Little Brother is watching, too

Ever interested by the information machine that is the Internet as I am [1], I give you this: One guy has set up a project trying to detail North Korea’s visible society, by soliciting information from anyone willing to spend a little time with Google Earth and various news reports coming out of the almost hermetically sealed country. Most of the information comes from photos of the Great Leader posing in front of some infrastructure or another, and any outdoors picture can divulge information.

Kim Jong Ils private compound, with private water slides, horse tracks and train tracks

Kim Jong Ils private compound, with private water slides, horse tracks and train tracks

One more thing on the list of fascinating things the Internet can do which is also a little scary. I mean, spying on North Korea is ok, I guess, but what else can this be used for?

Also, see the Wall Street Journal article on this. From the article:

More than 35,000 people have downloaded Mr. Melvin’s file, North Korea Uncovered. It has grown to include thousands of tags in categories such as “nuclear issues” (alleged reactors, missile storage), dams (more than 1,200 countrywide) and restaurants (47). Its Wikipedia approach to spying shows how Soviet-style secrecy is facing a new challenge from the Internet’s power to unite a disparate community of busybodies.

[1] How’s that for sentence structure?

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Everything you ever wanted to know about…

…electric vehicles, and probably more, too.

I’ve linked to energy places before, some of which can be found in the blogroll, but if you ever feel the need for hours and hours of podcasts about EVs, turn to EVcast to fulfill it. What little I’ve heard of it sounds interesting, if a bit evangelical.

There’s something rotten…

So, one of the largest scientific journal publishers, Elsevier, have been caught with their pants down, pushing pharmaceuticals in fake journals. They claim that publishing these “proceedings” do not constitue a journal, but as has been pointed out in the article above:

In a statement to The Scientist magazine, Elsevier at first said the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘journal’”. I would like to expand on this statement: It was a collection of academic journal articles, published by the academic journal publisher Elsevier, in an academic journal-shaped package. Perhaps if it wasn’t an academic journal they could have made this clearer in the title which, I should have mentioned, was named: The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.

Later it was revealed that they publish several more journals like this. They also publish Homeopathy, which also skirts the border of dihonesty.

So what do we do with these things? I’m not sure about STS journals, but several large journals within the field of energy research are published by Elsevier. Should we stop publishing, reviewing or quoting Elsevier articles? Crooked Timber has this to say:

Most obviously, we shouldn’t publish in Elsevier journals. This is easy for me to say – I am in a field where Elsevier isn’t especially strong – but I hope that I would say it if I were in a field where Elsevier journals dominated. In general, I would prefer my own work not to be used to add cover and credibility to manifestly bogus and unethical publication strategies. Furthermore, I don’t think we should review for Elsevier journals either. There are obviously a lot of honest scholars who edit journals for Elsevier (one would hope that they are in a majority), but they should really be devoting their efforts elsewhere – and polite but firm negative responses to review requests might help generate the necessary norm shift that would encourage them to move. Finally, I am quite attracted to the idea of registering disapproval when one cites to work that has been published in Elsevier journals. Some boilerplate language along the lines of

“Timewaster(2009) finds x to be the case. Although these results were reported in a journal published by Elsevier, the company responsible for deliberately publishing pseudo-journals such as The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that these particular findings are problematic.”

might usefully serve to communicate to academics that publishing with Elsevier is a net reputational negative.

I don’t know if I would dare to do this, as a young and as-of-yet unpublished researcher (but soon!). Still, there must be some way of punishing this?

On a related note, the US Food and Drug Administration have just announced they will start treating Cheerios as a drug, since General Mills make several very specific health related claims on the packaging. Go conscientous bureaucracy!

Even Big Brother can be cool

At first I thought this was really cool: an app that searches the Twitterstream for tweets with the words “just landed in” and compares the geodata in them with the reported home location of the user to make a fascinating graphic over air travel.

A screenshot of the app

A screenshot of the app

It doesn’t have that much of a practical use, but it shows the amazing possibilities of information technology. This was made by one person in a matter of hours.

On second thought, however, it also says something about the amount of information we are constantly putting out there, ready to be usde by anyone with the skills and interest to do it. The interest group with the interesting name Cryptohippie have just released their annual report on electronic police states (read it here), where they rank countries after the amount of information governments gather about their citizens. Spooky stuff, check out their map:

Red: police state, orange: strongly developing police state, yellow: lagging (but developing) police state, green: not so bad

Red: police state, orange: strongly developing police state, yellow: lagging (but developing) police state, green: not so bad

There is much to be said on their measurments, and they don’t provide any background information on this, but it’s still a bit spooky. Especially since I live in an orange country…

Green lifestyles and real constraints

ResearchBlogging.orgA couple of weeks back, I attended a workshop in Copenhagen on the STS field and climate change. Some bigshots were there too (well, bigshots in our field, at least). Lots of interesting discussions and presentations, so I’m sure I’ll come back to some of the papers presented.

For now, take a look at the contribution by Noortje Marres: an article in the European Journal of Social Theory titled “Testing Powers of Engagement Green Living Experiments, the Ontological Turn and the Undoability of Involvement”. In it, she analyzes some online attempts at showing how the individual consumer can make small adjustments to their lifestyles to affect large changes in environmental impact. Several of these attempts center around a specific person blogging about attempting to reduce the carbon footprint associated with regular life in the Western world [1].

Marres’ article has several interesting points about how these kinds of experiments work as engagement instruments, and how they can quickly end up as too centered on the person conducting the experiment (a sort of “intimization” of green politics). I want to point to what I see as the main point in any critique of these accounts (my emphasis):

Certainly, green living experiments cannot be said to perform the same tasks as object-centred sociologists, that of describing socio-material relations. They tend to articulate a very particular set of entanglements and not others, as in the case of accounts of smart meters, which tend to focus on ‘unnecessary’ power
consumption and changeable domestic routines. These accounts have little to say about rather more ‘constraining’ or inescapable entanglements, such as for instance, energy infrastructures and landlords, or the regulatory arrangements of measurement and monitoring that smart meters may or may not enable in the future. They tend to highlight socio-material relations that can be reconfigured through individual intervention, by switching appliances off or installing saving devices, and as such, they may indeed have to be interpreted as dramatizations of ‘self-improvement’, similar to other mediatized home experiments. But, as green living experiments present socio-material practices in the home as sites of public involvement, they raise further questions about the sociological valuation of public experiments as sites of ontological intervention.

While it certainly is praise-worthy to experiment with greener ways of living everyday life, and also to document it meticulously for others to get inspiration from, it has often struck me when browsing books like “Living Green” how little they have to say about the very real limitations to living like this that exist for most people. In this, it strongly resembles the Fair Trade movement, which is equally good and equally unwilling to enter a discussion of the larger framework around the economic, physical and institutional organization of modern life. This is perhaps a good thing, as they want to reach a large audience who don’t wish to be preached at about the Evils of Capitalism, but it also means there is something lacking in their accounts of the world can be completely changed without really changing much at all.

Oh, and for the record, I do try and buy organic, locally produced and (if not produced by Norwegian farmers/workers) fair traded goods whenever possible, and so should you. But…

[1] For example, the blog by Canadian journalist Vanessa Farquharson called “Green as a thistle

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Marres, N. (2009). Testing Powers of Engagement: Green Living Experiments, the Ontological Turn and the Undoability of Involvement European Journal of Social Theory, 12 (1), 117-133 DOI: 10.1177/1368431008099647

Smiling and divorce, really?

This sounds more than a little suspect to me: according to a paper in the journal Motivation and Emotion, whether you smile or not in photos taken while you were young acts as a good predictor of possible divorce later in life. So what’s suspect about it?

First of all, I don’t see the link. One might argue that smiling means you’re happier, and this helps retaining your marriage, but are smiles on staged photographs (the study used high school yearbook photos) a good indication of happiness? And even if it was, I don’t see how a period of happiness early in life could predict something happening much later in life. Unless you believe that happiness is a constant figure in someone’s life.

Secondly, there’s the methodology of the paper. The researchers conducted two studies, one with college alumni and another randomly sampled. The first sample was a little over 600 people, and they were recruited by self-reporting. About two-thirds of the sample was female, and they were predominately caucasian, with more than 95 % of the sample. The “control” group, of non-alumni, consisted of only 55 people, again mostly caucasians. To analyze the smiles, the researchers used a tool called the Facial Action Coding System to measure the positions of some muscle groups used for smiling, and graded smiling on a scale from 1 to 10. They then analyzed the grades with relation to later life divorces. The result shows that divorcees scored 0.9 worse on the scale on average. One problem here is in the sampling: they are few (especially the “control” group), and skewed. Also, there is the question of whether staged photos actually tell us something about the mental state of the one being photographed. Oh, and the correlation is weak, with the highest pearson’s r being -0.28. All in all, the findings smell like a statistical fluke to me.

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Hertenstein, M., Hansel, C., Butts, A., & Hile, S. (2009). Smile intensity in photographs predicts divorce later in life Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-009-9124-6

Electric vehicles – mileage and required infrastructure

ResearchBlogging.org These days are all about electric cars. Yesterday I wrote about the “smart chargers” that help electric cars determine the optimal time to charge to reduce grid load and prices. Today, I bring you two interesting scientific papers and one equally interesting piece of techno-journalism.

In an Energy Policy article with the cumbersome title “Integrating private transport into renewable energy policy: The strategy of creating intelligent recharging grids for electric vehicles”, the authors describe a model for solving two problems with one single integrated systems solution. The first deals with stability problems that arise with the introduction of more renewable energy: wind, solar and other renewables are not consistent in their electricity output [1]. The second problem is reducing CO2 emissions from the transport sector. By switching to electric vehicles (EVs), both these problems can be solved if what the authors dub the Electric Recharge Grid Operator (ERGO [2]) can be implemented. The idea is that EVs can be used as large portable batteries that supply electricity to the grid when not in use, thus evening out the spikes and valleys in renewable electricity production.

I’ll leave it to Andersen, Mathews and Rask themselves to explain it. From the abstract:

The ERGO business model effectively solves both problems, by transforming EVs into distributed storage devices for electricity, thus enabling a fresh approach to evening out of fluctuating and unpredictable energy sources, while drastically reducing green house gas emissions. This integrated solution carries many other associated benefits, amongst which are the possibility of introducing vehicle-to-grid (V2G) distributed power generation; introducing IT intelligence to the grid, and creating virtual power plants from distributed sources; and providing new applications for carbon credits in the decarbonisation of the economy.

Amazingly, several countries have already signed on to implement this the coming years. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Of course, the proposition is not without its problems. The most important one is that the whole things relies on the introduction of a “nationwide infrastructure of charging stations where EVs’ batteries may be charged (or replaced) easily and quickly.” This is easier said than done. The authors hope a new private initiative could provide pre-existing solutions so that the thing may get off the ground, but I have some serious doubts regarding that. Making big changes to infrastructure is not easily done without large involvement from the public sector. Similarly, they propose decoupling battery ownership from car ownership, so that batteries are leased rather than owned by drivers. This will facilitate frequent changing and charging batteries at designated charging stations similar to today’s gas stations. This actually requires a change in the design of modern EVs, as they are not set up for easy, on-the-spot battery changing.

All in all, it all sounds very good, but also insanely ambitious.

Speaking of vehicles and ambitions, a different Energy Policy article has tried to measure the fuel efficiency of US cars since 1923 (!) to today. The article, titled “Fuel efficiency of vehicles on US roads:1923–2006” is brief (3 pages), but interesting. It seems that fuel efficiency actually went down until about 1970, probably due to cars getting larger and heavier, and then quickly increased a lot until the improvement slowed down considerably around 1990. Does this mean that the auto industry has reached its potential when it comes to miles per gallon, or is there something else going on here? Of course, these findings must be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of the early numbers are based on estimates of all involved parameters: number of cars on the road, kinds of vehicles, number of miles driven, amount of fuel used. But from the 70s on, the numbers seem better.

Anyway, this brings me full circle to the topic of electric vehicles. An interesting article in Wired details how new plug-in hybrids are more fuel efficient than regular cars, getting more miles for the gallon. This might sound obvious, since they partly run on electricity (and that electricity must come from somewhere), but the question is more how much is gained. Seems like the gain in efficiency is less than the industry has touted. The industry claims that this is because people don’t drive the cars correctly, but that sounds like a weak excuse. Firstly, because with “correct” driving, normal fuel cars could go much farther too, and secondly, because measuring fuel efficiency should be based on real life situations and not desert test tracks. That being said, the new plug-ins still improve on both older hybrids and even older all-fuel cars.

[1] One interesting discussion of this regarding wind can be found here.
[2] Cleverly also the Latin word for “energy”.

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Andersen, P., Mathews, J., & Rask, M. (2009). Integrating private transport into renewable energy policy: The strategy of creating intelligent recharging grids for electric vehicles Energy Policy, 37 (7), 2481-2486 DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2009.03.032

Sivak, M., & Tsimhoni, O. (2009). Fuel efficiency of vehicles on US roads: 1923–2006 Energy Policy DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2009.04.001