Green Meat?

Green cowIt takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef. That’s a lot of food going to feed a cow that will arguably become less food. People don’t eat grass, but it can still be argued that a lot more food could be grown on the land (or a lot of trees, or switchgrass…) that it takes to feed a single cow. But what if we could produce a pound of meat and leave the grain to feed people, or the trees to filter polluted air, or the switchgrass to create new clean-burning fuels? This afternoon on the Kojo Nnambi Show, on WAMU, Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Michael Specter, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Livestalked about new developments that may eventually allow scientists to grow meat in sterile laboratories–no animals harmed.

The piece is interesting mostly because at the same time that it conjures slightly grotesque science gone awry images of cuts of beef hanging from wires and tubes in sterile, climate controlled laboratories, it also forces us to confront some deeply held misconceptions about genetic modification, organic foods and the nature of nature itself. It forces conversations–somewhat uncomfortable conversations in fact–about technology and nature, ecology and genetic manipulation, natural and processed foods, vegetarian/vegan ethics and making meat in a test tube that doesn’t harm animals, emotion and reason, as well as a host of other topics. It poses questions that increasingly a becoming a lot harder to answer.

I appreciated Michael Specter’s ability to be the guy I so badly wanted to hate, but who became the guy instead who forced me to confront some basic prejudices and to really assess my values at a core level. Am I more concerned about ecology or some idealized, pastoral sense of nature and purity? Does the ability to feed people, even if it’s by growing meat in a test-tube,  trump my desire for supporting locally-raised, sustainable, back to the land husbandry? Does my repulsion at the over-processed, candy-coated, hydrogenated foods I find in my supermarket cloud my vision when it comes to how we produce and deliver calories and nutrients to starving people?

In the end, being forced into an uncomfortable position, having to honestly confront values to which we may believed ourselves inextricably tied is an important exercise. We’re not often really asked to do that.



Printer Perfect: The future is here

This video from the Laboritori de Fabricacio in Barcelona’s Disseny HUB museum shows the present and future potential of on-demand 3D printing. In this future, everyone becomes a designer to suit their own specific needs, the means of production is at everyone’s fingertips, and every mug has the perfect handle…

Think this is a fantasy? Then check this out…

From the Make magazine blog:

Customize Replacement Parts with 3D Printing

German maker Thorsten Wilms wanted to add a nice headlight to his new bike, but a couple of cables got in the way of a clean installation. He ordered a new clamp to compensate for the cables, but it ended up positioning the business end in the opposite direction. So he did what everyone with access to FreeCAD and should do: he redesigned the part to position it in the proper direction and printed a copy using a similar material. [via bikehacks]


On February 29th, The New America Foundation, Slate and Arizona State University hosted Tinkering with the Future:Will the DIY Movement Craft the Future?. I hate to be a spoiler, but the answer is pretty much YES, makers, tinkerers (tinkers?), crafters and the like will play a huge role in our future economy and culture creation–if we do it right.Tinkering

There is no point in my going into a protracted summary of the afternoon’s events. You can watch a webcast of the symposium here.

Some highlights to look for:

  • Tim Wu, Professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires explains how tinkerers created the twentieth century as we know it. He talks about how the technological innovations we all know, love and need (or at least wouldn’t know how to do without) were, for the most part, created by amateurs working away in their garages (both literally and figuratively).
  • Dale Dougherty, Founder and Publisher of Make magazine, and Tom Kalil, Associate Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy answer questions about the maker philosophy, who makers are, governments role in harnessing the innovations of makers and promoting the maker ethic and the economics of the maker movement. In this conversation, moderated by David Plotz, Editor at Slate, Dougherty and Kalil discuss the fundamental contributions makers will have on the economy and on society as a whole. They also get into some discussion about how our educational institutions need to learn from and emulate the maker ethic. It’s interesting to hear Dougherty, the maker and Kalil the wonk compare notes.
  • Annie Lowrey’s conversation with Mitzi Montoya, Dean of the College of Technology & Innovation at Arizona State University, and Jim Newton, Chairman and Founder of TechShop is incredibly interesting for it’s educational implications. My favorite part of this conversation is the answer each gives to my question about what kind’s of technologies we should have in our schools. Again, I hate to be a spoiler, but Newton responds that we should put all shop classes back into schools, while Montoya lists three things that she thinks every student should study: Art, Shop and Programming. Who would have thought someone named Mitzi would be so smart.
  • Journalist and Author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe explains briefly how he coined the term “crowdsourcing”, and gives an enlightening talk about how opening up problems to a wide undefined audience can reap huge results. He sites as his example InnoCentive. The website set up to crowdsource answers to important (and profitable) scientific questions. Howe does a much better job than I can at explaining exactly how this works. But he sites three remarkable findings that I’ll mention here: 1) 1/3 of the problems posted on InnoCentive are solved. A remarkable ration when you consider that these are problems that the brightest minds in their respective fields have worked on, sometimes for years. 2) There is a pronounced positive correlation between the the researchers who solve a particular problem and how far outside their area of expertise the problem is. Basically (but not exactly), the less they know about a field, the more likely they are to solve a problem in that field. 3) For the problems that are solved most of the people solving them knew within twenty minutes that they could solve the problem–remember these are problems that the best minds in the field have often spent years on.
  • The final two discussions, Crafting the Do-It-Yourself Economy and Can Our Patent System Support (or Survive) the DIY Movement? are both fascinating conversations. The first focuses on the future of employment–the future nature of work, actually. A topic that is important to educators and policy types because it should be informing how we build our current systems and educate young people. The second looks at how a broken patent system (or at least a system that has not kept up with modern technology) could either stand in the way of the DIY ethic, stifling innovation and the economy as a whole; or could encourage open platforms, tinkering at the edges and real innovative potential. Both are definitely worth watching.

WFR: or a meditation on good teaching

WFROne morning about two months ago I was sitting in a classroom at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center just outside State College Pennsylvania, learning basic anatomy. Later that afternoon I found myself in a snowy wood assessing injuries to a hiker who had fallen and suffered a broken leg and serious head injury. Four or five of my classmates–most in their early to mid twenties–worked feverishly together to splint and stabilize the disoriented patient, secure him in a litter and carry him out over a creek, up a hill, and back to the classroom where we’d started our day. Meanwhile, others tended to the broken and twisted limbs of the patient’s fellow hikers. Once the straps were taken off, the limbs unsplinted and the bone wax washed away, we debriefed our first multi-patient rescue.

Our patients were our classmates. The falls, the broken bones, the confusion and the evacuation were all a test, planned by  John Clancy our SOLO Wilderness Medicine instructor–a heck of nice guy. At Shaver’s Creek, I was one of about 14 people taking part in a ten-day Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. WFR is the basic certification required for most people who work as backcountry trip leaders, mountain guides, river guides,  ski patrollers, and in a variety of other environments where one is responsible for the safety and overall well-being of others in a wilderness setting. It also provides a really good set of skills (both medical and leadership related) for anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors, or without quick access to medical aid.

Since returning from Shaver’s creek I haven’t had to splint any limbs, stabilize any spines or apply direct pressure to any arterial bleeds. But I feel better knowing that if I were put in that situation I’d know what to do. I would undoubtedly be nervous, and my dressings might not come out as perfectly as John made sure they did during my training. Nevertheless, I know enough now to do more good than harm–which I’m not sure would have been the case before I became a WFR. Most importantly, what John taught through a combination of lecture, demonstrations, conversation, hands-on practice and scenario simulations over nearly two weeks has made an indelible impression. His combination  of instruction strategies–along with his flexibility in letting us find our own best ways of grasping concepts and performing procedures–made John perhaps one of the most effective teachers I’ve ever had in a technical course like this.

Most of us don’t go into the world thinking that we’ll encounter the worst case scenario. I think if we did we might not travel very far out into the world, actually. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared for the things we may encounter, whether on a city street, suburban cul-de-sac, or backcountry trail. My WFR class reminded me of the importance of being present, the value of observation, the benefit of listening closely and the  reward of taking responsible risks. It also reminded me what really good teaching should be like. After each eight hour day of my WFR training I walked back through the woods to the cabin in which I was staying. Tired, but charged, I noticed new things on each walk. Rather than being dazed and confused, I felt curious and observant. And maybe that’s the biggest gift of a teacher like John: he gets you to look carefully at the environment around you, gives you the confidence to act on what you see.