The Motors of August Cicadas

(reprinted from “Germtales” 8/16/06)

I am being serenaded by cicadas and it is glorious. They are the sound of summer, the neon hum to the flicker dance of lightning bugs on warm humid nights. Cicadas are everywhere and nowhere. How can something that loud and large be so hard to spot?

Their suits from a past life pile up, empty shells abandoned near trees, sometimes in mid-climb. Each is perfect in every exquisite detail, with a slit along the back where its owner wriggled out to take on a new identity complete with wings, its long subterranean childhood forgotten in the rush to meet the future. 

Dinosaurs listened to cicadas. And before them, lizards, amphibians and other insects as far back a quarter of a billion years ago during the Permian period when even Pangaea wasn’t quite Pangaea yet. Cicadas have survived global extinctions, ice ages and the asphalt tombs of urban sprawl. Summer after summer they deftly navigate a gauntlet of hungry predators in a daring dash to the treetops for a few brief weeks of uncorked noisy revelry, a blow-out party years in preparation.

Scientists know quite a lot about cicadas, from the meanings of their songs  to their diva-worthy requirements: a soil temperature of at least 64°F to emerge and an air temperature of at least 70°F to sing. They have documented the tragic/comic cicadian ardor for lawn mowers and leaf blowers and analyzed the male’s tymbals (abdominal ridges) used to compose love songs. Though wings are for mostly for flying, females also use them for signaling. “Over here, honey!”

Still, despite so much research, cicadas have managed to keep more than a few secrets.

For starters, each fertilized female lays hundreds of eggs in tree branches, which means the first order of business for newly hatched larvae is literally to take a flying leap into the unknown. It is the fastest way down and they have no time to lose. They must dig into the ground and start feeding on tree roots before the weather turns frosty. Just like Carl Sagan’s stars, there are billions upon billions of larvae, yet I don’t think I have ever seen a single one in mid-leap. Maybe they leap in the dark. Or maybe they disappear in the glint of the sun. Or maybe, just maybe, they magically turn themselves invisible. They are, after all, in the genus Cicada Magicada

Even more of a mystery, though, is why a few species in North America emerge only once every 13 or 17 years. The most popular theory explaining this unique prime number preference involves predator defense. Most predator species—birds, bats, squirrels, raccoon, skunks, possums—have reproductive cycles of one or two years. A cicada emergence on this scale is a luck-of-the-draw surprise feast and when it is over, bulked up predator populations quickly crash back to more manageable levels. There are always far more cicadas than predators. 

But why 13 and 17 years specifically? Why not 5 or 7 or 19? Most of the hundreds upon hundreds of other cicada species in the world, including species native to the very same areas of North America, manage to survive just fine on a two-year cycle. Also, spending too much time underground is not without risk. A forest might be ripped up to make way for a highway or parking lot, its root-dependent nymphs lost as collateral damage. Trees can also die of disease (since 2002, the Emerald Ash borer, for example, has killed tens of millions of trees). Fire, farming, urban sprawl—each takes a toll.

These, however, are comparatively recent hazards to which our cicadian heroes have had little time to adapt. To what, then, could a 13 or 17-year cycle be adapted? Is it possible that these broods are a kind of time shadow, vestiges of a changing climate at the end of the Pleistocene? As North America warmed up and glaciers melted, cicada populations expanded into new areas, but it was a long process spanning millennia. A population—or brood—of cicadas might have found itself stuck underground for an extra season or two or more waiting for the soil to heat up to that critical 64°F degrees. Perhaps they continued to feed on roots while biding their time. What if a cold spell lasted for several years and the cicadas that survived emerged with their internal clocks reset? Would the new cycle continue since there would be no environmental pressure for it to change? 

The mystery goes even deeper: How exactly do insects with a brain the size of a speck count at all? It turns out they take their cue from trees. In a very clever experiment, a team of researchers at the UC-Davis tricked orchard trees into two foliage cycles per season. The 17-year cicada nymphs sucking on roots emerged at the 17th cycle, even though only 8 ½ years had passed (abstract).

That still doesn’t quite explain how cicadas count to a specific number, which is thought to be hard-wired into their biology. In fact, 13 and 17-year cicadas could be counting by fours altogether, with a one year add-on: 

(3 x 4 ) + 1 = 13 and (4 x 4) + 1 = 17.

On a molecular level, it turns out there is not much difference between 13 and 17-year cicadas. If a 17-year cicada emerges early, it is often by four years (though sometimes by one), which means that it is possible that the 13-year broods developed as a sub-population of early-emerging 17 year cicadas. No one really knows. 


Next year, Brood XIII—which ironically happens to be a 17-year brood—will emerge here in Chicago, as well as parts of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Perhaps a few popped out early because it has been a pretty thunderous season. The motors of August cicadas, so loud, so summer, so right now, but also a sound of the deep past, of patience and of time itself. This is just the warm up band for the chorus to come. 

I can’t wait.

— J.A. Ginsburg  / @Trackernews

* Brood XIII won’t bee seen again until 2024. If you can’t wait that long, here is a schedule of all the North American 17 and 13-year broods. 

** video credit: Amazing Cicada life cycle - Sir David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth - BBC wildlife

Mulling Snow, Climate, Pain Points, Bootstrapping and Chicago’s Advantage


It turns out the snow pack they are so desperate for in California’s Sierra Nevada has instead landed, flake by elegant flake, right here in Chicago this year. It has been yet another shovel-in-hand weekend, with yet another 3 to 6 inches expected on Tuesday. Still, despite the misery and inconvenience, all this freak weather could play to Chicago’s competitive advantage in tech—and most everything else, too. 

Rarely does climate change figure into discussions about tech ecosystems. It should. Everything about tech, from developer talent to data storage to financing, can shift to greener pastures pretty quickly.  A special report on tech startups in the Economist magazine noted 

"…This digital feeding frenzy has given rise to a global movement. Most big cities, from Berlin and London to Singapore and Amman, now have a sizeable startup colony (ecosystem). Between them they are home to hundreds of startup schools (accelerators) and thousands of co-working spaces where cafeinated folk in their 20s and 30s toil hunched over their laptops. All these ecosystems are highly interconnected, which explains why internet entrepreneurs are a global crowd. Like medieval journeymen, they travel from city to city, laptop, not hammer, in hand. A few of them spend a semester with "Unreasonable at Sea", an accelerator on a boat which cruises the world while its passengers code. Anyone who writes code can become an entrepreneur anywhere in the world, says Simon Levene, a venture capitalist in London…” (emphasis added)
California’s extreme drought could, according to experts, turn into a decades or even centuries-long megadrought. Meanwhile, rising sea levels on the East Coast mean even average storms can trigger billion-dollar disasters (see Sandy). This is not good news for anybody, but the most severe costs will be felt locally. Both New York and San Francisco are already dealing with an anti-tech blowback driven by spiraling housing costs ("These 2 cities are now exclusively for rich people", "Tech’s growing problem in San Francisco") The impacts of climate change will make an already bad situation worse. 

There is hardly a spot on the planet that isn’t off-kilter weatherwise. Italy and France are dog-paddling through record floods (seriously not the moment to go Florence.)Australia is sweating through a record summer. The World Economic Forum now ranks extreme weather number 6 on its list of Global Risks, singling out Asia as being particularly vulnerable:

"…Japan’s Tokyo, Manila in the Philippines and China’s Pearl River Delta region—one of the most densely urbanized areas in the world—top Swiss Re’s list of cities most at-risk in terms of population. Only one non-Asian city, Los Angeles, made the top 10.
The insurer named the Pearl River Delta—which includes Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Macau and Guangzhou—as number one when looking at the number of people potentially affected by storm, storm surges and river floods…”

If you are looking for a “pain point,” climate change is the big one, affecting everything from supply chains to blood banks.

As high as Chicago’s snow piles and deep as its pot holes may be, our city may find itself in a better position than most to find opportunity in this rather bleak global weather forecast. Some of the same factors that made Chicago interesting to settlers two centuries ago are still in play today: Lake Michigan, a central location and nearby some of the best farmland in the world. Add to that a deep bench in manufacturing, engineering, architecture and design and a uniquely compelling picture emerges. Today, when it seems as if every city uses the same economic development playbook (accelerators! incubators! investors! universities!), competitive advantage requires a bigger picture perspective. 


Adrian Holovaty’s presentation on bootstrapping at the recent CEC Startup Showcase has sparked considerable discussion on the Built in Chicago blog—and beyond—about the city’s place in the tech universe and how best to measure success. (“Is Chicago’s tech community in search of a new identity?”) Is bootstrap culture our strength? Is it diversity as Matt Moog suggests? Should it be measured in VC investment dollars? 

Almost everything now is either a tech-driven or tech-enabled business, so what really counts is the blend. Positioning the tech sector as an economic savior is disingenuous. The real money in tech is as a value-add. Bits meet atoms. Google is in the thermostat business, while Tesla cheerfully disrupts the auto industry. 
Chicago’s budding bootstrap community, which includes hardware as well as software developers (with considerable overlap between the two) could serve as a much needed catalyst, strengthening the connections between the city’s manufacturing, engineering, design, architecture and tech sectors. In fact, a new co-working space set to open later this month called Catalyze Chicago in the West Loop will prototype a new kind of co-working space for product developers. Its list of advisors is impressive, including software and hardware heavyweights and a few Kickstarter veterans (As Catalyze grows, it would be wonderful to see some women industrial designers and product developers added to the mix.)
The more opportunity for these different worlds to connect, the more potential there is for productive and profitable collaborations. Ironically, the segregation of tech-haves and have-nots causing so much unease on the coasts is also a creative buzzkill. When the best and brightest are shuttled back and forth within the cushy confines of corporate buses and provided company-catered meals morning, noon and night, they end up silo’ed with an ever-narrowing vision of the world. Bootstrappers have to reach out and collaborate. It is their resilient edge. 
I would love to see a sector-bridging public lecture series in Chicago:  ”AIA night at 1871” “Urban Ag Night at 1871” “Kickstarter Night at 1871”  ”Theatre Tech at 1871.” There so much potential yet to be tapped.
Now, we just need someone to invent a self-healing pot hole-impervious asphalt and we’ll really be in business. 
(reprinted from the Built in Chicago blog) 

Glass, Tech and Civilization: The Material that Makes Just About Everything Better

imageI stared at the small glass bottle in the exhibit case for quite a while. Somehow it had survived millennia. Taken out of the case at the Museo del Vetro—the Museum of Glass—on the Italian island of Murano, its specialness would have been obscured by an utterly unremarkable appearance. Spectacular glasswork is part of the Venetian sparkle, its seductive shimmer. Such a small plain bottle. Who made it? What did it hold? How had it managed to navigate the centuries intact? 

It was late winter and the tourist rush was still off in the distance, so I had the Museum mostly to myself. Murano, too, for that matter. I strolled narrow streets festooned with colorful laundry hung to dry overhead, nibbled on the most delicious cookies from a local bakery, listened to seabirds and felt  the warmth the fast-approaching spring. It was easy to slip back in time—maybe not millennia, but certainly a few centuries into the past—to a time when even the plainest of glass jars was still something to treasure. In a pre-plastic world, glass provided secure, transparent storage. In Italy, of course, form and function are incomplete without beauty. The little bottle was a light translucent lavender. 

Last fall, I made a glass bowl of my own at a workshop given by Chicago’s Ignite Glass Studio (a particularly popular offering through the Chicago Ideas Week festival). Glass, it turns out, is neither a liquid or a solid, but an amorphous solid, which means it has properties of both. The basic recipe is simple—silica (sand), soda ash and lime—but it can be chemically manipulated in the most remarkable ways, adding color, thermal properties and resilience (the newest version of Corning’s Gorilla glass for smartphones and tablets can be bent without breaking). Glass can be molded in a kiln, “floated” on tin sheets to make windows, rolled, spun and even 3D printed

Blowing glass, though, has an almost alchemical magic to it. The glassblower literally breathes life into the form by providing a bubble of air and must keep the form alive by constantly spinning a heavy metal rod. What starts as an unpromising molten blob attached at one end slowly transforms into something delicate, translucent, ethereal. It takes brute strength and a delicate touch, neither of which I possess, but my master teacher deftly filled in the gaps. 

The video below is a demonstration from the Corning Glass Museum. Watch  all the way through and you’ll be joining in with the videographer exclaiming early and often, “Wow!”

My little bowl was nowhere near as elaborate, but still fills me with wonder. It turns out it doesn’t matter whether the glass is half-filled or half-empty. The point is there is a glass. 


No one material has been at the center of more disruptive innovation than glass. Edison’s lightbulb, the archetypal symbol of innovation, required a glassblower to blow the bulb. 

Centuries earlier, Galileo, who ground his own lenses, pointed his telescope toward the heavens, boldly looked where no one had looked so clearly before, and profoundly altered our view of the cosmos and our place in it. The Space Age had begun. Similarly, microscopes made the invisible visible, leading to new theories of disease and a much deeper understanding of how bodily systems worked. These tools of superhuman sight led to insights that changed the world.

Eyeglasses, which date back as far as 13th century, did not bestow  superhuman powers, but vastly improved countless lives by bringing the day-to-day into focus. Eight centuries later, a project to make affordable glasses in Africa just won a prestigious award from the Siemens Foundation for empowering technologies. A single eyeglass machine carted from village to village by a trained operator can churn out thousands of pairs at a cost of less than one dollar per to manufacture That’s not just life-changing, but potentially society-changing.

Back to the 19th century, Edison’s lightbulb almost literally lit the way for a revolution in electronics that would define much of the 20th century. Vacuum tubes, which made radio, television and sound recording possible, also required glassblowers in their development. Even today, many university and corporate labs have a glassblowing studios on premises to fabricate equipment and components. 

The story of Steve Jobs’ discovery of a failed glass product developed by Corning in the early 1950s is the stuff of Silicon Valley legend. In a mind-boggling six weeks, the company manufactured enough of its super-tough Gorilla glass to launch Apple’s first iPhone, ushering in the era of the touchscreen. Tablets and smart phones are just the beginning. Thin bendable glass is the next gadget frontier: 

"…it also means an entire galaxy of new types of gadgets that haven’t even been conceived of yet. Imagine an in-car display that ripples and wraps itself across your dashboard, or some sort of super-charged Magic Eightball that is simply a sphere with a 360-degree display. These gadgets are still a ways off, but the likes of Corning, Apple, Samsung, and LG are skating to where the puck is going. In 20 years, you won’t be able to believe that the world of gadgets was once so boxy.

—John Brownlee / Fast Company Design


Modern cities glisten with glass. Buildings soar ever taller, reflecting the sun, the weather, each other. But there is much more to a building’s glass surface than an elegant shimmer. Glass can let in light, add color and provide thermal insulation. Now, with integrated solar panels, a building’s skin can also generate electricity.  

Imagine:  a city full of elegant buildings that double as power plants. Let’s raise a glass to that. From ancient perfume bottles and stargazing telescopes to the lights of Broadway and a clean energy future, glass just seems to have a way of bringing out the best civilization has to offer. 


• For the Files: Glass, Tech and Civilization bibliography

A Tale of Two Maps and Why You Can’t Teach an Old Grid New Tricks


Oh b’rrrrrr. It’s January in Chicago and it’s snowy and cold outside. No news there. But when the temperature dips from the merely miserable into the realm of record-breaking arctic awful, it is the only news that matters. Snow at least can be shoveled. But 15 degrees below zero—with a wind chill “real feel” of 40 below—requires a full scale tactical retreat. Unless, of course, you happen to be a polar bear at Lincoln Park Zoo, in which case, it feels just like home. Or it should. It’s a bit of the North Pole come to visit.

In weather-speak, the polar vortex is a hurricane of frigid air that swirls around the arctic circle. For yet undetermined reasons, it weakened, flinging off a huge plume of coldness (or, as the Weather Channel’s Mike Seidel put it, “a big blob of bitter”) that will soon cover half of North America. Despite the obvious irony, many suspect global warming probably played a role in this. . 

It is certainly to blame for the record-breaking heat currently roasting  Australia where temperatures in the 120s (F) have become all too common.

"…The week-long heatwave that has gripped central Australia has ensured 2014 has started where 2013 left off.

In its annual climate statement yesterday, the weather bureau reported that Australia experienced its hottest year on record last year, with average mean temperatures 1.2C above the long-term average of 21.8C. Last year also recorded the hottest day on record, the warmest winter day and the warmest January and September since records began more than 100 years ago. Sydney and Hobart both recorded their hottest days on record…”

— “Brisbane braces for scorching heatwave” / The Australian, 1/4/2014

Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, looks at longer range patterns for climate trends. 

"What matters is this decade is warmer than the last decade, and that decade was warmer than the decade before. The planet is warming. The reason it’s warming is because we are pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."

—More Extreme Weather Events Forecast / NASA 

The result is record-smashing weather. While England has been battered this winter by a series of storms whose high winds and torrential downpours have led to catastrophic flooding and the Philippines is still in shock from its brush with the largest typhoon to make landfall in recorded history, California, number one for agriculture in the US, is entering its fourth year of drought.

Too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry, too much. Today’s high in Chicago is predicted to be the lowest ever: 10 degrees below zero. In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, north of the arctic circle, it will be a balmy 5 degrees above. What’s wrong with this picture?


Whipped into a preparedness frenzy by wall-to-wall weather coverage, most area schools have extended the winter break by at least a day and those who can are working from home or taking the day off. For the next day and a half, I will mostly be in the cozy cocoon of my kitchen. As long as the wifi holds, I am in business. 

A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses from Michigan to Toronto to Maine weren’t so lucky when a record-breaking ice storm made hash of the power grid. Tree limbs snapped cables and transformers shorted out. It took over a week to make repairs, with crews  from all over the country coming to the rescue. Repair costs are still being tallied but will likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, which at least in Maine, will likely be passed along to consumers. Vermont is angling for some federal aid. No matter who covers that bill, it doesn’t include the cost to businesses that were forced to close, or property damage from frozen water pipes, or the expense of having to buy generators or move to a temporary shelter. 

The kicker is that it could happen again. The repaired grid is just a vulnerable as ever. Not only ice, but fire, heat (see Australia), lightning, wind and heavy rains can bring down a grid. So can a good solar storm. Or terrorists. 

…“We are woefully unprepared for any large-scale geographic outage that might take place over an extended period of time,” explained Joel Gordes, research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent group that assesses the danger of such attacks and what it would take to thwart them.  He said that while some generators and transmission lines probably would survive such an attack, they might not be able to muster enough juice to reboot the grid, which experts call a “black start.”  And if critical equipment is damaged beyond repair, it might be necessary to transport replacement units long distances—an undertaking that would be difficult, if communications systems were also seriously damaged by the attack….

— "American Blackout": Four Major Real-Life Threats to the Electric Grid / National Geographic

It seems impossible, but it gets worse. Beyond the vulnerability and inefficiency of the grid (an estimated 7% of electricity is literally lost in transmission), it is in poor repair. Most of the transformers in the US were installed 20 to 30 years ago and need to be replaced, but the pool of transformer-savvy workers is shrinking fast: 

"…It is a fact that technical and skilled workers that truly understand the ins and outs of power transformers are approaching retirement. Their important skills and talents are fading from the work force. This diminishing resource includes electrical engineers who in past decades had selected this field of study in college, but now are pursuing more alluring careers in new fields like smart-grid automation and computer science.

Concerning manufacturing and repair, designing and fabricating transformers is a labor-intensive activity requiring special skills acquired from years and years of hands-on experience. There are simply too few mentors providing the necessary apprenticeships. Training costs have also risen.

The labor force committed to maintaining and servicing these transformers is experiencing the same labor and skills shortages as the fabricators working in the shops. This includes special skills in fluid processing, electrical testing, vacuum filling, and oil testing – skills that can take years to develop including rigid safety requirements.

"The Perfect Storm in Transformer Maintenance" /  Bob Rasor, SD Myers, Inc. / Electric Energy Online

Why keep pouring good money after bad? 


Later this year, when the ratepayers of Maine find themselves on the hook paying for a power outage that has already cost them so much, some will look to California for a better idea—one that could literally change the balance of power. The key piece of the puzzle turns out to be a car battery.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, also happens to be Chairman of SolarCity, a company that leases solar panels. Adding a Tesla S battery to the lease package allows customers to store power generated on their rooftops during the day to be used at night. By the time all the subsidies are accounted for, the customer gets more reliable power for less money and the SolarCity can still make a profit over the life the lease. 

There are still a few hurdles when it comes to hooking up the main power grid: 

"…PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – California three big utilities – however, have argued to regulators that such subsidized storage systems would saddle other customers with the cost of maintaining the power grid and thus they should be charged connection fees. In California, homeowners already receive a credit for the solar electricity they send to the grid that is used to pay for the power they use when the sun isn’t shining. If homeowners can hook up batteries to their solar arrays, the utilities asked, what’s to stop them gaming the grid by storing electricity from the transmission system when rates are low and then selling it back to the utilities when rates are high?…"

—”Why You Might Buy Electricity From Elon Musk Some Day”  / Todd Woody / The Atlantic

Never mind that electric companies have already gamed the system by charging more for energy when demand is high no matter what it costs to procure. Given the massive upgrades required for the grid, it would simply be a smarter move to “pivot,” as they say in tech, and rethink the business model altogether. The shift to distributed generation not only reduces the need for large central power plants, but also the need for massive regional grids to distribute the power that is no longer generated by those plants. Instead, microgrids could be configured for a building or a street or a neighborhood, boosting efficiency, cutting costs, decreasing vulnerability and increasing resilience. What’s not to love? 

For the time being, the California Public Utilities Commission is recommending that connection fees only be applied when a battery system can store more power than can be produced by a solar array (otherwise, the battery could be charged up when grid electricity rates are low and the  power sold back when rates are high). 

The bottom line is that no one can afford the old way of doing things. It’s too expensive and it’s wrecking the climate. Renewable energy plus battery storage plus microgrids equals lower bills and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And, if we are lucky, a future where the polar vortex knows where it belongs. 

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


Ice storm most ‘devastating’ event to hit Toronto’s trees, climatologist says / Tim Alamenciak / Toronto Star

U.S. Electrical Grid on the Edge of Failure / Jeff Tollefson and Nature magazine  / Scientific American

Separating Fact from Fiction In Accounts of Germany’s Renewables Revolution / Amory Lovins / RMI

Europe’s Fossil Fuel Exit — 30% Of Fossil Fuel Power Capacity To Close By 2017, UBS Analysts Project  / CleanTechnica

How Microgrids are Bolstering the Nation’s Power Infrastructure / Justin Gerdes / Smithsonian magazine

Elon Musk: A Giga Factory For Electric Vehicle Batteries Needs To Be Built /  Dana Hull / San Jose Mercury News

When Bad Things Happen to Good Content: Form(at), Function, Perspective and Possibilities


On the surface, MOOCs—Massive Online Open Courses—look like such a good idea. A year ago, startups Udacity and Coursera were Silicon Valley darlings and every major university was rushing to be part of a movement promising to level an educational playing field distorted by spiraling costs and limited access. By digitally repackaging top tier college courses for free online distribution, the pendulum was supposed to swing toward a true meritocracy defined by hard work and talent. 

That remains a worthy goal, despite recent studies revealing Massive Online Drop-out Rates. Beyond technical and logistical glitches, it was probably folly to think that almost any topic could be MOOCicized. Like all new formats, there is a learning curve. This one for MOOCs just happened to be a little steeper than tech-giddy investors and promoters first thought. 

Over the last few months, I have tried three MOOCs, two through Coursera (Northwestern’s "Understanding Media by Understanding Google" and University of Pennsylvania’s "An Introduction to Marketing") and one from Udacity (The Design of Everyday Things”). All three were a bust and largely for the same reason: There were better ways for me to learn the material on my own.

Features such as discussion forums promoted as a way to provide a social dimension to learning often ended up doing just the opposite. In a recent NPR story, Tracy Wheeler, an educational consultant who tried five MOOCs (and completed three) talked of disappointment and frustration:  

…She had read the professor’s book and was excited and upbeat.

"I thought I’d go in deeper and come out wanting to move to India and help her with one of her experiments," she says.

…(S)he says she hated being chained to the computer screen and found the entire MOOC experience mechanistic, dreary and ineffectual.

"I’m a very social person. There was nothing to grasp on to," she says. "There were no people; there was no professor. In a sense you’re just learning in this void. … I would come away from my computer just kind of despondent and feeling really reduced somehow."

She says the courses’ online forums — the key support structure for many MOOCs — were isolating and largely absent of meaningful back-and-forth — or joy.

"It was like going up and scrawling your name on a graffiti wall. You know, there was no sense of community…"

—The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course / NPR

It turns out that it is not easy to digitally recreate a real life learning experience. It also risks recreating the flaws. 


University courses are designed to fit university schedules, so a MOOC can stretch for weeks on end even if the material doesn’t support it. The Coursera classes were an all too accurate flashback to my college days, where I quickly learned to avoid large quiz-addled survey courses (the MOOCs of their day) at all costs. They were almost always bloated and boring, designed to knock the stuffing out even the most interesting subjects. Clearly, if I was going to make it though to graduation, I needed another approach. By the time I was a senior, I had maneuvered my way into several graduate seminars by finding good teachers, then semester after semester signing up for their increasingly higher level courses. It was basically “Jeopardy: The University Edition” (I’ll take Soviet Geography for $800!”)—and how I ended up with a degree in East European history and a minor in fine art photography. A gifted teacher can bring depth to almost any subject and in the process also teach how to learn.

By nature and profession journalists are lifelong learners. They ask questions, do research and try to make sense of things. The big perk is what you get to discover along the way. I had no idea, for example, that I would become so deeply interested in microbiology or energy until I was assigned stories on those beats. My experience in print (newspapers, magazines, books), broadcast, digital and exhibitions, also taught me something about packaging information.

Content is clay. Almost anything can be translated into or out of a digital format and endlessly reused, remixed, recut, recombined  and repackaged. The challenge, then, becomes one of matching format(s) to needs. 


So why have MOOCs largely flopped while TED talksInstructables and Khan Academy videos flourished? It is the same reason YouTube has become my go-to resource for everything from “How do I make a GIF?” to “How do I install batteries in a Swiffer WetJet?” They get right to the point, delivering useful and compelling information in a readily accessible format. MOOCs on the other hand, tend to get leggy and lose focus over the weeks and months it takes to complete a course..

The technical glitches plaguing MOOCs will eventually be worked out, but equally pressing is the need to develop metrics for determining what subjects are best suited the format and identifying the characteristics of a well-produced MOOC. Udacity is already pivoting from its original model, taking on corporate partners, shifting focus toward training and charging tuition. 

A few thoughts:

1) Make sure the format adds value:  Ironically, the Udacity course on user-friendly product design was presented through very confusing user interface. After a few hours or fiddling around, I gave up, figuring it would be faster to read the suggested text by designer Don Norman and scout YouTube for some of his lectures. Indeed, I would have much preferred seeing Norman, the Sir David Attenborough of his field, share his insights in a BBC-style documentary. Similarly, I didn’t have the patience for the Google course where questions such as “Can you imagine your life without Google?” filled the discussion board. There are plenty of articles, books and videos covering the same material. Just Google Google.

2) More teaching, less dazzling: MOOCs often present a checklist for each class consisting of several short videos, podcasts and article links. That’s a lot of jumping around. It is usually more effective to use one or two formats (a video lecture, a narrated slide set or a text excerpt) to cover key material. Teaching is a kind of storytelling and clarity counts. Everything extra belongs in the reference bibliography. 

3) Design the course to fit the material: If the content can be presented in one or two lectures rather than ten, don’t pad it. A MOOC doesn’t have to be semester-long or a quarter-long or a half-semester-long. It can be as short or long as it needs to be. The design course with Don Norman was set up as a two-week sampler to test out the format. Here is hoping the bugs can be fixed. 

4) Cut anything that isn’t essential or contributing value:  Discussion forums have developed a spotty record so may not always be necessary. 

5) Consider other ways to package the information: For example, create a course-specific digital textbook containing the same content. Off-the-shelf digital platforms such as Inkling or MAZ can accommodate weblinks as well as video embeds and graphics. Students would still need to go to the course site to upload homework and take exams, but the digital book format could make it easier to search for specific information, review material and see the arc of the course. Students could bookmark and highlight content and write notes in the digital margins. This is an “and” not an “or,” so there could be small fee ($10 to $20) for students who would prefer this format. 


The brilliance of digital media is its endless flexibility. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, content naturally wants to nest, so a blog post can be…

  • linked in an article…
  • that’s quoted in a digital book…
  • that’s printed out as a physical book…
  • that’s scanned and turned into a 3D print of a book
  • that’s photographed and photoshopped and turned into an art element…
  • that’s used in a video…
  • that’s discussed in a podcast
  • that’s embedded in yet another blog post…

Around and around it goes, one big glorious ever-evolving mesh of information. Which is why it so baffling that the translational quality of digital information is so often overlooked. Content can become a kind of stranded asset, frozen into a single format, its potential value never fully realized.

Consider the conference video. In the wake of TED, every conference now deploys squadrons of videographers to capture every precious talk and break-out session. Yet unless the conference is as heavily promoted and networked as TED, the number of viewers for any single video typically tops out between a few dozen to a few hundred. When videos are uploaded to a proprietary player on a conference website rather than to YouTube, it can difficult, if not impossible, to embed them in articles and blogs. They are less likely to be shared. On YouTube, new content is added at an astonishing rate of 100 hours per minute, so videos can easily get lost in the shuffle there without some smart tagging promotion  The upshot: thousands of dollars invested in content production for paltry results. 

The picture can change dramatically when digital content is seen and valued as a mutable asset.

1) Provide multiple ways to access content: Videos require a time commitment and tethering to a computer. It is easy for viewers to get distracted, flipping through email, checking social media, web surfing and doing actual work. Anything more than a few minutes long is unlikely to watched all the way through. Most conference videos, however, can also function brilliantly as audio podcasts, which can be listened to on a train, in a car, while working out, etc. Strip off an audio track, repackage it as a podcast and voíla! two digital assets for nearly the price of one. 

2) The more urls, the better: Each video or audio podcast should have its own url. MIT’s Emtech 2013 conference did not do this, which was really unfortunate. Videos were uploaded as two batches, one for each day of the conference, each batch given a collective url. The videos were also uploaded to a proprietary player so it was impossible to share an individual talk or embed a video. Per TED, sharing content after an event can help brand and promote the event, so it was a fumbled opportunity. 

3) Mine and repackage content as a value add: Every  conference and trade show is a gusher of information that can be repackaged in a variety of ways, including a digital reference book—designed as a must-have for anyone interested in a particular industry. The basic recipe is simple: Start by asking each speaker to provide a short digital bibliography (links and pdfs) along with the standard bio submitted for the event program. Pair this content with video recorded during the conference (embed video and audio versions and also provide links for easy sharing). Include a 300 word summary of each talk and provide a linked list of related talks from the conference. Add a table of contents, an index and an intro overview essay or two. The cost can be wrapped into the conference fee. The digital reference book can also be made available for a separate fee. Indeed, such a timely industry-focused reference would make a good supplement to a university course or a MOOC. Additional revenue can be generated through trade show vendor content, created as a separate “advertorial” section.  


…it is nearly impossible not to see the potential to mine and reconfigure content everywhere. I see a lavishly produced coffee table book and want to deconstruct it for a series of digital reference books. Each format plays to a different strength: The heft and gloss of the book are designed to make a statement while the digital content can make a difference.

Similarly, the Smithsonian is currently reimagining its museum collections through the use of 3D scans. A museum is itself a format with physical objects as content. The scans make it possible to transcend the original package,  liberating the content so it can be used, shared and distributed in entirely new ways:  


The grand MOOC vision of a world where anyone with a desire to learn can learn about anything, undeterred by barriers of cost and access, may still be off in the distance. But it is getting closer. We have the tools. It is just a matter of figuring out how better to use them.  

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


The Sum of Its Parts: Autozone Meet Autodesk (please) / On Supply Chains, Carbon Footprints and How 3D Printing Can Change the Game (again)


The “check engine” light is the the most insidious light on a car’s dashboard. Mine began to glow an acid yellow-green during a cold, rainy rush hour last week in bumper to bumper traffic on Chicago’s Western Avenue. “Service car soon,” it admonished in an ominous yet distinctly unhelpful way. I patted the steering wheel reassuringly. “What’s wrong, baby?” I asked, willing my usually reliable gas-guzzling steed to hang on long enough to make it home. 

It was too late to go the dealer that night, which left plenty of time to surf the web and worry. A check engine light can mean anything from a cracked fuel cap to a cracked engine block—a few dollars to a few thousand dollars—and the only way to know for sure is to hook the car up to a computer. There is an app for that. Actually several. But they all  require a bit of rooting around in the alien world beneath the dashboard to plug in a cable or dongle. Having neither cable nor dongle, nor the ability to fix whatever the problem might have turned out to be, I headed straight to the dealer at dawn.

Car repair roulette is the worst. My spin landed on “vent valve,” a three inch piece of plastic pipe vital for regulating the mix of oxygen and fuel. After 60,000 miles of trusty service, it was coated with carbon, stuck in the open position. Apparently, a vent valve is not something that can be cleaned, but rather must be replaced. A few hours and several hundred dollars later, the car was fixed and I had a bonus souvenir. 

I stared at the small hunk of plumbing the mechanic had fished out of the garbage for me, appalled that something so doohickey-looking had the potential to wreck my car. Then I was appalled that countless millions of cars and trucks on the road are similarly vulnerable, some more than others according to a quick Google scan. How could this be designed so poorly that it could not be cleaned? It was plastic with a little bit of metal inside—why did it take so long and cost so much to fix? 

Chalk up one more reason to cheer on Tesla: electric cars don’t have vent valves. Still, until batteries replace gas tanks in the global fleet, the $2 trillion auto parts market will be churning out a near infinite number of pricey parts designed for a truly dizzying variety of petroleum powered makes and models. The carbon footprint of a car goes beyond fuel efficiency and manufacturing supply chains. It also includes all the spare parts required for years of maintenance and repair.  Each one of those parts has its own long meandering supply chain, many traveling by ship from Asia, then by freight train and truck to a mechanic near you. 

It is an industry easy to game. This past September, nine Japanese auto parts suppliers pled guilty to an ongoing global antitrust investigation spearheaded by the US Justice department:

"…More than a dozen separate conspiracies involving more than 30 kinds of parts affected sales to Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, as well as the American subsidiaries of Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.

“These international price-fixing conspiracies affected more than $5 billion in automobile parts sold to U.S. car manufacturers,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “In total, more than 25 million cars purchased by American consumers were affected by the illegal conduct….” 

— New York Times

In other words, it is a racket, just as every grumbling car owner hit with a pricey repair job involving a small cheap-looking part has long suspected. Although the fines against the car part conspirators tallied nearly three quarter of a billion dollars, that may not be enough to deter others from trying to find sneakier ways to pad pockets. It is just that tempting. 

In the meantime, the average lifespan of a car in the US now tops 11 years. The average car owner shells out thousands upon thousands of dollars for repairs and maintenance. It is like buying another half car, one part at a time. 


3D printing could help change the equation, obliterating long supply chains, slashing carbon footprints, cutting costs, frustrating fraudsters and affecting the way cars and their parts are designed in the first place. The technology is already popular with car designers. It is both a faster way to prototype designs and also dramatically cheaper. Creating a prototype  engine with 3D printing, for example, can reduce costs from a million dollars to a few thousand. That’s money that drops straight to the bottom line. 


It will still be a few years before my mechanic has a 3D printer fabricating parts out in the garage that might translate to savings to my bottom line. Antique car collectors such as Jay Leno, however, have already embraced the technology. 

"…If you went to a machinist and asked him to make this (part) for you…it would take weeks to do. Here you design it on a computer and the same day you have a replacement part. There are no lost motors any more. There are no lost pieces you can’t reproduce.." 

— Jay Leno

In the video below, watch how easily Gonzalo Martinez, Director of Strategic Research at 3D software-maker Autodesk, is able to improve the design an antique engine part on a computer. Within hours, a new part—far better than the original—is ready to be installed.


Mass production excels at economy, quantity and uniformity but at the expense of agility: It is hard to make the kinds of small quick changes that Martinez was able to make. Like a pebble in a pond, even a tiny change can cause ripples throughout the process. Mediocre designs can persist because they are good enough to last a while, like my vent valve, rather than as good as they might be. 


Local Motors, a six year-old automaker based in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, aims to change the paradigm, reinventing the car business from the ground up, beginning with design. Cars are “co-created” incorporating ideas and feedback submitted by thousands of LM members from around the world. In turn, specs for LM-designed car parts are open-sourced to the community (most parts, however, are sourced from outside suppliers generally less keen to share intellectual property). 3D printers are used extensively for prototyping and production. 

"The last 100 years attributed to Henry Ford was the last industrial revolution. The next industrial revolution is the ability to take data, digital plans, and print something without having to spend a lot of money on tooling, and that’s what’s so exciting about our community," said Justin Fishkin, Local Motors chief strategy officer. "The ability to collaborate on digital designs and then share them with a machine that will make whatever the data tells it to make, in batches as small as one unit, is changing the game."

from “Can the 3-D printer help ‘green’ the auto industry?” by Julia Piper / E & E publishing

So far Local Motors has produced one car model (the Rally Fighter) and two motorcycles (the Racer and the Cruiser), each available in limited runs. Buyers are encouraged to be involved directly in the building process at one of the company’s micro factories—a second just opened in Las Vegas. They can even bring a few friends along for what is more of an assembly party than an assembly line. 

The company has more than doubled in size in the three years since founder and CEO Jay Rogers gave a talk at TEDxPhoenix (embedded below). Though dated, it is still a good overall backgrounder on the Local Motors vision: 


Local Motors may forever be a niche player, but it has already had impact well beyond its size. Its track record for rapidly prototyping and producing working vehicles caught the attention of the US military. In 2011, LM helped DARPA, the military’s R&D arm, launch an online competition to design a combat support vehicle. Now LM is working with the US Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) on a new website to create “a community of soldier-focused innovators” to design a range of combat gear: 


At every turn, 3D printing is bringing big changes to the auto industry. In a recent blog post, John Hauer, chief marketing officer at online design marketplace 3DLT, crunched the numbers. 

  • US auto aftermarket (parts and services) is worth $300 billion+ 
  • Amazon dominates online sales
  • eBay Motors moves a half million parts per week
  • Brick and mortar stores such as Pep Boys and Autozone carry as many 20,000 different parts at each location, with as many 500,000 different sku’s company-wide

Yet most parts are designed using CAD (computer assisted design), which means they also exist digitally, which means they can be printed.

"…3D printing squashes the supply chain. How? 3D printable files can be stored in an online database. 3D designs can be retrieved, manufactured and packaged, when and where they’re needed, on demand. The effort, technology, and costs associated with mass manufacturing whither away. There’s no consolidation, shipping, receiving, sorting, repacking, warehousing or delivery of finished goods. There’s also less redundancy at thousands of retail locations. At Advance Auto Parts for instance, the average store does about $1.7 million in sales. It also carries about $600,000 in inventory. Assume 70% is redundant, multiply it across 4,000 stores, and it equates to $1.7 billion worth of inefficiency.

If 3D printing could eliminate even one percent (pardon the cliche,) it could save the company $17 million per year – roughly the sales volume of 10 stores and at an operating margin of 10%, the gross profit of 100 stores…”

— “3D Printing In The Automotive Aftermarket” 

It is only a matter of time—probably sooner rather than later—before 3D printers are good enough, fast enough and cheap enough to be worth installing in auto parts stores, garages  and in regional auto parts supply hubs. 

Independent designers and hobbyists are already forging the path, 

"…One of 3DLT’s designers, Ray Pierson, is a great example. He works as an engineer in the defense industry by day, but creates 3D printable car parts in his spare time. It started when Ray identified an opportunity with his own car. He drives a Volkswagen Touareg and didn’t like the way the cup-holders held his drinks. So, he designed a plastic tray to fit over the opening. He bought his own 3D printer and used it to print the tray. Others saw it and liked the way it worked. He started getting orders from other VW owners. Soon people with other makes of cars saw Ray’s tray and asked if he could design one for their model. He got to the point where he couldn’t keep up with production and joined 3DLT so he could focus on designing great products. Crowd-sourced designs like these could be a profitable source of content for an auto parts supplier with 3D printing capabilities…"

—”3D Printing In The Automotive Aftermarket”



My car is a necessity, but I would like to need it less. In the not too distant future, I can imagine a mix of commuter trains, biking and walking getting me where I need to go most of the time. Still, a car is often the best option, especially when the weather is bad (this is Chicago after all), there are things to schlep, it is late or it is the most efficient way to get where I need to go. 

My next car will likely be electric—perhaps even a Tesla—a car that most definitely will not need a vent valve. That is still a few years off,  but my current car, theoretically in the prime of its mechanical life, can still benefit from automotive innovation. 

Imagine cheaper, better designed parts that make repairs simpler, faster and cheaper. Imagine supply chains radically shortened and carbon footprints shrunk. With some good 3D printers, my existing car can become at least a little eco-friendlier, improving its big picture life-cycle efficiency and economy. Yes, please. 


 3D print precise prototypes and tooling that can take abuse: case studies and more from 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys 

 3-D Printed Car Is as Strong as Steel, Half the Weight, and Nearing Production / by Alexander George, Wired magazine

Kor Ecologic / 3D printed car project website

• 5 reasons 3-D printing isn’t quite ready for prime time / by Clay Dilllow, Fortune magazine

• Jay Leno’s Garage: NextEngine’s 3D Scanner  (also embedded below)

— J. A. Ginsburg

It Takes an Economist: Tallying Natural Capital


From the Archives: This post was originally published on July 5, 2011, on a platform called webdoc, which is no longer in operation

A little advice for governments, NGO’s social entrepreneurs and anyone else hoping to help the “bottom billion” live better lives: Unless and until ecosystems services are taken into account, all efforts at poverty reduction will fail.

That’s the blunt, sobering message banker Pavan Sukhdev delivered in an address to the London School of Economics last April:

"Half to 90% of the livelihood incomes of the poor…are actually coming to them from nature. So if you are careless about managing these resources, or indeed the access of the poor to those resources, then you are, in fact, cutting at the very root of the livelihoods of the poor."

Protecting what has been called natural capital—the services nature provides—can be as direct as safeguarding a watershed, or as abstract as defending a rainforest. The value of the forest extends far beyond its trees and atomospheric carbon-absorbing capabilities. Above the forest, an “aerial river” forms that cycles freshwater critical to the survival of subtropical grain belt farms downwind. 

Over a billion people in the developing world rely on fish as their main source of animal protein, so ailing oceans and faililng fisheries are at once a natural tragedy and a human calamity. Decades of industrial-scale ocean trawler-fishing, clear-cutting mangroves for shrimp farms and the loss of coral reefs from pollution, disease, a warming climate and acidifying oceans have left millions of people hungry and out of work.

Their options are limited. They cannot survive where they are and often have nowhere else to go. 

The  economic gains of such rapacious fishing and shrimp farming tend to be short-lived and, once government subsidies are figured in, a financial wash, or worse, for local and regional economies. 

GDP as a measure of economic health is simply too narrow and flawed a tool, says Sukhdev. A full accounting—one that includes ecosystems services in the mix—tells a very different story.

In other words, the books are as cooked as the climate.

Assigning a value to what has always been free is not easy, so the G8+5 commissioned TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, naming Sukdev, a Deutsch Bank veteran, as its Study Leader. Its mission: to describe, quantify and propose mechanisms for capturing the worth of nature’s largesse.

Over the last four years, TEEB, which is hosted by the United Nations Environmental Program, has produced a series of reports aimed at a key players: national and local policymakers, the business sector and private citizens through its Bank of Natural Capital website.

Connecting the dots between environmental and economic health is about shifting incentives—the “enabling conditions—into better balance.”The sheer waste from wrong-headed development schemes and business-as-usual practices is staggering,” notes Sukdev. 

Each year, the top 3,000 global companies use an estimated $2.2 trillion worth of ecosystems services. Add in private and public sector consumption and “…you end up with something like upwards of $6 trillion per annum in social costs imposed by business-as-usual. That’s like 1/10 of the global economy,” says Sukdhev.

Atlhough the economist strongly believes in policy-driven solutions, changing course quickly will require a strong buy-in from the private sector, which accounts for 70% of the global economy and nearly 80% of employment. It would be in their best interests. The “free” stuff is running out.

Ecosystems & Epidemiology

TEEB’s list of ecosystems services is a long one, from double-duty mangroves that serve as fish nurseries and storm protection and double-duty rainforests that soak up carbon and regulate local climate, to plant compounds with medical potential, waste water-filtering swamps and soil microorganisms essential for crops health

Pathogen containment is another, often overlooked, benefit.

According to a study published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has triggered an increase in malaria cases. Presented with acres upon acres of puddle-prone habitat in which to lay eggs, the malarial mosquito population did just that and their blood-sucking numbers exploded. The economy took a hit as well from people who were either too sick to work, or preoccupied with taking care of family members.

A warmer climate has also provied a boon for all sorts of insect vectors, including ticks. More survive through the winter and ranges have expanded. 

If you happen to be a moose in North America, this is potentially fatal news. In the old days, a single animal could easily pick up 30,000 “winter” ticks in the fall. But istead of falling off and dying in the snow come spring, ticks are landing on bare ground and surviving. Earlier thaws have also meant a longer tick breeding season. Now, some moose have been found with as many as 160,000 ticks. They literally are having the blood sucked right out them.

Back on the human medical beat, the tick that carries Lyme Disease also carries babesia and the Powassan virus and the incidence of all three diseases is on the rise. 

Babesia, a parasite causing an illness similar to malaria, is particularly worrisome because asymptomatic blood donors can contaminate the blood supply.

If that were not enough bad news, a single tick can deliver multiple pathogens, causing simultaneous illnesses, making diagnosis and treatment tricky.

Other strains of babesia affect cattle. In fact, babesiosis is among the most serious diseases threatening livestock all over the world and there is no vaccine.

Babesia was eradicated in the US during the 1940s, but veterinarians say it could easily stage a comeback. Ticks are starts to show resistance to the chemicals used to protect cows.The cost for managing for the first year of an outbreak is estimated $1.3 billion.

Just add it to the natural captial tally…

— J A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


Pavan Suhkdev’s website

• Global Climate Change and Infectious Diseases / NEJM, Emily K. Shuman, M.D.

• Deforestation and Malaria in Mâncio Lima County, Brazil / CDC, Sarah H. Olson, Ronald Gangnon, Guilherme Abbad Silveira, and Jonathan A. Patz

Riders of the River / Texas Tick Riders (video) 

Beyond Measure: da Vinci’s Genius, Peripheral Vision, the Prepared Mind, Metric Traps and Hacking the Filter Bubble


…Leonardo da Vinci was the first in long line of scientists who focused on the patterns interconnecting basic structures and processes of living systems. Today, this approach is called ‘systemic thinking.’ This, in my eyes, is the essence of what Leonardo meant by farsi universale. Freely translating his statement into modern scientific language, I would rephrase it this way: ‘For someone who can perceive interconnecting patterns, it is easy to be a systemic thinker.

— Fritjoj Capra, author, The Science of Leonardo

While the best—which is to say the most privileged—minds of his generation were drilled into complacent conformity, studying for tests to prove they had interpreted the classics “correctly,” Leonardo, a bastard offspring denied entrance to university, was left to think for himself. 

Wandering the Tuscan hills, he learned about nature from nature. And when it was time to get a job, he took a position as a sculptor’s apprentice in Florence. Long before anyone had heard of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)—much less STEAM (just add Art)—Leonardo’s self-directed education was steeped in it. He was Maker’s maker, an imaginative inventor, a visionary artist. 

Centuries later, we still marvel at da Vinci’s brilliance—and that of his polymath kindred spirits, from Ben Franklin to Buckminster Fuller to Steve Jobs. All intuitively understood the importance and serendipity of peripheral vision: an awareness of what’s happening at the edges. Theirs were the kind of “prepared minds” that chance so famously favors.  

You would think we would want to do everything we possibly could to follow in such fortunate footsteps. Instead, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, led by ever-more powerful—and profitable—analytical tools designed to filter, slot, slice, dice, separate and blinder. Everything that can possibly be scored and ranked, including "Klout," has been. The metrics too often become the mission: the tail wagging the dog.

Peripheral vision, by its nature, is metric-defiant, specializing in kismet connections, collections of stray facts, flashes of insight and epiphanies that can be years in the making. It is the how and the why a college dropout—Jobs—could sit in on an obscure calligraphy class and, years later, draw on the experience to spark a revolution in digital publishing. 

Peripheral vision is also the key to solving the nine-dot puzzle which inspired the term, “thinking outside the box.” It is the essence of "think different." 



"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," famously noted former Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher in a 2011 BusinessWeek interview. “That sucks.” 

Well, yes, it does. It may be a slight step up, perhaps, from the the test-cramming so prevalent in Leonardo’s day, but still a rather disappointing, though lucrative, use of talent.  

"Search Engine Optimization"—SEO—has become a multi-bazillion dollar industry, a never-ending keyword-and-ad-based competition to capture the top, most-clickable spots on a Google search page. 

Each click online contributes to our individual profiles, analyzed constantly by social media sites and search engines for targeting ad sales. Bizarrely, so detailed has the profiling become that two people using the same identical search terms are likely to pull up two different lists of links. We have become trapped in "filter bubbles" of an algorithm’s making. 

Quite literally—and scarily—we are no longer on the same page, nor are we free to see all there is to see. A wall of metrics has blocked the view. 


A few years ago, I developed a news aggregator as a demo project for a small, independent spin-off of called InSTEDD (named for Dr. Larry Brilliant’s TED wish—a double pun on TED and Early Disease Detection). 

The TrackerNews Project’s beat covered health issues (microbial to planetary), humanitarian response and technologies relevant to both. Its mission was to bring a multidisciplinary perspective. For example, since most infectious diseases are zoonotic (affecting multiple species, including humans), most public health crises have a veterinary component. A country’s demographic profile has huge implications for its economy. Extreme weather affects food supplies. And, of course, climate change affects everything. 

Working with a small budget as a side project to the organization’s main mission—developing digital tools to improve public health and disaster response—TrackerNews was perfectly positioned to experiment. In the era of Digg, we didn’t care how many hits a particular link tallied. Popularity wasn’t our guiding metric: context and connection were. 

The site was loosely modeled after one of the first major news aggregators, The Drudge Report: three columns with news stories snaking up and down as they cycled through. Instead of singleton articles, suites of related links would cycle through together. A breaking news story might be paired with research papers, videos, archival articles, interviews, relevant technology websites and book links. 

Long before Pinterest, we included small photos and short content descriptions with each link. Each link tagged for a searchable database. Later, we added overview blog posts to provide another way to access the information.


We also experimented with a personal aggregation tool, where it was possible to generate as many categories and sub-categories as needed; move elements by drag’n’drop anywhere on the page; and clone individual links for slotting into multiple categories.

While TrackerNews was focused on bridging silos, the personal aggregation tool was designed  for special projects and collaborations: a kind of public bookmarking, providing context, in a format designed to maximize at-a-glance utility. 


TrackerNews put the human algorithm back into the mix. Search engines are programmed to skew toward content that either new, popular, cleverly tagged for SEO or flat out paid for. That doesn’t always line up with what may be the most relevant and useful information. Unless or until Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-champion computer, comes online, it takes human insight to bring contextual value. There is still a filter bubble, but the metrics are determined by human users, rather than calculated for them by machines. 

Although TrackerNews developed a loyal following of UN’ers, NGOs and energy wonks—and I developed a bit of a reputation as a general “go to” reference—the project was more proof-of-concept than a game-changer. I kept the twitter feed going after we closed down the demo, and shifted the blog into this tumblr, which is now more of a personal blog. 


I have never really stopped thinking about the issues that TrackerNews tried to address: contextual utility, bridging disciplines, the human algorithm, collaboration, peripheral vision, poking holes in search engine filter bubbles. 

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I created a spin-off blog—For the filesas a kind of TrackerNews Lite to try make  some sense of all the stray links piling up in my Pocket account. Daily forays through aggregators Zite and Flipboard, various social media, news sites and searches had left me with digital ADD. This, I thought, would be a way to connect some dots: each post a mini-bibliography of two to five links. 

For the files posts are really quite fun to write, a daily wander among the peripheral in all its non sequitur serendipitous glory. So far, it’s covered everything from a climate-changing Pleistocene asteroid, Chinese language apps, a Robot-a-looza and Woody Allen’s prescient take on the Internet of things.

But the limitations of the format, a tumblr blog, quickly made me long for the TrackerNews aggregation tool that never made it beyond prototype.

Sure, few of us will ever match Leonardo’s gifts as a great systems thinker, but with the right tools to help organize information, it would be at least a little easier to see patterns and bask in the glitters of insight. 

Pinterest, Evernote and my much adored Pocket all have their charms for gathering, organizing and sharing digital treasure, but there is still room for improvement. My specs wish list for an aggregation tool:

• generates as many categories and sub-categories as required, each with its own shareable url within a master template

• accommodates all types of digital data  

• Individual links, sub-categories and categories can be moved by drag’n’drop

• individual links can be cloned for inclusion in multiple categories

• no limit for descriptive copy 

• discussion threads

• maximum at-a-glance utility 

• content scraping for a Flipboard / Zite-style presentation on tablets

• public and private options 

• ???


The above quote has been cited so often, it has become a meme. From Google to Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr, personal data are regularly traded for services. The fairness of the deal, however, can become murky when data are used to determine access to content and opportunities. The line between the convenience of personalization and unfairness of segregation can be a fine one.

Machine learning tools are designed to tailor content to an individual’s interests. Past choices determine future selections. Incremental changes, however, can quickly add up to distortions. For example, the Zite account on my iPhone delivers more tech news than the one on my iPad, which “thinks” I am more interested in renewable energy stories. It is a daily reminder that people identifying the same set of interests don’t always access the same information. 

Metrics, of course, can only measure what they have been designed to measure. There is much that is simply beyond measure. Yet the relentless competition for “clicks,” combined with data mining and the linearity of machine learning have led us down a narrow path where focus trumps vision.

Anatomically, the area of focus is just 3% of the visual field. The other 97% is peripheral vision, providing both awareness and context. Why would limit ourselves to such thin slice of all there is to see and know? 

To quote Leonardo: 

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

— J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews


RELATED: (since text embedded videos do not appear on the tumblr dashboard or iOS app, links have also been provided) 

• Leonardo da Vinci: Eco Designer and Systems Thinker / Fritjof Capra (video) 

• When in Roma…On the Way to the Piazza Navona: China, Africa & The Lessons of Leonardo / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

STEM TO STEAM / RISD (website)

• 'You've got to find what you love,' Jobs says / text of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address

“Think Different” / Steve Jobs narrates “The Crazy Ones” commerical / (video)

• Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” / TED talk  (video)

• The Information Diet: You Are What You Read…Really (so read this) / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

Clay Johnson, “Is SEO Killing America?” / Tools of Change conference (video)

Who Owns the Future? / Jaron Lanier (book) 

• Who Owns The Future? | Keen On… / TechCrunch interview with Jaron Lanier (video)

What Amy Larkin’s “Environmental Debt” has to do with a Meander through a Martian Ocean, the Great Chicago Fire, Aliens in the Muck; and Amory Lovins on Why Efficiency Rocks and Coal Has a Bleak Future


It must have been quite a sight, all those eons ago on the shore of a Martian ocean. According to scientists at Cal-Tech, much of the red planet was very likely a blue planet in the deep past, with rivers fanning out into broad Mississippi-style deltas, lazily meandering to sea. There was an atmosphere, too, “possibly even cushier than Earth’s.”

But something happened four billion years ago—researchers aren’t exactly sure what. Solar winds, cosmic collisions and a fatal lack of magnetic poles probably had something to do with it. Whatever it was, it was powerful enough to shred Mars’ delicate gaseous cocoon rich in carbon dioxide, argon, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon monoxide, leaving only tell-tale isotopes behind. Once that was gone, the ocean, or oceans, simply evaporated into space. The only surviving water literally stayed underground, filling aquifers at the poles that scientists dream of one day tapping.

Was Mars covered in a primordial soup that boiled away, dooming any and all life-forms that might have navigated its depths to a thirsty extinction? Did anything have a chance to crawl onto shore to stake a pre-cataclysmic claim? Could recently discovered, super-giant, seriously alien pandoraviruses have a Martian past? As unlikely as that sounds, these viral Godzillas are so unlike anything else on Earth—discovered  slithering around in actual muck—scientists haven’t entirely ruled it out.

Yet even if a few ancient microbial Martians somehow managed to find safe haven on our planet, the point is there is not much, if anything, happening in the way of life on Mars today.

No atmosphere. No water. No life.

So, is this a cautionary tale for what could happen to our tiny blue dot? Barring a truly catastrophic run of luck, no. But it shows how fragile a planet can be.

The illustration below comes courtesy of Dave Gallo, a marine biologist  at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. On the left is the Earth, Mars-style, minus all its water. The blue sphere represents all the Earth’s saltwater and the itty bitty dot is all its freshwater, including frozen glaciers and aquifers. Compared to the mass of the planet, it’s not much, but it is all we have, and all we are going to get.


Although Gallo doesn’t include the atmosphere in his illustration, it can also be thought of as a kind of ocean: an “aerial ocean,” circulating massive amounts of water through evaporation and storms. It also provides a shield against deadly ultraviolet rays, moderates temperature and, of course, contains the oxygen we need to live. Proportionally, Earth’s atmosphere is thinner than the shell of an egg.


It is bad enough for a planet to have the life knocked out of it for cosmic reasons, and quite another to willfully poison Eden. Yet we humans have managed to do just that, pumping out such copious quantities of carbon pollution into the air to have busted through the record for the fastest rise in atmospheric CO2 in the Earth’s history ever, ever, ever. So severely has the global environment been trashed, we have triggered a mass extinction, only the sixth in the entire history of the planet. The climate has changed. The old normal has given way to a new normal, riddled with extreme weather and increasingly dire insurance industry reports.

Resilience has become the new “sustainability.” The goal of maintaining  environmental balance has been shifted to one of survival. Even that has been buffed into the false optimism of “bouncing back,” that it is possible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But we have crossed a line: There is no “back,” only onward.

There is an onward, though, something I am reminded of every time I see the skyline of my home city, Chicago. Every gleaming, curtain-walled, high-rise, engineering-marvelous bit of it was made possible by Mrs. O’Leary’s famously klutzy cow who, according to legend, cleared the decks by kicking the bucket. Well, actually it was a lantern, which, one  hot, dry October evening in 1871, sparked the Great Chicago Fire.

The city was not only rebuilt, but re-imagined in ways so profound, it changed cities all over the world. New ways of building were invented. Architects flocked to Chicago for the chance to try out new ideas. The critical mass of talent was astonishing, inspiring and challenging one another to often literally new heights.

So deeply ingrained is the story of innovation made possible by the Fire that 141 years later, Chicago’s premier tech hub was named 1871.

Our planet’s new normal is full of Chicago Fire-style devastation, from entire towns scoured off the map by tornadoes, to ever-hotter wildfires that singe cities and suburbs that have sprawled into what was once wilderness. Heat waves shred infrastructure. Hurricanes and “superstorms” pummel coastal cities—already treading water from rising seas. Rivers burst levies. Droughts shrivel crops. Blizzards paralyze whole regions. The line between natural and human-enhanced disasters has blurred.

There is also Chicago Fire-style opportunity in the rubble, a chance to start fresh, to re-imagine cities, buildings, power grids, water supplies, transportation networks, farms, manufacturing—everything about the way we live.



"Nothing except for nature can transform the world as swiftly as can business—for better and worse. Indeed, the two concurrent crises in the news virtually every day are global financial turmoil and escalating environmental uncertainty. All business, all economies, all living and man-made systems depend on nature. Growing an economy that destabilizes nature is just plain foolhardy…"

Amy Larkin, author, Environmental Debt

Amy Larkin, former director of Greenpeace Solutions, is not the first to link economic and environmental health, but provides a clear-headed, sensible framework for how business can spearhead a path to low-carbon prosperity. Our planet’s future, it turns out, depends on accountants—which, as the daughter of a CPA, makes me rather proud.

In her new book, Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of the Changing Global Economy, Larkin lays out a framework—”Nature Means Business”—designed to level the regulatory playing field, reward long view decision-making and provide catalyzing governmental support.

Key to it all is including externalities—the costs businesses traditionally haven’t paid for, such as carbon pollution—in the bottom line. This speaks to our innate sense of fairness: Whoever makes a mess really ought to take responsibility.

Instead, those costs have been paid by everyone else in all kinds of ways, from scarce tax dollars that have been diverted to fight climate-fueled wildfires and make repairs to crumbling infrastructure, to higher grocery bills, water shortages and political unrest.

She cites a Harvard Institute for Global Health study from 2011, for example, that tallied the unreported life cycle costs of coal to be a minimum of $350 billion, and as high $500 billion—a half trillion dollars—annually, just in the U.S. 

"These hundreds of billions of dollars represent actual bills paid by unwitting families, fisheries, businesses, schools, municipal water systems and health-care providers as well as the victims of asthma, black lung and other medical problems. So, despite conventional wisdom, coal is not a cheap energy. Its price is cheap only because it is subsidized by its own victims."

For the big picture, Larkin turns to a report by financial consultancy KPMG, which “calculated that if corporations actually paid for the services provided them by nature, it would eat 41 cents from every dollar of revenue.” That’s the environmental debt.

Yet as the climate tips, the costs of this conveniently obscured windfall have hit businesses hard, too, and right where it hurts the most: the bottom line.

The floods in Thailand in 2011 were made exponentially worse by decades of commercial logging during the 20th century. Despite a ban in 1989, the damage was so severe that a generation later, it was still a factor. Thai factories were shut down for months, stranding hundreds of thousands of workers and impacting supply chains that stretched around the globe. Toyota’s car output alone was down 3.4% from the previous year.

According to a recent study by APQC, a nonprofit specializing in business benchmarking (cited in an HBR post on why companies are regularly blindsided by risk), ”three quarters of the 195 large companies surveyed…got hit by an unexpected major supply chain disruption in the last 24 months.”

In a world saddled with an unstable climate, competitive advantage can mean simply being able to get your goods to market.


Larkin, whose charge at Greenpeace was to support large corporations transitioning to cleaner, greener technologies, is in a unique position to point out barriers and highlight successes.

Working with the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), which represents 400 top global brands and retailers, she helped craft an agreement for a sector-wide shift to an environmentally friendlier refrigerant, which will trim two percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the global total over the next four decades.

That may sound incremental, but it is, in fact, monumental. This is just one technology, but adopted en masse by large companies whose business practices have enormous influence. The scale guarantees significant impact and lowered costs for installation, making it easier for smaller businesses to make the change, too. Collective corporate clout for good.

Much of Larkin’s book is devoted to case studies of companies trying to forge a new paradigm for business, designed to reduce environmental debt while growing profits. For example, multinational consumer goods giant Unilever has done away with quarterly reports, finding they hobble long term planning. It has also publicly committed to cutting its businesses’ environmental impact by 2020, while doubling sales.

Unilever is leading by example, showing other companies how such a bold goal might be achieved. Although Unilever’s efforts alone won’t fix the climate, the comfort of business as usual is no longer an option. We are in an era of the unusual. Nothing is as it was.

For its part, shoe company, Puma, produced its first Environmental Profit and Loss statement in 2010. It was an ambitious, if imperfect, effort and very sobering. If environmental costs had been taken into account, net earning would have dropped by three quarters. Rather than shove the news under the rug and sprint back to business as usual, Puma has used it as inspiration for improved practices throughout its business. Shoe boxes, for example, were redesigned as trendy bags made from recycled plastic, “saving 1 million liters of water and 8,500 tons of paper” in production inputs, along with savings in shipping costs. Small steps, but in the right direction.

Like the new normal of extreme weather, new style accounting can come as a shock. But, like the Chicago Fire, it also clears the way to develop a better foundation, full of innovation, unimaginable potential and better information for investors.

Really, who would invest in coal if the bill for externalities—the environmental debt—actually had to be paid by the companies?


Even without the burden of environmental debt, coal has become a tough sell.

"Coal has lost 19% of its market share in just two years," says Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), “displaced not only by gas, but also by renewables and by efficiency.”

While evidence of gains in renewable is easy to see—just look at all those new solar installations and wind farms!—efficiency seems less tangible. We are all too aware of the bills we have to pay, but who keeps records of bills that don’t have to be paid? Yet those no-need-to-pay bills can really pile up. 

Since the 1970s, notes Lovins:

"We’ve cut our energy use by more than half by dollar of GDP (gross domestic product). That’s not bad. I would wish that we had done even better, but we now see how to triple efficiency all over again. And it’s now cheaper than it was.

Saving electricity now costs only 1/3 what it was in the early ’80s because the technologies have improved faster than we’ve installed them…

We would be using over twice as much energy we actually use today in the US if we were still as inefficient as we were in the mid ’70s. I think that’s considerable progress, but we now can do a whole lot better.

I think the difference now is that as we get, not just better technologies and designs, but better financing, marketing and delivery channels, we have the proven ability at historically reasonable rates to fix up our buildings and our factories faster than they grow.

So we are starting to see electricity demand stagnate or falling, even as our economy grows. And, indeed, as a major engine of economic growth because it frees up so much capital…”

—Amory Lovins, WBEZ (NPR) interview

With a new accounting framework designed to reflect both economic and environmental costs, efficiency is a big win: a competitive advantage that drops straight to the bottom line.

Clearly, though, the books have been cooked for the last few hundreds years, along with our planet. Who knows? Perhaps that’s what happened on Mars, too, so long ago.

Nature’s accounting, it turns out, is the only one that really matters.

— J. A. Ginsburg  / @TrackerNews


Amy Larkin Says Business, Environment Crisis Connected / Bloomberg (Audio)

Let’s Talk About Environmental Debt  / Amy Larkin / Huffington Post

Dave Gallo at TEDxSMU

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute talks climate and sustainability / WBEZ (NPR)

Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era / RMI

President Obama Speaks on Climate Change

Happy Trees! The Right Way to Plant and Mulch a Tree


If you see a badly planted or mulched tree, print this out to share with the tree’s owner. Here’s to happier, healthier trees!

  • Start by digging a hole 3 times the width of the root ball and exactly as deep as the root ball. 
  • Cut any twine or wire holding burlap around the root ball. Get rid of as much as you can. Fold the rest down.
  • Fold the burlap down so it doesn’t get in the way of spreading roots A stunning 90% of most trees’ roots are found in the top 18” of soil. They grow laterally.
  • Be very careful not mound up soil or mulch around the tree trunk. Bark that becomes too moist rots. 
  • Instead, build a 3” to 4” deep “saucer” of mulch around the tree. It should be deeper at the edges to better help funnel rain. 
  • If you use wires to help stabilize a young tree, make sure to use a soft webbed material to cushion anything touching branches. Also, make sure there is enough play in the wires to allow the tree to sway and move. 
  • If you wrap the trunk—a good idea for very young trees—make sure the wrapping is put on by Thanksgiving and removed by Mother’s Day. Otherwise, bark can rot from being too moist in the summer

Copy adapted from “City Trees: The City of Chicago’s Guide to Urban Tree Care,” which I wrote for the City of Chicago several years ago and is now out of print. The Guide was edited by Suzanne Malec-McKenna, then with City’s Department of Environment, and illustrated by Susanne Roubik. 

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews