “molecular farming.” Although not quite the headline-darling they were five years ago, in large part due to concerns over GMOs, 20 years of research has more than proved the concept. It is possible to snack one’s way to immunity.

Since human researchers have yet to invent anything Nature doesn’t already do at some level (see “jumping genes), it begs the question whether foods naturally provide a degree of vaccination. For example, could this be a contributing factor for why not everyone gets sick drinking contaminated water? Is it possible that plants, which are known to take up pathogens via water (e.g., e.coli in lettuce), slurp up low levels of local germs, triggering an antibody response in those who eat them?

Of course, this is just speculation. But if anyone out there knows of any research, or is inspired to do the research, please keep us posted at TrackerNews. We love this sort of thing. Nobody does balance better than Nature.

The link suite includes articles and videos on:

  • Breaking the “cold chain” with a smarter syringe
  • Malaria vaccine possible by 2015
  • Vaccinating the middle man: protecting robins against West Nile and mosquitoes against plasmodium
  • Dengue trials for an all-four-strains vaccine in Australia
  • Why the money might run out before polio does
  • Hurdles slowing down progress on TB jab
  • Fungus to fight fungus – vaccinating trees
  • Is eradication futile?
  • and more…

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

When in Roma…On the Way to the Piazza Navona: China, Africa & The Lessons of Leonardo

Dark hair, dark eyes, black jeans, scarf just so, slightly dissatisfied expression and a brisk pace that makes it look like you know where you’re going: Expect to be asked for directions early and often on the streets of Rome.

As long as I kept the dialog to “buon giorno,” “uno” (when pointing to a particularly remarkable pastry), “grazie” (when buying said pastry) and “sera” (turns out “buona” is optional), the illusion was perfect. I was Roman. So what if I had only the sketchiest of mental maps of the city and came across the Trevi Fountain by chance? Or that my  concrete-coddled American legs were no match for the Eternal City’s infernal paving stones? I was Roman enough to have paid my respects at Julius Caesar’s surprisingly humble tomb at the Forum:

In ricordo della Idi di marzo

Still, two or three times a day, someone would burst my bubble with a babble of Italian, forcing me to admit that I was but a clueless American, likely more lost than they. That was until I met the undaunted Eva, who replied that she was Dutch and spoke English. She  asked one of the few questions for which I actually had an answer: “Do you know the way to the Piazza Navona?” “Si, si! Just heading that way myself…”

Built on the site of a first century stadium, the piazza is a long irregular oval, punctuated by three fabulous fountains and filled with artists of varying talent doing their best to sell paintings. On one side sits a massive 17th century basilica built above the tomb of St. Agnes, not far from the brothel where she was martyred 1,700 years ago (Sant’Agnese in Agone). On the other, a row of so-so restaurants offering better view than food. A rotating cast of “living statues” rounds out the regulars, including the inevitable King Tut (I must have seen 8 of them working various piazzas). The afterlife, it turns out, is funded by tourists.

Another day, another euro: Morning on the Piazza Navona - King Tut suiting up and The Headless Man waiting for tourists...

Into this delicious mix of past, present, saints, sinners, art and artifice, Eva and I strolled as dusk dimmed and the piazza’s evening crowd began to gather. She was a somewhat frustrated international studies grad student who had found a program in Rome that—unlike others closer to home—hadn’t been fussy about her bachelor’s degree in psychology. It was a deficiency they felt she could overcome. Continue reading

“TrackerNews: Haiti” – A Special Resources Page

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A special TrackerNews page with news, info and resources relevant to Haitian relief and reconstruction; A prototype “sketch” for a personal aggregation tool; Hi-tech meets What-tech?; Haiti’s legacy

At TrackerNews, we tell stories by collecting and connecting links. Unlike most aggregators  that are driven by by dateline or popularity, we are interested in context, mixing news stories and research papers, conference videos and book sites, archived articles and blog posts from the field. Typically, between 4 and 6 story groups about health (human / animal / eco), humanitarian work and technology are on the site at any given time, setting the stage for the alchemy of cross-disciplinary insight. Eventually, everything ends up in a searchable database. Day by day, link by link, a broadly defined beat becomes a richer archive, a deeper resource.

Very occasionally, major breaking news stories  – a hurricane, disease outbreak, political unrest, climate conference – have taken over the entire site. But the Haitian earthquake stands apart with its mix of staggering devastation, technological hope, massive global response, cascading threats (disease, looting, hurricanes), ecological horror (the fertile skin of  the land has literally been stripped bare from deforestation) and the glimmering potential to right more than three centuries of unspeakable wrongs rooted in the slave trade.

For two weeks, dozens upon dozens of Haiti-related links have coursed through the TrackerNews columns. More have been tweeted via @TrackerNews. Now we have created a special permanent TrackerNews: Haiti resources page.

As is the TrackerNews style, it includes a mix of links to news stories, organization websites, web tools, wiki’s, apps, books, reports, magazines and blogs. It is a work in progress and covers the following categories (to start -more can be added as needed):

  • Aid/Funding
  • Disaster Tech / Mapping / Mobile
  • Earthquakes
  • Food & Agriculture
  • General News (MSM)
  • Haiti
  • Heath: Human / Animal
  • Human Rights
  • Humanitarian Design
  • Light / Power
  • Money / Microfinance
  • Reforestation / Charcoal
  • Shelter / Infrastructure
  • United Nations
  • Water / Sanitation Continue reading

TrackerNews and the Human Algorithm, PopTech, PopTracker and a Challenge

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At TrackerNews, our approach is a little different from most aggregators. While they focus either on the latest or most popular stories, we focus on context. Stories cycle through the site in groups to deliver  a more faceted experience: breaking news is paired with archived stories, research papers, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books – print, audio, video. Every link is researched, reviewed, summarized, curated. Stephen Baker, former BusinessWeek journalist and author of the The Numerati, summed up it best: “TrackerNews puts the human algorithm back in the equation.”

We are not opposed to automated news feeds. Indeed, we scour them all the time. But they tend to skew to the new and the popular. Likewise, search engines often have hidden skews, affecting the order in which links appear (sponsored links, deals with news organizations, SEO tricks, etc.). Thousands of links make come up in a Google search, but who ever goes beyond the second page? As Mies van der Rohe pithily noted, “Less is more.”

"TrackerNews" Screen Grab Slide Show

Over the last year, TrackerNews has covered everything from malaria, mapping and microfinance, to chemical spills, earthquakes, political protests, human trafficking, energy, lighting, mobile tech, logistics, floods, famines, urban farming, the bushmeat trade, rapid diagnostics, mental illness and global warming. Our searchable database, which also includes an extensive collections of resources, has swelled to 3,000+ links and is just beginning to get interesting. (see slide show)

THE POPTECH TRACKER: A BETA DEMO Continue reading

Follow the Pigs! – Swine Flu, Factory Farms, Mapping and Public Health

400042909swineflugoesglobal1“Disease is an outcome.”  Wildlife biologist Milt Friend said that to me years ago when I was working on a story about the emergence of a frightening new virus just beginning to sweep across the country: West Nile. Friend had helped found the National Wildlife Health Center (a sort of CDC for critters), which was handling crow necropsies. After rattling off a disturbingly long list of wildlife die-offs from the last 30 years, he stopped, looked me in the eye and with a determined passion born of heartbreak said those four words. He had seen more than his share of ducks dropping dead — by the millions — from duck plague,  and frogs with way too many legs, and “Mad Deer,” wobbling around with a version of the same ailment that causes Mad Cow. These were not random natural phenomena, but disasters aided and abetted by human action. Disease is an outcome.

Those words were ringing in my ears when the first reports of the Mexican swine flu outbreak began trickling in few days ago. Dozens of young, otherwise healthy men were dying. Was this an encore of the infamous 1918 pandemic? Another SARS? Patients killed by their own overzealous immune systems (“cytokine storms”)? Or poor patients who came to the hospital too late to be saved?  Then came lab reports of an unusually cosmopolitan swine/avian/human virus, with genetic links to two continents. This sort of thing doesn’t just happen. An awful lot of things have to happen first to make it possible.

The only certainty: a pig link.  This wasn’t a wildlife disease that jumped species when man, beast & germ met up in crowded marketplace (civets & SARS). There was no bushmeat involved (Ebola, HIV/AIDS). This was a swine flu, with some deadly dashes of avian and human strains. Continue reading