Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Disappearing Male and Chemicals

The omnipresence of synthetic chemicals, exponentially increasing in diversity and concentration for the last 100 years, is not without consequences. Amongst these consequences, there's a dramatic reduction of male fertility, malformations and miscarriages, the birth of more females than males , etc. Most of the blamed chemicals have proven bad repercussions on animals, but very rare are longer term studies on humans. Of course, the chemical lobby will tell you the suspected synthetic chemicals are safe, which reminds us of the tobacco lobby that swore not so long ago that there's no link between smoking and lung cancer... This is not my invention, but it's the subject of the well done documentary with pertinent interviews that a friend sent me. It's named The Disappearing Male:
"The Disappearing Male is about one of the most important, and least publicized, issues facing the human species: the toxic threat to the male reproductive system. The last few decades have seen steady and dramatic increases in the incidence of boys and young men suffering from genital deformities, low sperm count, sperm abnormalities and testicular cancer. [...] The Disappearing Male takes a close and disturbing look at what many doctors and researchers now suspect are responsible for many of these problems: a class of common chemicals that are ubiquitous in our world."

I'm happy we have a seemingly healthy one-year old daughter and hope we won't have serious problems engendering brothers and sisters for our little Vickie. Apparently harmless chemicals, dangerous synthetic compounds are one of the troubles of modern life and one of the global challenges for today and tomorrow. Thanks to the CBC Canadian public TV for providing the full documentary online - we don't own a TV.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Out of Gaz: Learning to live without oil

A good friend gave me the book 'Out of Gaz' by David Goodstein and that was a pretty interesting read. It's short, only 131 pages, and rather to the point. Critics say it's disjointed and there are better books about the worldwide depletion of oil, maybe, but that's the one I read and found it excellent.

So what it's all about? It's mainly about worldwide energy consumption. About how we are largely dependant on oil as a source of energy for everything and how that very source will be depleted in this century. It's doesn't matter much if it happens in 10, 20 or 50 years now, it will happen for sure and from an historical timeline perspective, it will happen very soon. The book also largely documents and details the peak oil and Hubbert Peak theory, which tells us the next energy crisis will not begin when the last drop of oil has been pumped, but rather when supply and demand can't play nice together anymore.

Large sections of the book are dedicated to the history of energy and the physics of energy. As an engineer myself, I was happy to read those parts. Entropy is also covered. Energy myths as well.

But what the book is also about, and probably that's the most dramatic part of it, is alternative sources of energy. The book seems to do a good job at enumerating and evaluating all the alternative energy sources and convince us that most, if not all of them, simply physically can't provide all the energy we need to sustain our actual rhythm of consumption! And worldwide demand for energy is exponentially increasing! It's not a matter of money: there is no simple technological fix.

It's a very cheap book, only a few dollars on Amazon (used, see first link above) and definitely worth the read.

Let's hope we wake up soon enough and that the inevitable bumps on the road ahead won't hurt too much.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

PASS – Google's 10 to the 100 submission

Amid working full time and taking care of our wonderful daughter, I took time to aggregate and repackage the PASS idea in a suitable format for Google's 10 to the 100 challenge. Maybe this is a vain attempt, but where is it written that our dreams must be small ones? Last time I wrote about PASS, I said I was convinced the project would come to life anyway in one form or another. This is still true. Then why spend time on it? Because I want the project to 'get it right', or at least go in the best direction possible, and be launched as soon as possible since the required technology is ripe. So many great ideas are badly implemented - that's what I'd like to avoid. Oh, and since my previous PASS entry, I stumbled onto these two links which provide related information. My only regret is I realized two days prior the submission's deadline that there were, well, only two days left, leaving little time to write a proper and nice submission. So here it is, my submission to Google's project 10 to the 100.

** 8. Your idea's name (maximum 50 characters):
PASS: Product Attribute Sharing for Sustainability

** 9. Please select a category that best describes your idea.
Opportunity: How can we help people better provide for themselves and their families?

** 10. What one sentence best describes your idea? (maximum 150 characters)
System providing valuable customized product information in a timely and convenient manner, enabling consumers to enhance their purchasing experience.

** 11. Describe your idea in more depth. (maximum 300 words)
PASS is a portable decision support system providing customized pertinent and validated product information in a timely and convenient manner, enabling consumers to drastically enhance their purchasing experience. This system encourages transparency, sustainable development, accountability, quality and efficiency. PASS's main components are the database, client softwares, and PASS-enabled devices.

The PASS database host products and services information and metadata. It includes the product's characteristics such as its name, manufacturer and model, associated barcode, the product's origin, its healthiness, safeness, quality, its price. When available, an assessment of the product's and manufacturer's environmental friendliness and impacts are included. Product information comes from known trustworthy and validated sources. The database could include moderated user generated content and user statistics (such as satisfaction) regarding the products.

The PASS client softwares are applications installed on the user computer and PASS-enabled devices. They are the bridge between the database and the user in the buying process. The applications are customizable and interoperable. They allow consumers to tailor the database information to their values and preferences (example: someone may favor local products and small producers, another one may favor healthy, vegan or nuts-free products, etc). The applications must provide the best mix of user-friendliness, features, pertinence and performance.

Based on multiple criterion from the database and user preferences, a few simple indicators allowing users to quickly make a decision are presented to the user. The applications can provide the full product information at request. The applications can also share a user's information and product's comments with his network of selected users.

The PASS-enabled devices are the smartphones, a portable dedicated device or computer with PASS client software installed. The device supply the product's information based on manufacturer and model and may have the ability to read product barcodes (via camera) and sync itself over the Internet.

** 12. What problem or issue does your idea address? (maximum 150 words)
The PASS system opens new doors in regards to accessing valuable product information at the moment consumers need it most. PASS provides the following:
- Quick access to hard to obtain trustworthy information.
- Obtain information when you need it, while in the buying process.
- Overcome information overload by accessing summarized and customized key information.
- Configure the flexible client-side system to tie it to your values, preferences (e.g. organic food, price, local producers, manufacturer's ethics) or health constraints (e.g. allergies).
- Promptly compare products and services using criterion that matters to you.
- Easily share valuable product assessment with your entourage.

** 13. If your idea were to become a reality, who would benefit the most and how? (maximum 150 words)
Anyone with a PASS-enabled smartphone or dedicated device (alternatively, anyone with access to a computer and preferably Internet access) ready to acquire products and services or gathering information about products and services.

Eventually, merchants and service providers, knowing clients can now easily learn about their product's quality and corporate ethics, will improve their offers and manufacturing processes to the benefit of everyone and the environment.

** 14. What are the initial steps required to get this idea off the ground? (maximum 150 words)
1 – Develop the server-side database and the client-side software. Optionally, develop a low-cost PASS dedicated devices as a cheaper alternative to owning a PASS-enabled smartphone.
2 – Build partnerships with existing trustworthy products information providers and transfer products information to the PASS database.
3 – Find a mean to cover costs of the project's implementation and maintenance.

The required technology to support the PASS project is ready and ripe. The organization managing the PASS project must unconditionally be neutral. Probably best is if it's a not-for-profit organization. I believe PASS software should be developed with open source code and be scalable. When appropriate, the colligated information should be available under a creative commons license and freely accessible.

** 15. Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be selected and successfully implemented. How would you measure it? (maximum 150 words)
In a matter of months, millions of people's consuming habits could be enhanced. The outcome would be better informed consuming habits for anyone using PASS. Overall, this decision support system encourages transparency, sustainable development, accountability, quality and efficiency. Ultimately, the system promotes fair and transparent competition at the worldwide scale.

This project's success can be directly measured by the number of registered members, their contributions to the system, the amount of accesses to the database and the frequency the PASS client softwares are downloaded and updated. The number of trustworthy content providers partners joining the project is also a measure of the project's success. Alternatively, the number of PASS dedicated devices built and distributed is an indirect indicator to the project's success.

UPDATE 20081020:
Missing from the submission are these elements: (1) PASS could also provide location-based suggestions, such as "a better similar product is available at a store 2 minutes from where you are." (2) The second missing element is how to make money out of this, and one obvious potential mean is advertising.

UPDATE 20090113:
Here's a /. discussion about the new Microsoft Tag system, with links to similar Nokia efforts and more.

UPDATE 20090426:
Here's a Google announcement on smarter shopping with smartphones, which is not PASS implemented at all, but a step in that direction.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mirages d'un Eldorado

Ah bon... je me retrouve dans un générique de documentaire ! J'ai pas vraiment de mérite autre que d'avoir passé quelques heures (une dizaine au total ?) à aider un collègue pour trouver des données satellitaires historiques et récentes sur les "glaciers soit-disant disparus" dont il est question dans le film ainsi que quelques autres informations et recommendations ...

J'ai pas encore vu le film, qui sort la semaine prochaine au cinéma. Je n'ai aucune idée jusqu'à présent s'ils ont décidé d'ignorer mes inputs. J'ai droit à un 0,1 seconde de gloire ? ;-) Le site web du film « Mirages d'un Eldorado ».

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

MacOS X vs Ubuntu- A Personal Assessment

Copied from my Slashdot journal:
Here's my problem: I use macs at home. Ok I admit it, it's not a really problem because I believe it's the best overall user experience for me. Even if I'm a heavy open source software user (and sporadic contributor) and enthusiast, I still haven't been convinced Ubuntu is ready for me. I don't have a lot of Ubuntu experience despite using Debian at work, but Slashdot users do! I don't want or need a flamewar, I'd like to get your informed feedback. I wrote a short personal assessment of why I stick with Macs instead of switching to Ubuntu right away. Where I am wrong? My short text quickly looks at the software I, and any average user, use on a computer: email (Apple's Mail vs Thunderbird / other), Spotlight vs Beagle, etc. To reassure Ubuntu fans, here's an extract: "I found this interrogation from one of my colleagues, "will MacOSX forever stay more advanced than Ubuntu?". I tend to believe the answer's no and as a consequence, you'll eventually see me use an open source operating system on my primary computer at home. We're not just there yet."

Sunday, May 04, 2008

PASS: Product Attribute Sharing for Sustainability

Here's a few words on the Product Attribute Sharing for Sustainability (PASS) project that went back to oblivion last summer. In my opinion, it's a great project that will eventually see the light in one form or another (and I most probably won't be involved in its coming to life). I discussed the concept over 10 years ago with friends (I sure don't claim to be the first to think about it) and in spring 2007, an enthusiastic friend called me and told me he wanted to work on the project. Along with a small core group of about 5 people, we met a few times, brainstormed, gathered and shared information, discussed and wrote some documentation. At the end of the summer, when the main conceptual aspects of the project were pretty mature, we decided to halt the process. Why? Weren't we working on another Great Idea (tm)? Time. We all have (generally exciting) full-time jobs and, as much as we'd like, we could not figure out a way to keep the project alive while keeping ourselves alive. Here's a very short summary, we have a 6-pages document to share with anyone interested (in French though).

Okay, so what it is? The name "Product Attribute Sharing for Sustainability" provides a few hints. This acronym is a working title. In a few words, it's a small-size portable digital device, to be used in groceries and various stores, aimed at advising users and consumers about sold products, specifically about their quality, their origin, their health and ecological impacts, and so on. The device may have the ability to read product barcodes but it is not required. Products data and metadata would be validated, potentially using existing reliable sources and a moderated wiki system. The portable device may sync itself over the Internet (and the software will upload only relevant information to the user, based on the products he has access to and his preferences). The information provided to consumers would be tailored to his preferences (example: someone may favor local products or small producers, another one may favor healthy, vegan or nuts-free products, etc). There's much more to it, but you get the idea.

As I said, I strongly believe this project will eventually come to life. Why? Because it will be a success (if well implemented, of course ;-). One of the group even scooped that taoit are working on it, but in my opinion it's vaporware until anything tangible is released. Similar existing projects includes Barcodepedia and Skin Deep.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Altruism and Economics

After a nice discussion with friends about altruism, I stumbled on this interesting Herbert Simon 6-pages text named Altruism and Economics. Here's an extract:
"In evolutionary theory, altruism means behavior that reduces the actor's fitness while enhancing the fitness of others. If the total contribution of the altruist to the fitness of others is greater than the fitness lost by the altruist, altruism will increase the prospects of the group's surviving in competition with other groups."

The text underlines the benefits of altruism and related behavior to the economy. Amongst the elements of the discussion: do you consider yourself an altruist? Why be an altruist? Is it something we choose to be or simply are? Where lies the threshold of being too much altruistic? To which extent does altruism help us as a society?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Idée : «Livre dont vous êtes le parent»

L'idée est la suivante : un livre interactif sur la réalité d'être nouveau parent sous la formule des anciennement populaires "Livre dont vous êtes le héros". La génération des adolescents ayant lu de nombreux livre dont vous êtes le héros sont maintenant à l'âge d'être nouveaux parents. C'est une idée parmi tant d'autres mais je la trouvais amusante, pouvant tant divertir que d'informer et générer des discussions de couple pertinentes. L'idée aurait été même potentiellement lucrative si elle avait été menée à terme il y a 5-10 ans (nombreux sont ceux en mal d'offrir un cadeau original et utile aux nouveaux parents).

Pour ceux qui connaissent la formule, voici certains éléments qui auraient pu faire parti d'un tel livre :
- Caractéristiques du personnage : points de patience, points de sommeil, points air-lousse, points de bonheur, argent, etc.
- Outils : une débarbouillette, une poussette, une cuillère, etc.
- Villains : CPE, DPJ, la belle-mère, les autres bébés malades, etc.
- Épreuves et missions : trouver une place en garderie, gérer la visite, partager le congé parental, la vaccination, conserver tout au long du périple suffisamment de points de sommeil, de points de patience et de points de bonheur, etc.

L'idée mériteraient d'être développée davantage avant d'aller plus loin, mais son potentiel me semble intéressant ! Si l'idée vous enthousiasme et que vous comptez la mettre de l'avant (pourquoi pas dans l'fond ? :-), faîtes-moi signe ! Ah oui, je sais que le titre "livre dont vous êtes le parent" n'a pas le même punch que "livre dont vous êtes le héros", car contrairement à héros, nous ne sommes pas "parent" du livre... mais n'ayant pas trouvé mieux, appelons ça un working title ;-)

MISE À JOUR - 080430 : un bon copain m'a fait part de cet intéressant outil pour aider à générer de tels livres interactifs.

Saturday, March 29, 2008 bookmarks migration completed

I'm happy to announce this minor task finally completed: my bookmarks are now fully migrated to my Delicious account. More precisely, they have been imported to Delicious in late 2006 and what I really just completed is the initial tagging and cleaning. That never been high on my priority list, but it's a good thing done.

Here's the previous blog post on my bookmarks and my page explaining the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Keeping Found Things Found

I just started reading William Jones' Keeping Found Things Found. I admit buying this book solely on Peter Morville's recommendation. I'm confident this will be an interesting read. Quote for the first chapter:
"Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? -- T.S. Elliot (1888-1965)"

Related, I've been pleased with Kimiz Dalkir's Knowledge Management I read last year, another book I feel comfortable to recommend, though I understand the topic is a little (but just a little) less universal than personal information management.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste

This might not be intuitive, but coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. See this recent account by Scientific American. Two exerts:
"Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, fly ash—a by-product from burning coal for power—contains up to 100 times more radiation than nuclear waste."

But don't panic just yet:
"The question boils down to the accumulating impacts of daily incremental pollution from burning coal or the small risk but catastrophic consequences of even one nuclear meltdown. "I suspect we'll hear more about this rivalry," Finkelman says. "More coal will be mined in the future. And those ignorant of the issues, or those who have a vested interest in other forms of energy, may be tempted to raise these issues again.""

Les marques maison des supermarchés

Voici un extrait d'un courriel. Le débat était à savoir s'il est préférable, d'un point de vue global, d'acheter des marques de commerce ou des marques maisons d'épicerie.

"Il s'agit d'une enquête réalisée par l'émission de Radio-Canada nommée "L'épicerie". Vous trouverez le texte complet sur :

Ce que je conclus en gros de ma lecture des résultats de l'enquête, c'est que les marques d'épicerie, comme "Choix du président", "Sélection mérite", etc., sont non-seulement plus écologiques mais en plus rapporte plus d'argent au producteur, qui est souvent le même que celle d'une marque commerciale. Cela semble confirmer les grandes lignes de ce que je croyais.

Un court extrait :
"La marque maison bénéficie d'un bon avantage sur le plan monétaire, nous dit M. Dufour : « Il faut le dire : dans une marque maison, vous venez d'enlever une proportion quand même importante de coûts qui se situe, selon la catégorie, entre 15 % et 40 % de coûts associés au programme marketing, à l'emballage ou autre ». Ce bénéfice se traduit par une marge de profit en moyenne deux fois plus élevée sur la vente de produits maison que sur la vente de marques nationales."

Puisqu'il y a notamment moins de ressources allouées au marketing, le produit est moins dispendieux et plus d'argent peut aller au producteur (lire l'article à ce sujet, notamment "Mais quel est l'avantage pour une compagnie de fournir ses propres compétiteurs ? « Dans bien des cas, c'est de combler une chaîne de production,répond M. Caron. Ils produisent plus. Ils veulent aller chercher un volume additionnel. »").

Bref. Évidemment, le premier choix serait toujours de favoriser le local, à travers par exemple l'agriculture soutenue par le communauté, aller à la petite boulangerie du quartier, la petite fruiterie, choisir des produits du Québec, etc. Par contre, entre un produit "Delmonte" ou "Nestlé" par exemple, je n'hésiterai pas du tout à favoriser la marque maison d'une grosse chaîne !"

Update 080204, extrait d'un courriel qui a suivi:
"Je crois que c'est faux de croire qu'on "perd un choix" entre les grandes marques et les marques d'épicerie. Je crois que les grandes marques (e.g. Nestlé, Kraft, Delmonte, etc) ont des politiques [et conditions] envers les producteurs avec qui ils font affaire qui sont probablement pires que les politiques des marques d'épicerie.

Cependant, je suis tout à fait d'accord pour dire qu'on réduit les choix lorsqu'on a le choix entre une petite marque (ou le producteur local) et une marque d'épicerie. Dans le cas où les petites marques sont présentes (et si en plus elles sont locales), alors nous avons avantage à la préférer et laisser de côté la marque d'épicerie !

En d'autres mots, ça dépend à quoi on compare !

"pire" <----------------------------------> "mieux"
Grande marque <--> marque d'épicerie <--> petite marque ou producteur local"

Saturday, January 26, 2008

ReacTable: the holy grail of electronic music creation user interface

One of the numerous projects I'd like to spend more time on is music (ah... so many things I want to do ;-). A friend just showed me the reacTable (Wikipedia entry) and I'm enthusiastic about it. I've seen (and even played with some) electronic music gadgets, but this one is a step closer to the holy grail of electronic music creation user interface. Videos worth millions of words...

Here's the second demo video and here's an improvisation with the tool, but it still feels like this beast has much more potential that what it is shown on these videos, such as integrating these concepts with the ones of a AirFX. We *do* live in interesting times... (if only we could more wisely use our brains and technology to improve our civilization as a whole)