Friday, October 31, 2008

Its Halloween!


Its halloween at the X PRIZE Foundation. We didn't disappoint! Hopefully Jean will share some of the pictures he took of some of the neXters in their costumes. Here's the office moose, picking her (?) nose:

And here's a nerdy outfit that cracked me up to no end. Obviously the kid of an engineer:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

USAID Challenge and the Netflix Prize

Win some serious moolah (source: Daveynin)

More prizes and challenges on the way. The first, the USAID 2.0 Development Challenge is a mobile application competition that works as follows:
Mobile technology, including everything from inventive applications for smart phones to simple text messaging, is increasingly ubiquitous in the developing world. USAID challenges you to explore its potential through an innovation for maximum development impact in areas such as health, banking, education, agricultural trade, or other pressing development issues.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Government agency that delivers economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide on behalf of the American people, is sponsoring a challenge to find the best in mobile innovations for good. Through a NetSquared community vote, fifteen finalists will be chosen. A panel of judges, selected by USAID, will then select the winners. The first place winner will receive a grant of $10,000, the two runner-ups will receive grants of $5,000 each. All three winners will have the opportunity to present their ideas to senior USAID officials, experts, and the public in Washington D.C.

Then there's the Netflix Prize, which I've heard from some insiders was modeled on the success of the X PRIZE. According to their site:
The Netflix Prize seeks to substantially improve the accuracy of predictions about how much someone is going to love a movie based on their movie preferences. Improve it enough and you win one (or more) Prizes. Winning the Netflix Prize improves our ability to connect people to the movies they love.

PRIZE MONEY: $1 Million for the winner, and $50K prizes for "Progress Prizes."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Story of the Week: Condommobile in Mexico

Lost Condommovil in Mexico City (source: la Jornada)

The developing world is never without its share of laughs. Via Boing Boing, I came across this story about a stolen Condommobile. Apparently, the four-wheeled safe sex machine disappeared in Mexico City along with its cargo of 5,000 condoms, 800 HIV tests, and a 22-foot inflatable rubber. From the Associated Press:
The co-ordinator of an HIV/AIDS awareness tour, Paolo Gomez, said on Wednesday that the "Condomovil" was parked in front of a friend's house in Mexico City when it disappeared on Sunday evening... The truck should be easy to spot. It features painted images of a peeled banana, the exposed part shaped like a condom, and a shirtless man saying: "I protect myself. Do you?"
Stolen: condom mobile (via Fortean Times)

After sending out an alert, authorities found the "condommovil" in a parking lot with the following missing: all the condoms, PA, stereo, camera, iPod, information stand, and the motor to inflate the giant condom. They found Queen's drag, HIV detection kits, and the 7 mt. condom.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Seven Rules of Innovation

[via WhiteAfrican]

Blogger extraordinaire Ethan Zuckerman outlines his seven rules of innovation, which I fully agree with. These were derived from the notion "...that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances - constraints - and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases."

Here are his seven rules:

- innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)

- don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)

- embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)

- innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)

- problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)

- what you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)

- infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa - see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The importance of libraries

Room to Read Founder, John Wood, uses a yak "mobile" to transport books and other materials to build school libraries in some of the most remote parts of the world (photo: MSNBC)

Continuing on the education theme from the past couple of days, I wanted to reflect on the importance of libraries in the education system.

Growing up between two cultures (rural India and a largely urban United States), I saw very clear differences in the access to educational resources. In India we were lucky if we had libraries. Our school fortunately had one, but we had very limited access to it; and when we did, the books were limited in number and scope. Still (and probably because of how precious it was), I developed a love for classic tales of adventure (as well as an insatiable appetite for comic books). My favorites were "The Scarlet Pimpernel," and "The Count of Monte Cristo." Libraries were often private; people opened up their collection of second-hand books. You would get a membership and then check them out. But again these were limited in scope and number. It didn't matter the size of the library (and I've used them all) - a push-cart, a little closet, even a large shoebox. They allowed me the chance to learn and escape when I needed. That was priceless.

In the U.S on the other hand, I partook of Andrew Carnegie's dream. And it felt like it too. I loved the number and variety of books; I loved the events; I loved the arts and crafts, and the reading competitions, and storytime, and puppet shows. The library formed the center of my social life. I made friends there, we played in the playroom, we ate cookies together during snack-time, and we read. I have only the fondest memories of the library.

More than anything else, libraries encourage and reinforce learning. Everyone has questions, particularly as a kid. It is extremely frustrating to not be able to get an answer. This is where the internet has been SO powerful for the developing world. Suddenly the playing field has been leveled.

On the note of libraries, read John Wood's incredible story of how he left Microsoft to start Room to Read - an organization setting up school libraries in some of the poorest regions of the world; and on the other end, is this ultimate nerd library courtesy of Boing Boing. And who can forget how the library project changed Shawshank Prison in the amazing Shawshank Redemption?

What has a library done for you??

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Alternative education colleges, Part II

Keeping with the theme of alternative education colleges, we are really excited about this one.

Patrick Awuah was a high-flying Microsoft employee (during that time when it was really hard to get in!), when during a visit back home to Ghana, felt compelled to give something back to his community. He left his job and started Ashesi University, one of the first liberal arts universities in Sub Saharan Africa. Since it began in 2002, Ashesi has educated over 1200 students from eleven African countries, and has exchange programs with universities in the U.S and the middle east. And already the feedback in the blogosphere has been extremely positive.

Listen to Patrick talk about the dream of Ashesi becoming a reality, and the need to educate future leaders.

We're proud to say that Patrick and the staff/students at Ashesi are running a series of brainstorm sessions to generate Global Development prize ideas. What a wonderful exercise for both the students, staff, and for us! If you would like to run a session, let us know and we'll send you some materials to get you started. Also, we'd LOVE to get the outcomes of your brainstorms.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Alternative education colleges, Part I

We're big on education and empowerment. Here are two centers in opposite parts of the world doing something cool - educating and empowering the poor. I must admit that neither Emeka nor I have visited the following, but we've heard a lot about them. If you have visited them, and have some thoughts to share, we'd LOVE to hear from you!

[via Boing Boing] Xeni Jardin visits the Songhai Center in Benin. You can read her thoughts on the experience here.

[via PBS] PBS recently aired a beautiful piece about the Barefoot College in India, a skills-institute for the illiterate poor. Unfortunately, its not embeddable, so instead, watch the Skoll Foundation visit the Barefoot College in India.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Water testing kit X PRIZE??

One of the big problems I've encountered in the field as a water engineer is the lack of reliable diagnostic kits (doctors, pharmacists and other scientists have complained about the same in their fields too). And its hard to design a water purification system without knowing what the water quality is like. Quite often you have to bring your own equipment. But being as cumbersome as the equipment can get, its hard to get back-ups. They are expensive to buy, run the risk of breaking down, and when they do, its hard to find anyone to fix it right. In addition, tests can take varying amounts of time. For example, fecal coliform tests (a test that shows whether and how much fecal bugs are in the water...its an indicator for the level of bad bugs in the water) can take 24 hours at the minimum. If you are in a cholera zone and trying to decipher which water sources are contaminated, twenty four hours is simply too long!

Another important aspect of water testing is showing locals why they need to treat their water. The poor, who are generally illiterate or minimally educated, are unable to grasp the concept of germs or chemical or biological contaminants. So they don't easily buy into why they need to invest in disinfecting their water particularly when it looks "clear" or close to it. The poor are extremely visual; using testing kits that explain contamination visually is a huge first step to causing positive behaviorial changes.

Generally the technical issues you encounter in the field aren't that complex; its the socio economic problems that are far more complex to solve. Still the technical stuff needs to be flawless, because too often fingers are pointed at the technical design of an intervention, when really the assessments of resource conditions (eg. water quality, soil conditions, weather conditions, etc) or socioeconomic circumstances have not been properly carried out. In this context, testing and calibration kits play a central part in the assessment of local water conditions.

For all these reasons, one of the many ideas we have been considering is an X PRIZE that would involve the design of rapid water test kits (something like a pregnancy test) that give clear indicators of contamination levels. (Think a positive/negative arsenic, fluoride, pathogen test).

Recently I came across these two kits that are being developed. I also know of a separate initiative that a graduate student at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) is attempting of a similar nature, but the details of her research are not clear yet.

The first is the Aquatest, a kit being developed at Bristol University, which will give positive/negative fecal coliform tests in 24 hours at a cost of 10 cents per kit(!!). That is phenomenal, considering that a kit available today costs $70 at the very minimum.

Down Under (Australia), the Environmental Biotechnology Research Center is trying to develop an instant positive/negative fecal coliform kit. Although price points have still not been identified, this is another kit that can have immeasurable value.

Any thoughts on others that are out there or about developing a prize like this?? Water engineers, it would be great to get your opinions.

Friday, October 17, 2008

More about J-PAL

I got a couple of emails asking for more info on the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Here is my response:
  • Check their site regularly. They always have the latest information up. Unfortunately there is no RSS feed. You have to go there yourself (or bombard them with requests for RSS, and maybe they will put something there).
  • I don't know if they blog. I've searched and haven't come up with anything yet. If you know more, definitely let me know.
  • Yes, you can work/collaborate with J-PAL. They have jobs listed on their site. There are other ways to get involved as well.
  • Finally, don't hesitate to email specific questions to them. They are all very passionate about their work and love to meet others who are the same. However keep in mind that they are all extremely busy; they all teach popular classes, in addition to research, writing, and travel. In my own experience, Rachel Glennerster has been extremely responsive on email, and very nice when I've called the Lab out-of-the-blue. Duflo takes some time to respond to your emails, but she does get back to you at some point. Banerjee, I've yet to hear from...though he has insisted (when I cornered him on the subject) that he responds to all his emails.
There is also a great interview that PRI (Public Radio International) did with Glennerster and Banerjee about J-PAL and its birth. You can listen to it or read you want.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What causes Poverty: Q & A with Esther Duflo, MIT JPAL

Duflo in India; to the left is J-PAL colleague and fellow economist, Abhijit Banerjee (photo courtesy:

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab or J-PAL for short is an alternative approach to studying poverty. A group of almost renegade development economists under the guidance of Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Rachel Glennerster run a series of randomized trials around various topics to statistically determine the various variables involved in poverty. The hope is that in determining the variables and the extent to which they affect wealth and poverty, a more efficient, effective, and proportionate response can be developed.

Randomized trials have their own issues; they cannot necessarily be generalized (as J-PAL agrees and Esther discusses below). Still, the approach and the work already done by the Lab have yielded fascinating results. Poverty has hardly ever been systematically studied; J-PAL is changing that in a big and important way.

Recently, the International Herald Tribune (Global edition of the New York Times) did an excellent Q&A session with Esther Duflo, where she fielded questions from global readers. Besides a fascinating discussion, she also points you to a lot of good and relevant reading material.

Some of the questions include:
  • What do you think are the worst mistakes made by Western countries in their politics to defeat poverty? Do you think there’s a real will to defeat poverty?
  • As someone who has dedicated your career to discovering and applying effective approaches to alleviate poverty, what do you think are the best ways to deal with the corruption and mismanagement of aid by governments?
  • How do you think we can bridge this ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor?
  • What are the root causes of poverty?? the Indian caste system?? Is it tribal conflict??
....and much, much more. Read the entire discussion here.

More reading: MIT Economists help their profession get its groove back.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Healthy is what we're after

And solving America's health care challenges requires the kind of innovation that only comes from competition.

The X PRIZE Foundation has long been thinking about the idea of an X PRIZE in the area of health care. After all, the system is confusing, expensive, and doesn’t cover everyone efficiently or equally. This is an area in desperate need of the kind of breakthroughs that the X PRIZEs can provide.

And now we’ve found a partner to help us with the development of such an X PRIZE. WellPoint, Inc. has given the X PRIZE Foundation a grant to explore the possibility of a Health Care X PRIZE. We’re going to talk with the top minds in the healthcare industry to find out exactly where it’s broken, and ideas for how it can be fixed. WellPoint, as one of the leaders in health care innovation, will be a great source of information and contacts in developing this prize. When we’re finished talking to people, our goal is to have a prize concept that will lead to the creation of a whole new way of looking at health care.

If you’re an expert in this area, and want to have a voice in the development of a prize, please send us a message, including your credentials and an overview of any ideas that you might have.

But industry-players aren’t the only ones we want to hear from. Nobody knows where the healthcare system is sick more than the people who have to use it day in and day out. So we want to hear from you, the general public. What’s broken? Where are you having trouble? What doesn’t make sense? How can healthcare be made easier? Staying healthy should be the easiest thing in the world. We want any prize that we create to find a solution that benefits the users of the healthcare system. Leave us your feedback here or on the Healthcare X PRIZE page.

I’ll be posting relevant comments as new blog posts in an effort to keep the conversation going, because we really do want to hear from everyone out there reading this blog.

Stay Healthy!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Farmer's virtue is rewarded in Ancient China

[via Agricultural Biodiversity]

A farmer's virtue is rewarded in ancient China...or atleast so the story says.
A saying goes: "Don't assume a good deed won't bring rewards." The farmer's compassionate heart held no interest in personal gain. He was upright in his business and helped others in the process. That amounted to having done a good deed, bringing him virtue. That is why everyone respected him, and he got his just reward.

Now you know...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Child Soldier turned Rapper

Emmanuel Jal has all kinds of ammo; the west coast/east coast rappers have nothing on this kid. A former child soldier from Sudan, he has seen every kind of atrocity that we were never meant to see. Now he lives to tell about it through his rap. See the amazing inspirational video below.

Friday, October 10, 2008

CNBC to Air Collaboration Now on Sunday, October 12

I don't know if you have seen already, but CNBC is premiering a new program called Collaboration NOW on Sunday, October 12 at 8pm. The show is going to be hosted by Donny Deutsch talk about some of the organizations that really use collaboration to its fullest potential. We're proud to say that the X PRIZE Foundation is going to be one of the organizations talked about int he program. So check it out to find out how a competitive organization like the X PRIZE Foundation is really a source of collaboration!

The man who brought students to the SpaceShipOne Launch

I was crusing the news the other day, and I found an interesting article about an Antelope Valley man named Gregg Anderson. He's a real estate developer in the area who has been an avid supporters of schools there. He's actually having the newest school named after him, which is quite an honor, I would imagine.

The reason I bring him up here is because back in 2004, he paid for 1400 students to take a trip out to the Mojave desert to witness the flight of SpaceShipOne. To me, it was a moving story, though the story was notably brief. This is the kind of charity that I really look for and see. Of course it's amazing when people donate millions and millions of dolalrs to a cause that they believe in. But the smaller acts of charity, the individualistic ones, are the acts that really make a personal difference. Anderson gave those 1400 kids a memory that they'll never forget. He directly affected their lives. And directly touching a few lives can be just as powerful as indirectly touching millions of lives.

The $100K Buckminster Fuller Challenge

I just heard about this through a friend. There's a $100K prize for "the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems," according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute. [Read more]

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge - SEE THE MOVIE! from Buckminster Fuller Institute on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Zayed Future Energy Prize

So much for Einstein's equation!

Here's another prize that will be of interest to you energy enthusiasts. According to their website, The Zayed Future Energy Prize will hand out $2.2 M annually to three winners (the winner gets $1.5M, while the runners up get $350K each). It was kick-started this year. Here's more info:

The Zayed Future Energy Prize came to fruition as a result of the vision of the late Ruler of Abu Dhabi and Founding Father of the United Arab Emirates, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan.

The Zayed Future Energy Prize...aims to inspire the next generation of global energy innovators – creating solutions we can barely imagine today.
The Prize will be awarded to three individuals, companies, organisations or NGOs that have made significant contributions in the global response to the future of energy.
On the evening of January 19th, 2009, the winner of the first annual Prize will be awarded $1.5 million with two additional finalists receiving $350,000 each to further develop their ideas.
Finalists will be nominated by experts across the globe while the winners will be chosen by a jury chaired by Dr. R.K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
[read more]

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Global Development Timeline: September 2008

What we did in September 2008
(Photo: Iheartlinen)

This is Part III of our Global Development Timeline. You being our stakeholders, we'd like to catch you up on what we have done thus far. Read Part I: July 2008 here, and Part II: August 2008 here.

With our domains clear, we decided to jump headlong into research.

September was largely focused on understanding the water, sanitation, and waste management space, and foraying into the mobile/wireless/IT space. For my research on the former, we talked to several field and technology experts, as well as visited a number of water, wastewater, and waste management plants. My own background in the same from the developing world allowed me to compare and contrast the techniques and knowledge between the two. What emerged from these visits, research, and brainstorms confirmed my own original beliefs - that most of the basic technology for clean water, sanitation and waste management already exist, often in very simple, low-cost forms. The problem was accessibility to the technology, the methodology to construct it, and the necessity of using them. Other potential areas that appear to be "prizable" include water diagnostics (speed testing to assess water quality) and desalination. (Note that this is work in progress and I plan on continuing to visit wat-san projects in the field, as well as meet experts constantly. The research on any subject is never entirely closed until we actually launch a prize).

By the end of September, we started moving into the wireless/mobile realm. As we've said many times before on the blog, this is the space to be in. Its the one piece of reliable infrastructure for the poor, and they have grabbed onto it with all their might. Cell phone adoption growth rates in Sub Saharan Africa and Asia are the highest in the world, and the poor are finding more and more ways to use mobile technology to compensate for the things they don't have access to.

On this note, I visited MIT's NextLab which had expressed a great interest in being involved in designing an X PRIZE around a mobile platform. My hope is (and frankly I think its highly possible) that they will come up with something extremely good that we can turn into an X PRIZE. Sitting in class and listening to their presentations filled me with a lot of hope and energy. (I assume that this is magnified a million times by the rest of the world's population, so PLEASE contact us with your ideas!)

I also had several meetings with entrepreneurship, health, nutrition, and agricultural experts at Harvard and MIT (and outside...which were equally engaging and important)...many of them enlightening conversations. There is a LOT of work and interest in the Bottom of the Pyramid now. Its an exciting time to be alive!!

Then on to NYC, where we met with some potential advisors and experts in financial markets, landmines, and social venture funding.

October will focus on building up our mobile/wireless knowledge. Neither Emeka or I are experts in the field, and it is a RAPIDLY evolving space that promises much potential. First up, BarCamp Africa on October 11th in Silicon Valley (thoughts on why Silicon Valley is hosting it is here), of which we are a proud sponsor; followed by the Mobile Active 08 Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. I'll try to blog about these as they happen.

Look for our October update later this month or in early November (and again, if we forget, don't hesitate to remind us!).

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Global Development Timeline: August 2008

August on the Global Development front... (photo: Erat)

This is Part II of our Global Development Timeline. You being our stakeholders, we'd like to catch you up on what we have done thus far. Read Part I: July 2008 here.

In August 2008, we formulated a strategy for moving forward. First we took stock of our own theories of development and where we thought the most pressing needs of the poor in the developing world were. Both Emeka and I come from different parts of the world, and from very different backgrounds. Having understood where the Foundation stood, we needed to know our own stances both with regards to the Foundation's ideas and global development. Synchronized, we then interviewed and brainstormed with our contacts both internally and from across the globe to understand what they thought. In general, the issues boiled down to seven broad domains. They are, in no order:
  • Transportation
  • Agriculture
  • Mobile/IT/Wireless
  • Water/Sanitation/Waste Management
  • Energy
  • Public Health
  • Financial Markets/Investing/Banking
We plan on spending the next eight to ten months working further on these, as well as building a strong group of advisors who can help guide us as we move forward. Our hope is that by the end we will have enough information to carve out an X PRIZE that will be robust, meaningful and impactful. Please note that we don't expect the prize to sit exclusively in one domain, rather we expect that it will be a hybrid of two or more of these.

Tomorrow, Part III of our Timeline...what happened in September 2008.

Monday, October 6, 2008

BarCamp Africa and why we're sponsoring it

We're going to BarCamp, yeah baby! (photo: Aphasia Films)

Emeka and I are super excited about attending BarCamp Africa on October 11th. If you are around, come say 'hi'. In fact, we are proudly sponsoring part of the event.

(yes, we don't have a ton of we do this very selectively!)

For two reasons:
  • Its an amazing cause (the development of Sub Saharan Africa) that we deeply believe in. Plus BarCamp is going have an amazing collection of interesting people and issues related to Africa. We hope to squeeze as much as we can out of the attendees' brains as possible...get them really thinking about the issues. Good X PRIZE material, we think! Who knows...future $10M prizewinners in that audience perhaps (??)
  • We, the X PRIZE Foundation, are serious about global development and the world needs to know it. Its not all space, or energy as a lot of people like to think. Its other things too. And we're serious about them!
For those of you who have never been to a BarCamp and are hearing about it for the first time, here are some resources to get you started.

What is a BarCamp?
Rules of a BarCamp
(An excellent) First-timer's Guide to BarCamping

See you there, hopefully!

Taking Risks Changes the World

I was reading an interesting article today on which mentioned Brian Binnie, who piloted SpaceShipOne to win the Ansari X PRIZE back in 2004. The article was about risk, and what people are willing to risk in order to live their dreams, or to accomplish something.

Risk is one of the major principles we hold dear at the X PRIZE Foundation. Every prize that we launch is a risk. We're trying to change entire industries, entire ways of thought. We devote obscene amounts of time to development of these prizes, and have no way of knowing whether they will actually be won, or even if they are won, if that will make a difference. All we can do is our best, and then put our faith in humanity to find the solutions to these problems. Another risk. And of course, our teams take on enormous risk in attempting to win our prizes, quitting jobs and investing life's savings to try to make a difference.

The Forbes article gives a number of great examples of people who took major risks to be successful.

I think the biggest risk that I ever took was moving to LA right out of college without a job (or even a clear idea of what I wanted to do), no money, and no car. Fortunately, that risk paid off and I wound up working for the X PRIZE Foundation, where I have a chance to make a difference in the world.

What's the biggest risk that you've ever taken?

Global Development Timeline: July 2008

Global Development: What happened in July?? (photo: phylersphan)

Things are moving at a frenzied pace here on the Global Development front. And we want to keep you updated. This is the first of a three part update and covers what happened in July 2008.

Emeka and I started in July, and have now been at the X PRIZE Foundation for three months. You all being our stakeholders, we wanted to let you know what we have been up to. (BTW, if you don't hear from us regularly, please ask! Sometimes things get crazy and it can be hard to remember what we've announced and what we haven't).

First (in July 2008) Emeka and I set about understanding the history behind this initiative - the Foundation's motivation, who our stakeholders are and their motivation, how the Prize had evolved, and how much work had already been done. We were happy to learn that there was a lot of interest and that the Prize had already gone through some evolution and iteration. All of this information was critical and valuable in deciding how to move forward.

Tomorrow, what we did in August 2008...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

October 4th: An important X PRIZE day

As my colleague Will Pomerantz noted on the The Launchpad, October 4th is an important day in the history of the Ansari X PRIZE.

First, it was the day that the first satellite, the Russian Sputnik, was launched into space, back in 1957. This marked the beginning of the space era, and resulted in where we are today, with the success of the Ansari X PRIZE, and more recently, SpaceX’s Falcon 1 making it to orbit.

October 4, 2004 was also the day that the Ansari X PRIZE was won by the Burt Rutan-led team Scaled Composites. This marked the first private spaceflight, and opened up the private spaceflight industry.

And then on October 4, in 2006, the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics was announced. The first non-space X PRIZE, it is to decode 100 human genomes in 10 days for less than $10,000 apiece. The winning of this prize would be the first step on the road to truly personalized medicine. It will allow a database of sequenced genomes to be built for compassion and study, and hopefully give us the ability to predict, and therefore prevent, diseases.

In case you were wondering, a lot of famous people were also born on October 4. Here are some examples.

Rutherford Hayes born on October 4, 1822
Buster Keaton born on October 4, 1895
Charlton Heston born on October 4, 1923
Anne Rice born on October 4, 1941
Susan Sarandon born on October 4, 1946
Alicia Silverstone born on October 4, 1976

Friday, October 3, 2008

Obama and Africa

A couple of years ago, I was in Kenya on one of those ubiquitous matatu's (minibuses, the lifeline of most developing countries) holding on for dear life. Most of the 50 or so people (in a bus that should hold 13) crammed in around me were poor farmers and herders. I had a chicken coop shoved between my legs, several babies drooling on my shoulders and pulling my hair, and nearly everyone trying to figure out what I was doing there in the middle of nowhere. The questions, as always, started (I have a lot of stories about conversations with locals on public transport) and they excitedly found out that I was from the United States.

Suddenly, in the middle of our journey, the minibus riders became very animated. Even the rider pulled over so that I could have a better view. They pointed out a village in the distance and said "that's Obama's village." Sure enough everyone on that minibus knew somebody who was related to Barack. Some claimed to have seen him during a visit (when pressed, one said that she had seen the car in which Obama had ridden!). For the next 1.5 hours, I had an interesting discussion about U.S. politics with people who couldn't read or write. They had more hope that the United States people and government would save them, than their own...something that made me incredibly sad and yet more responsible at the same time. They told me that they got most of their information from the radio or friends who could read. The whole thing was absolutely enlightening. (After that, I happened to have a lot of work in the area, so I got into these types of discussions quite a bit!)

Yesterday, I saw this interview of David Letterman and Barack Obama. Here, Obama talks about his thoughts on Africa and his visit to the region. Having heard one side, it was nice to hear the other.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rich Man's Burden

Does wealth really mean a better quality of life? (photo courtesy: Juan Barahona)

A few days ago, my colleague Mark suggested that I start asking what it means to be rich, rather than poor. What does being wealthy mean?? I thought this was a very interesting question. And something I'd love to hear your thoughts on.

Not surprisingly, this New York Times Op-Ed titled "Rich Man's Burden" from Dalton Conley, the chairman of NYU's sociology department, caught my eye. Is wealth really getting us anywhere?? I mean, does our quality of life really get better? In the United States, where we enjoy a high quality of life,
...the rich...are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do [in the United States]. Since 1980, the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income ladder who work long hours (over 49 hours per week) has dropped by half, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano. But among the top fifth of earners, long weeks have increased by 80 percent.

This is a stunning moment in economic history: At one time we worked hard so that someday we (or our children) wouldn’t have to. Today, the more we earn, the more we work, since the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater (and since the higher we go, the more relatively deprived we feel).

In other words, when we get a raise, instead of using that hard-won money to buy “the good life,” we feel even more pressure to work since the shadow costs of not working are all the greater.[...]

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Finally an office chair for space/rocket geeks...

Finally an office chair for the space geeks in our office?? (photo: slashdot)

Revisited an article from a month ago that a friend sent me...made me laugh.
German police have confiscated the world's fastest office chair and arrested its 17-year-old inventors. The duo added a lawnmower engine, brakes and a metal frame to the office chair and were reported to be driving it all over the streets of Gross-Zimmern. Police did not comment on the chair's handling or acceleration...
[via slashdot]