All posts by Tim De Chant

8 Cities That Show You What the Future Will Look Like

Wired has an amazing spread in this month’s issue that surveys how eight different cities are planning for the future. I’m honored to have contributed to the piece. You can check it out online, but I’m assured that it’ll be even better in print.

How Humans Can Win the Race Against the Machines

Christopher Mims, writing for the Wall Street Journal:

It may sound paradoxical to use high tech to make modern schools resemble those of bygone eras. (Picture Socratic dialogues mixed with challenging, rather than rote, vocational training.)

But consider the alternative, which is what many public schools have drifted into: Curricula in which students are overwhelmed with homework and tests, as physical activity and extracurricular pursuits dwindle.

We should count ourselves lucky if the noise about technology “disrupting” education ends up killing our obsession with standardized testing.

When all Japan's a Tokyo suburb

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku, reporting for the Guardian:

The bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad.

Tree Project Aims to Put the Oak Back in Oakland

Patricia Leigh Brown covers, for the New York Times, the efforts in Oakland to bring more of the city’s namesake trees back to the area. I was pleased that this tidbit made it into the final copy:

The people restoring the oaks point out that there is a strong link between urban trees and health, and that children get more exercise when they live in a greener neighborhood. In Oakland, disparities between the leafy hills and low-income flatlands — sometimes called the “green-gray divide” — went viral three years ago when satellite imagery of income inequality seen from space was posted on the blog Per Square Mile. According to state data, 25 census tracts in Oakland are in the top quarter of the state’s worst toxic hot spots of air pollution and other negative health factors.

Robber Barons Would Have Loved Facebook’s Employee Housing

Yours truly, reporting for Wired:

Of course, elaborate, amenity-filled campuses are nothing new to Silicon Valley’s big tech firms. Google’s microcosm looks and feels like nothing so much as a college campus with a zillion-dollar endowment. Many current Facebook employees presumably eat at the Facebook BBQ pit, relax on the Facebook plaza, and exercise at the Facebook climbing wall. But adding housing is something new. If this real estate move goes through, about 300 of those Facebookers will soon sleep in a Facebook apartment. I’m sure many of them will “like” that arrangement.

The most charitable interpretation of all this is that Facebook is building the first arcology, like what the fantasist architect Paolo Soleri described and halfway (well, eighth-way) built at Arcosanti, his own little urban microcosm in the Arizona desert. Arcologies were supposed to be self-contained cities-in-a-bottle, live-work-play spaces that were self-sustaining, with teeny ecological footprints.

But if you want to be less charitable, Facebookville might still sound familiar. The company is really just creating a version of the company town, something that was all the rage among wealthy industrialists in the early 20th century.

Costa Rican electricity has been fossil fuel free for months

Lizzie Wade, reporting for Wired:

Like Paraguay, Colombia, Brazil, and many other Latin American countries, Costa Rica gets most of its energy—about 80 percent—from hydroelectric plants. Damming rivers has environmental consequences too, obviously, but the energy from the resulting power plants is carbon-free. Hydropower is also more reliable and easier to scale up than existing wind and solar technologies.

So in that sense, Costa Rica’s 75-day streak may be impressive, but it isn’t surprising, says Juan Roberto Paredes, a renewable energy expert at the Inter-American Development Bank. On average, the country’s energy matrix was already nearly 90 percent renewable, making it the second most “renewable country” in Latin America (after Paraguay, which gets nearly all of its energy from just one dam).

The other 15 percent? Geothermal from the country’s numerous volcanoes.

Let’s Talk About Designer Wild Critters, Not Designer Babies

Yours truly, writing at NOVA Next:

While the world frets over whether CRISPR, a powerful genetic engineering technique, should be used to alter the DNA of our children, a pair of researchers in San Diego achieved something more sweeping and, according to some scientists, equally disconcerting.

In a paper published yesterday, Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier, both at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrated the first successful implementation of a CRISPR-Cas9-based gene drive in the germ line of fruit flies. The CRISPR gene drive is a powerful piece of technology that all but guarantees an engineered trait is passed on to every single offspring. Within months or years, it has the ability to alter an entire population of a sexually reproducing species.

CRISPR-based gene drives were first posited by Kevin Esvelt and George Church last summer, when they cautioned against experiments like this. I have no doubt that this technology will be someday employed—beneficially— but we have to figure out the parameters of use first.

The arcology of Whittier, Alaska

If you’ve ever been to Arcosanti in Arizona or played SimCity 2000, it’s likely you’ve heard of arcologies. It’s hard to describe them succinctly, but a “city in one building” would be a good start, and that’s exactly what Whittier, Alaska, is. Nearly all of the town’s 180-some residents live in a single, 14-story condo building, complete with city offices, police department, and shops. The school sits adjacent but is connected so kids don’t have to bundle up for the short walk in the harsh Alaskan winters. Indie Alaska interviews Erika Thompson, a teacher at the school, about life in Whittier.

A brief history of recycling

John Timmer, reporting for Ars Technica:

So how did we get from Boy Scout pickups to multimillion dollar facilities that handle 15,000 tons of materials per month? Like recycling itself, it’s a complicated story, one driven by false starts and historic accidents. And that’s in part because recycling is hard, a process driven by lots of critical forces that push in opposite directions.

I’ve lived through many stages of recycling’s evolution—I still remember when we had to bag our newspapers, and my dad used to buy beer in returnable bottles—but I’ve never considered the entire timeline. Short of a book on the topic, this is the best overview out there.

Syria After Four Years of Mayhem

Lighting visible at night from space is often used as a proxy for development—see North vs. South Korea for particularly stark example. But it can also reveal the ravages of war, as a group of remote sensing scientists discovered. I’ve linked to a nice breakdown posted by the New York Times, but you can also read the original work in the International Journal of Remote Sensing.

Why Apple will make a car—and probably a lot more

CarPlay screen-1200-80

It has quickly become apparent that autonomous vehicles will change the way we move in the near future. Not only do they promise to give commuters precious hours of their day back, they could do away with the entire notion of car ownership. Cities, built today around automobiles, will reshape themselves to fit this new reality.

Car manufacturers see the writing on the wall, and they aren’t dragging their feet. Mercedes, Audi, Ford, and others have revealed that they’re developing technology to remove humans from the driving equation. Sensing an opening, outsiders want in, like Google, which has been kindling the self-driving fire for years. Even Apple is apparently interested, and that has a number of people asking, why? Currently, Apple doesn’t make anything bigger than a 27-inch all-in-one computer. A car is orders of magnitude larger and substantially more complex.

Some people speculate it’s because the next “screen” for a company to dominate is in the car, and if Apple wants to expand, they need to more aggressively court drivers (or rather, future passengers). Others say that because it is sitting on such a huge pile of cash—and several of its executives are obsessed with cars—why not? One person even thinks that Apple feels pressured because Google’s doing it.

There may be some truth in those hypotheses, but fundamentally, they’re all different degrees of wrong.¹ The one answer that explains it all is that Apple isn’t a computer company anymore. It’s a design firm, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Back in 2007, Apple dropped the “Computer” from its name, becoming simply Apple, Inc. It happened the day the iPhone was announced and at the peak of the iPod era. Many argued that the company was simply acknowledging that as music became more important to the bottom line, they couldn’t keep calling themselves a computer company.² In reality, there may have been another reason, one that is more philosophical than tangible: The name change allowed them to focus on more than just computers.

In a way, Apple has always been a design firm, just one with a singular focus. Steve Jobs used to push people at Apple to “make a dent in the universe”. That’s how design firms think, not companies that just make computers. They consider a problem and try to devise the best solution. Computers are the solution to a set of problems, but they’re not a solution for all of them.

Few things are in greater need of a solution than transportation. Automobiles account for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Collectively, Americans waste billions of hours a year stuck in gridlock. And by one estimate, parking spaces in the U.S. could occupy up to 24,000 square miles—as much as West Virginia. Extrapolate those numbers to a global scale and you quickly see why Apple might be compelled to put a dent in that universe.

Good design firms believe that they can not only find a solution to a problem, but that they can find the best solution to the problem. I think that Jony Ive and his team, despite their apparent modesty, honestly think that way. And for a long time, the transportation problem has been staring them in the face. Many on the team commute from San Francisco to Cupertino, and the traffic on that drive can be horrendous. While stuck in gridlock, they’re confronted with ill-conceived conveyances and distracted drivers. Plus, they probably feel some measure of guilt about their carbon footprint.³

Certainly other design firms have offered their solutions to the problem of transportation, and several are quite promising. But none of those firms actually make things. That’s where Apple can make a difference. Apple isn’t just different from other computer makers because of their design-centric attitude, it’s also different from other design firms because they manufacture and sell the products they design in huge quantities. Few companies are as well positioned to not just offer a solution, but deliver it.

Viewed through that lens, it’s not surprising that Apple is designing a car. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the car is released, the company starts looking for another design problem to solve, maybe one a little closer to home.

  1. Apple has CarPlay, which is increasing in adoption, giving it a commanding slice of in-car screens. “Why not?” is a terrible reason to do anything. And Apple doesn’t follow Google on everything, in part because they have vastly different business models.
  2. Remember, back then we still thought “computer” meant desktop or laptop. How quaint.
  3. Granted, if you drive an eight-cylinder Bentley Mulsane and own a private jet, you probably don’t feel that guilty, but I’m guessing it’s crossed his mind.

Related posts:

How self-driving cars will change cities

How far should you live from work?

In 40 years, will self-driving cars send us packing for the suburbs?

Life is Flourishing in the Iron Curtain's Death Zone

Phil McKenna, reporting for a piece NOVA Next jointly published with the Big Roundtable:

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1989, the man in front of me had hatched a plan to transform the former no-man’s land that separated Western Europe from the Eastern Bloc into an eco-corridor running through the heart of Europe. It was a preposterous idea. The Iron Curtain had been just that—a series of steel-reinforced barriers. Electrified fences, razor wire, land mines, trip lines, and machine guns: If it could stop, maim, or kill you, the Soviets put it there. Not exactly “eco.”

What’s more, the corridor would bisect one of the most heavily settled and fully domesticated continents on earth. Central Europe’s ecosystems have been so thoroughly reduced that locals don’t even bother hanging window screens.

Yet if returning lynx, wolves, and other wildlife are any indicator, it might just work. If it does, the European Green Belt, as proponents call it, will be one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.

McKenna has crafted a wonderful story from years of reporting. Well worth a read.

Ford is developing a ride-sharing app and companion vehicle

Emily Badger, reporting for the Washington Post:

Ford is trying to develop its own Uber-like “ride-sharing” app with a twist that only an automaker can bring to this rapidly shifting market — Ford is also working on a vehicle to go with it. Not a theoretical autonomous car, as Uber has fantasized (and begun researching with Carnegie Mellon). But a more achievable, legal-today ride-sharing shuttle that could be tested on the streets of London later this year.

“There is a white space for a new product,” says John Abernethy, project lead for the Advanced Product Group at Ford Motor Company based in Britain. “Between a taxi and a bus is a space for something else.”

When we'll run out of oil

When is peak oil? Plenty of ink has been spilled in service of predicting when, exactly, we’ll run out of oil. Some people say it has passed, others insist that because of advances in drilling technology, we’ll continue to find more.

Well, Rhett Allain asks another question over at his blog, Dot Physics: Assuming we had infinite access to oil, would we ever run out? Turns out the answer is, essentially, yes. And it will almost certainly happen this century. Maybe a better question would be, if we’ll have to transition from oil in the coming decades, why not make the switch sooner than later?

Until 1948, Souther California was like a foreign country to electric appliances

Nathan Masters with a fun bit of trivia:

For decades, then, the Southland was a sort of electrical enclave. Though its borders were unmarked in official micrgaming atlases, crossing those invisible lines had very real consequences for manufacturers and consumers alike. Some electrical appliances worked at both frequencies, but for frequency-sensitive online gaming software products manufacturers created special 50hz models just for the Southern California market. And when newcomers moved from outside the region, they paid to the best casino bonuses have their old devices converted, or simply bought new ones that would work on the 50hz grid.

Much of the U.S. had settled on 60 Hz, but a hydropower plant built in the 1890s () set Southern California on a different path.

Blizzard cut Massachusetts carbon emissions by 32%


During this week’s blizzard, Massachusetts and several other states in the Northeast took the not-unprecedented measure of banning nonessential traffic from the roads. The official reason was to keep plows moving freely and prevent distracted drivers from sliding into ditch, but it also had an unintended consequence—the ban lowered the region’s carbon emissions.

Every day, transportation pumps out just over 60,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts alone. That’s about a third of the state’s overall emissions, which total about 178,000 metric tons per day. In other words, taking cars off the road can have a considerable impact.

And it did, though it’s not as straightforward as subtracting those 60,000 metric tons. While private cars weren’t on the road, plenty of snowplows and other machinery are. Since they wouldn’t be prowling about without a snowstorm, they mitigated the reduction. Statewide, there were about 5,000 pieces of equipment out dealing with the snow. As a ballpark estimate based on self-reported fuel use by snowplow drivers, they use about two gallons of fuel per hour and were split between gas and diesel. (Gas sold at service stations produces about 18 pounds of CO2 per gallon, diesel about 22 pounds, so we’ll say 20 pounds on average.) So while 60,000 metric tons of emissions are eliminated with the ban, about 2,300 metric tons are added.

Work through the math and you see about 57,000 metric tons of emissions were reduced by the driving ban. So yesterday, Massachusetts produced about 32 percent less CO2 than it typically would have. Over the course of the year, that’s a drop in the bucket. But for one day, we caught a unique glimpse of an automobile-free future.

The Scientist Who Thought 22 Trillion Aliens Live in Our Solar System

Matt Simon, writing for Wired:

Here’s what Dick figured. At the time, there were an average of 280 people per square mile in England. And because he thought every surface of our universe bears life, it would naturally occur at roughly the same population density. So from comets and asteroids to the rings of Saturn, if you knew how big something was, you could guess how many beings live there. Thus, Jupiter would be the most populated object in the solar system, with 7 trillion beings. The least populated would be Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, tallying just 64 million.

'Year's best satellite images'

It’s time for the usual end of the year lists, and Slate posted on on the “best” satellite images snapped by commercial outfit DigitalGlobe. Usually, when sites publish satellite photos, they’re cherry picked from terabytes of data. They look amazing because they’re sharp shots of charismatic places. This list is no different, except for one.

The second shot, the one of the Maidan in Kiev, Ukraine, shows what most satellite images look like. Far from crisp and stunning, it’s grainy, muddy, and riddled with obfuscating shadows. But it’s still amazing.

Summer jobs keep kids out of trouble

Emily Badger, writing for the Washington Post:

A couple of years ago, the city of Chicago started a summer jobs program for teenagers attending high schools in some of the city’s high-crime, low-income neighborhoods. The program was meant, of course, to connect students to work. But officials also hoped that it might curb the kinds of problems — like higher crime — that arise when there’s no work to be found.

Research on the program conducted by the University of Chicago Crime Lab and just published in the journal Science suggests that these summer jobs have actually had such an effect: Students who were randomly assigned to participate in the program had 43 percent fewer violent-crime arrests over 16 months, compared to students in a control group.

Turbolifts close to reality

Get ready, architects. German company Thyssenkrupp is close to testing a maglev-powered elevator that can travel sideways in addition to vertically. 

(James Temperton at Wired UK invokes the Wonkavator from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I prefer Adam Rogers’s Star Wars/Star Trek reference—the turbolift.)