GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – It’s going to be cold and snowy out this weekend in Switzerland, so your options are a: take it on board and go out and ski! or b: brrr, snuggle into a warm corner with your laptop and do like Bob the Outsourcer and watch cat videos or c: okay, spend some time looking at all those weird and wonderful things on the Internet but then get up and do something useful with your life. (psst, also check out our what’s on this weekend pages)
If you’re opting for c: and cleaning the cupboards or oiling your bike doesn’t appeal, Twisted Sifter is great for finding the weird and wonderful and this week they’re also giving us some terrific practical tips.
Definitely check out 50 life hacks to simplify your world, from Twisted Sifter. I don’t take bagels to work, so the tip to use old CD stacks for my bagels is no good, but that leaves me with 49 other great ideas. And the bagel suggestion made me realize what a great little holder that is. I might try baking chocolate chip cookies with a hold in the middle of each so I can stack them and keep them covered, on my desk.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – From Google’s driverless cars to robot soldiers, the future has arrived, bringing with it a new debate. “With or without robotic soldiers, what we really need is a sound way to teach our machines to be ethical. The trouble is that we have almost no idea how to do that,” writes Gary Marcus in “Moral Machines”, 27 November in The New Yorker.
Marcus isn’t the first person to talk about the ethics of robots and warfare, of course (he sends us off to read works by British professor Colin Allen), but he brings together that older debate and newer aspects of our lives with machines, to provide good fodder for a debate we should be having now.
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND – The reputation of Switzerland for its amazing variety and quality of toilets that impressed a recent American guest of mine is not about to take a beating: very much the opposite.
A team of researchers from Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology), working with a group of Austrian designers, was given a special recognition award for reinventing the toilet, by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The goal of the competition, which ran for a year and had 22 entries, was quite simply to invent the toilet of the future Prerequisites: the new toilet should need no sewer and no outside energy source, should be part of a recycling and treatment system for wastes and should cost no more than five cents per day and person.
The awards were announced in August 2012 and the team is now at work, using the CHF40,000 prize money, to build prototypes and test them by the end of 2013.
The goal is to provide hygienic toilets that offer dignity and good waste management to developing countries, with a system that would rely on local contractors, according to Eawag.
The group’s “Diversion” toilet was given the award for “outstanding design of a toilet user interface”.
Descriptions of the new toilet designs from the four top winners are available from the Seattle-based foundation.
Eawag notes that 2.5 billion people in the world have no access to a decent toilet.
The Swiss Embassy in Washington, DC, says in its newsletter that “The flushing toilet connected to a waste treatment system as we know it reaches only a third of the world’s population. With the flushing toilet, a sanitation revolution began 200 years ago. Epidemics such as cholera and severe diarrhea were stopped from spreading and kept water supplies throughout the world drinkable. Water, sanitation and hygiene are part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program. In 2011, the foundation launched the ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to leverage advances in science and technology and create a new toilet that will transform waste into energy, clean water, and nutrients’.”
My American guest was struck by the creativity and common sense that goes into Swiss toilet design, as she traveled around Switzerland, from the widespread watersaving dual-flush systems to hygienic seats that move. But two of the favourites were these portable toilets, spotted at the Valais cantonal fair in Martigny in early October:
The Lausanne area continues to turn up interesting young companies and ventures, one of which is Bookapp, a joint venture between Frederic Kaplan who founded Ozwé and Laurent Bolli, co-founder of Bread and Butter. People in Lausanne are forever climbing hills, which probably leads them to look for convenient shortcuts. Bookapp has developed a simple to use e-book search engine, a beta programme, which turned out to be useful in helping me find an e-book quickly. It’s called u.ki and through it I was able to get information about my own early-days print and e-book, China on the Ground.
The e-book business was still suffering growing pains on the production side in 2005, and I let the book more or less disappear because I wasn’t happy with the end product, the fault of no one in particular but rather of the state of the art at the time. The idea was to do an e-book with photos to accompany the print-on-demand paperback version since, at the time, these could not be printed with photos. The world wasn’t really ready for that. I couldn’t bear to let slide those 1985 photos, hard-earned as I dragged a Nikon with three lenses around on my bike in those pre-digital days.
As a result of ignoring the book, I was having trouble finding who has it. Now I know.
I then looked up a couple rather obscure travel writers and their book appeared promptly. Isabella Bird and her travels to Sichuan, Tibet, Hawaii and more. Peter Fleming, writerly brother of Ian, prolific fellow and good writer. Google has 40 references to him but Kindle none, tsk tsk.
A great little tool, this!
Now for some raw self-promotion (the China book, that is)
In case you want to know more about my travels for 10 weeks in China in 1985, crossing the country on a bicycle with one companion, most of the time in areas closed to foreigners (no one asked for papers so we cycled on), just write me for a copy of the pocket-size paperback, now on special offer here for CHF8, including postage if you’re in Switzerland, CHF7 plus postage if you’re elsewhere. I’ll provide the Paypal link or e-banking details. It’s designed to be read on the flight to China.
Here’s the description I re-found, thanks to u.ki: “China, on the Ground is a seasoned reporter’s personal notes on China today, in seven cities in one month (July 2005), compared to the country as she saw it 19 years earlier. It is an open letter to other travellers, primarily business people, who want a deeper understanding of the country than guidebooks offer, but who don’t have the time or interest at the moment for treatises on the subject. Ellen Wallace uses a light touch to compare China’s shift to a market economy country, viewed from the ground today, to the barrage of reports in the press. Most of these take the measure of China as it flies at high speed into the future, without pausing long to observe the Chinese as they move about their daily lives…”
The funniest part, for me, is rereading this, about my China travel companion in 2004, my son: “But the China of the future belongs to a new generation. In January 2004 Liam Bates, age 16, British, American and soon-to-be Swiss citizen, decided that he wanted to study Chinese in order to better learn wushu, often known (and misunderstood) in the West under the name “kung fu.” This was despite, and not because of, his parents’ trip to the fabled Middle Kingdom during the dark era before his birth.”
Today that boy is a TV star in China. Who could have predicted that in 1985?
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Melissa Fleming, head of communications at the UNHCR, the refugee organization, has been given some just praise for her active approach to using social media, by Devex, an international development news site. The Geneva-based group is one of the easiest for journalists to work with because of the ease with which they can find photos and videos, thanks to Fleming’s support for using flickr and YouTube. She also tweets and is working with local UNHCR offices to encourage greater use of social media.
Devex focuses, in its interview, on how Fleming and her team use social media. For other organizations grappling with the issues, this is a great starting point. Having 100,000 “likes” on Facebook is no small feat and says much about the organization’s effective approach to social media.
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND – Brian Ferris recently joined Google in Zurich but before he did he left a legacy that remains popular with public transport users in Seattle. Ferris, as a PhD student at the University of Washington, designed a handy little set of smart phone apps called One Bus Away, which allows people to see when buses are expected to arrive at their stops.
The Seattle Times reports that bus riders continue to use it, to the tune of 50,000 a week, and the university and public transit authorities are now working out a plan to keep it alive and up to date.
GeekWire reports that Ferris was hoping to develop more realtime transit services for Google once in Zurich; the company has rolled out testing for some similar programmes in a handful of cities in Europe and the US.
De Cafe Racer from The Netherlands has taken the tandem bike to new heights, or at least lengths and widths, making group-powered bicycles that are used mainly for events.
Now they’re putting kids to work pedalling bikes not just for fun, but to fuel their own “green” school buses. Springwise writes that the buses hold 10 children plus an adult who has the option to add electric power, presumably to avoid slowing down as the children near school and lose power.
A bike-pooling bus clearly makes more sense health-wise than car-pooling.
De Caferacer, in Dutch
(With thanks to Bernino Lind, who pointed me to this)
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Las Vegas is one crazy town any time, but possibly even more so when the world’s hackers hit the Strip. Mehdi Atmani, longtime journalist at Le Temps, is taking a week to cover two world hackers’ conventions, Defcon and Black Hat for a blog (in French). His first night in Vegas starts out well, but by morning his e-mail has been broken into and by the next day he’s being taken for a ride, the financial kind, by a 12-year-old.
You have to be a brave journalist to cover this story, I’m thinking, or ready to take on a new identity when you return home.
The recruitment office at UBC (University of British Columbia) in Canada apparently had nothing to do with the making of one of the most amazingly energetic short films of the year, but they must be pleased as punch. UBC LipDub has had close to half a million hits in the three days it’s been on YouTube: this is what people mean when they talk about viral.
The magic formula: take a talented group of young filmmakers with decent equipment and training, add a cast of a thousand or so volunteers, a hot musician, turn up the music and let loose. Add in a charity clause. In this case, for every view, some organizations will donate a sum of money to the Make a Wish Foundation. The training: UBC has one of the top film schools in North America. The musician: Marianas Trench.
By the end you’ll be wishing you were 18 or 20, if you aren’t, and able to head to school in Vancouver.
This is pure fun, and bravo to everyone who took part. And if you’re new to LipDub, read all about it on the UBC “what’s this” page.
But hats off to you anglophones who can spot the spelling errors! French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Facebook page was hacked Sunday night, 23 January, but the main interest it has generated appears to be over the spelling mistakes the hackers made. They left a message saying sorry, folks, I won’t be running in the next election because of the mess this country is in (rought translation). The president said he’s learned a lesson, about how nothing is invincible, but he sure hadn’t learned how to spell from them.
Here’s the French; now do your homework.
“Chers Compatriotes, compte tenu des circonstances exceptionnelles que connaît notre pays, j’ai décidé en mon âme et conscience de ne pas me représenter à l’issue de mon premier mandat en 2012. Pour vous expliquer ce geste, je vous convie tous d’ores et déjà à ce grand événement populaire.”