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6/26/2014

mobile

Cell phone services are being developed to feel a bit safer.

Many people, especially women, have felt unease while coming home late after work or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Kitestring is a new web-based and text messaging service that may help you feel a bit more secure. After signing up, you can ask the service to check up on you after a certain amount of time (via their website or a text message). If you don’t reply, then it will automatically alert your emergency contact. The more practical aspect of Kitestring as opposed to similar apps, is that it’s your inaction that prompts it to act, since in many emergency situations access to your phone may be impossible. The other advantage is that it will work on any phone with SMS capabilities, not just smart phones which makes it more accessible for those in developing countries.

Creator Stephan Boyer says, “The idea for Kitestring came to me in late January. My girlfriend, who lives in a dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco, called to ask me to check up on her as she was walking home from work one day. I wondered if there might be an app or service that could offer a little extra safety for her when she goes out at night." The service Boyer developed is free and each month you get 8 trips. An upgraded version is also available for an unlimited number of trip and additional emergency contacts.

Another resource is the so-called feminist phone intervention which allows women to give out a special phone number to someone she doesn’t want to give her real number to. This may seem unnecessary or cheeky, but unfortunately there are situations when turning down someone can turn into an overly-aggressive confrontation. When the recipient calls the number they are greeted with a quote from feminist bell hooks. The phone number has proven to be popular and is now available in every U.S. time zone, and other countries such as Mexico and Israel. The original number is (669) 221-6251, so put that in your address book and hope that you don’t have to use it.

Photo by Question Everything, licensed under Creative Commons.



6/24/2014

drone

Unmanned aerial vehicles can be utilized for social good.

Drones have deservedly earned a negative reputation as a tool for targeted killings and surveillance that infringes on privacy rights. However quite a few organizations and companies are developing more positive uses for this technology.

The applicability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is far-reaching. One way in which UAVs are being utilized is in humanitarian aid and disaster relief. In many areas of the developing world, the road systems lack quick access from one point to another which can mean life or death. Matternet is one company that is aiming to address this challenge. By using drones, they can deliver medicine and other small packages to areas with limited access. The company has already conducted field trials in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Another application is in the environmental field. Convervationdrones.org is a non-profit started by a conservation ecologist and a primate biologist. They built their own UAV and in 2012, conducted a field test in Indonesia to look at the conditions of the rainforest. Since then, they have run a number of projects across the world that have gathered information on illegal poaching, habitat destruction, and endangered species. Serge Wich, one of the co-founders says, "The potential is huge to allow people to do very efficient data collection on a variety of issues that are important for conservation. We often struggle determining how many animals there are, where human encroachment is occurring. There are an enormous amount of ecological questions we can address with these systems." Their equipment allows them to capture photographs and video as well as 3D surface models. In addition, the organization provides instructions on building your own drone, and is planning on holding workshops to train people on how to use UAVs for their own conservation initiatives.

As the technology becomes less expensive and easier to operate, UAVs are likely to become more commonplace and their applicability for aid and information has much potential. However we’ll probably also need regulations to catch up with the technology to avoid its misuse. 

Photo by myfrozenlife, licensed under Creative Commons.



4/30/2014

The Exosuit

This high-tech diving suit will change the future of oceanography and medical science.

The Exosuit sounds and looks like something out of a science fiction movie, but thanks to scientist Phil Nuytten, this futuristic diving suit has become a reality. Measuring 6.5 feet long and weighing 530 pounds, the aluminum-alloy suit will allow oceanographers and deep sea divers to explore more than 1,000 feet underwater, a depth four times deeper than today’s diving gear allows. The world of underwater exploration has not seen such an advance in diving technology since 1985, when Nuytten invented the Newtsuit. The Newtsuit was the first diving suit to use rotary joints for increased flexibility and became the preferred suit for salvage and drilling jobs, but the Exosuit is a new and improved version.

Nuytten calls his creation a “[suit] of armor for the ocean,” and with its bulky exterior, the moniker seems apt. A team of four takes thirty minutes to strap a diver into the suit and connect them to the wire communicators. “It’s a paradox,” Nuytten explained to Mashable. “You need a suit that’s rigid to withstand the outside pressure, but you also need to be able to move and walk. . . . The heart of an [Atmospheric Diving Suit] is the joint system.” In that case, the Exosuit has a huge heart, boasting 18 rotary joints for increased mobility. The suit also has four jet thrusters that push divers through the water and multiple hand gadgets that can be attached and removed for specific missions, providing a dexterity that previous suits lacked.

Depths beyond several hundred feet were previously difficult for divers to reach with their limited air supplies and lengthy decompression times, but the Exosuit is equipped with multiple oxygen systems that support up to 50 hours of diving. The suit runs on an internal pressure of one technical atmosphere, the same pressure as sea level, which reduces the risk of decompression sickness by allowing divers to return to surface pressure without needing to decompress. These features, along with the advanced communication channels that allow divers to send instant feedback via live cameras to scientists above water, will allow pilots to collect and photograph marine life with newfound ease.

The Exosuit took 14 years and more than $1 million to design and construct, but its potential medical and biological benefits are immeasurable. In July, the suit will be used to explore the Canyons, an area 100 miles off the New England coast. Researchers plan to use the Exosuit to collect and photograph bioluminescent and biofluorescent organisms for use in medical research regarding cancer detection, spinal cord injuries, and neurophysiology.

Photo by Nuytco Research.



4/15/2014

the face of the Internet

The Disappearing Woman and Life on the Internet

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

The Web is regularly hailed for its “openness” and that’s where the confusion begins, since “open” in no way means “equal.” While the Internet may create space for many voices, it also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities in striking ways.

An elaborate system organized around hubs and links, the Web has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture. Its traffic, for instance, tends to be distributed according to “power laws,” which follow what’s known as the 80/20 rule -- 80% of a desirable resource goes to 20% of the population.

In fact, as anyone knows who has followed the histories of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, now among the biggest companies in the world, the Web is increasingly a winner-take-all, rich-get-richer sort of place, which means the disparate percentages in those power laws are only likely to look uglier over time.

Powerful and exceedingly familiar hierarchies have come to define the digital realm, whether you’re considering its economics or the social world it reflects and represents.  Not surprisingly, then, well-off white men are wildly overrepresented both in the tech industry and online.

Just take a look at gender and the Web comes quickly into focus, leaving you with a vivid sense of which direction the Internet is heading in and -- small hint -- it’s not toward equality or democracy.

Experts, Trolls, and What Your Mom Doesn’t Know

As a start, in the perfectly real world women shoulder a disproportionate share of household and child-rearing responsibilities, leaving them substantially less leisure time to spend online. Though a handful of high-powered celebrity “mommy bloggers” have managed to attract massive audiences and ad revenue by documenting their daily travails, they are the exceptions not the rule. In professional fields like philosophy, law, and science, where blogging has become popular, women are notoriously underrepresented; by one count, for instance, only around 20% of science bloggers are women.

An otherwise optimistic white paper by the British think tank Demos touching on the rise of amateur creativity online reported that white males are far more likely to be “hobbyists with professional standards” than other social groups, while you won’t be shocked to learn that low-income women with dependent children lag far behind. Even among the highly connected college-age set, research reveals a stark divergence in rates of online participation.

Socioeconomic status, race, and gender all play significant roles in a who’s who of the online world, with men considerably more likely to participate than women. “These findings suggest that Internet access may not, in and of itself, level the playing field when it comes to potential pay-offs of being online,” warns Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Put simply, closing the so-called digital divide still leaves a noticeable gap; the more privileged your background, the more likely that you’ll reap the additional benefits of new technologies.

Some of the obstacles to online engagement are psychological, unconscious, and invidious. In a revealing study conducted twice over a span of five years -- and yielding the same results both times -- Hargittai tested and interviewed 100 Internet users and found that there was no significant variation in their online competency. In terms of sheer ability, the sexes were equal. The difference was in their self-assessments.

It came down to this: The men were certain they did well, while the women were wracked by self-doubt. “Not a single woman among all our female study subjects called herself an ‘expert’ user,” Hargittai noted, “while not a single male ranked himself as a complete novice or ‘not at all skilled.’” As you might imagine, how you think of yourself as an online contributor deeply influences how much you’re likely to contribute online.

The results of Hargittai’s study hardly surprised me. I’ve seen endless female friends be passed over by less talented, more assertive men. I’ve had countless people -- older and male, always -- assume that someone else must have conducted the interviews for my documentary films, as though a young woman couldn’t have managed such a thing without assistance. Research shows that people routinely underestimate women’s abilities, not least women themselves.

When it comes to specialized technical know-how, women are assumed to be less competent unless they prove otherwise. In tech circles, for example, new gadgets and programs are often introduced as being “so easy your mother or grandmother could use them.” A typical piece in the New York Times was titled “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom.” (Assumedly, dad already gets it.) This kind of sexism leapt directly from the offline world onto the Web and may only have intensified there.

And it gets worse. Racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment or “trolling” has become a depressingly routine aspect of online life.

Many prominent women have spoken up about their experiences being bullied and intimidated online -- scenarios that sometimes escalate into the release of private information, including home addresses, e-mail passwords, and social security numbers, or simply devolve into an Internet version of stalking. Esteemed classicist Mary Beard, for example, “received online death threats and menaces of sexual assault” after a television appearance last year, as did British activist Caroline Criado-Perez after she successfully campaigned to get more images of women onto British banknotes.

Young women musicians and writers often find themselves targeted online by men who want to silence them. “The people who were posting comments about me were speculating as to how many abortions I’ve had, and they talked about ‘hate-fucking’ me,” blogger Jill Filipovic told the Guardian after photos of her were uploaded to a vitriolic online forum. Laurie Penny, a young political columnist who has faced similar persecution and recently published an ebook called Cybersexism, touched a nerve by calling a woman’s opinion the “short skirt” of the Internet: “Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill, and urinate on you.”

Alas, the trouble doesn’t end there. Women who are increasingly speaking out against harassers are frequently accused of wanting to stifle free speech. Or they are told to “lighten up” and that the harassment, however stressful and upsetting, isn’t real because it’s only happening online, that it’s just “harmless locker-room talk.”

As things currently stand, each woman is left alone to devise a coping mechanism as if her situation were unique. Yet these are never isolated incidents, however venomously personal the insults may be. (One harasser called Beard -- and by online standards of hate speech this was mild -- "a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth.”)

Indeed, a University of Maryland study strongly suggests just how programmatic such abuse is. Those posting with female usernames, researchers were shocked to discover, received 25 times as many malicious messages as those whose designations were masculine or ambiguous. The findings were so alarming that the authors advised parents to instruct their daughters to use sex-neutral monikers online. “Kids can still exercise plenty of creativity and self-expression without divulging their gender,” a well-meaning professor said, effectively accepting that young girls must hide who they are to participate in digital life.

Over the last few months, a number of black women with substantial social media presences conducted an informal experiment of their own. Fed up with the fire hose of animosity aimed at them, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and others adopted masculine Twitter avatars. Golden replaced her photo with that of a hip, bearded, young white man, though she kept her bio and continued to communicate in her own voice. “The number of snarky, condescending tweets dropped off considerably, and discussions on race and gender were less volatile,” Golden wrote, marveling at how simply changing a photo transformed reactions to her. “Once I went back to Black, it was back to business as usual.”

Old Problems in New Media

Not all discrimination is so overt. A study summarized on the Harvard Business Review website analyzed social patterns on Twitter, where female users actually outnumbered males by 10%. The researchers reported “that an average man is almost twice [as] likely to follow another man [as] a woman” while “an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.” The results could not be explained by varying usage since both genders tweeted at the same rate.

Online as off, men are assumed to be more authoritative and credible, and thus deserving of recognition and support. In this way, long-standing disparities are reflected or even magnified on the Internet.

In his 2008 book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, reports that of the top 10 blogs, only one belonged to a female writer. A wider census of every political blog with an average of over 2,000 visitors a week, or a total of 87 sites, found that only five were run by women, nor were there “identifiable African Americans among the top 30 bloggers,” though there was “one Asian blogger, and one of mixed Latino heritage.” In 2008, Hindman surveyed the blogosphere and found it less diverse than the notoriously whitewashed op-ed pages of print newspapers. Nothing suggests that, in the intervening six years, things have changed for the better.

Welcome to the age of what Julia Carrie Wong has called “old problems in new media,” as the latest well-funded online journalism start-ups continue to be helmed by brand-name bloggers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver. It is “impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively -- and increasingly -- male and white,” Emily Bell lamented in awidely circulated op-ed. It’s not that women and people of color aren’t doinginnovative work in reporting and cultural criticism; it’s just that they get passed over by investors and financiers in favor of the familiar.

As Deanna Zandt and others have pointed out, such real-world lack of diversity is also regularly seen on the rosters of technology conferences, even as speakers take the stage to hail a democratic revolution on the Web, while audiences that look just like them cheer. In early 2013, in reaction to the announcement of yet another all-male lineup at a prominent Web gathering, a pledge was posted on the website of the Atlantic asking men to refrain from speaking at events where women are not represented. The list of signatories was almost immediately removed “due to a flood of spam/trolls.” The conference organizer, a successful developer, dismissed the uproar over Twitter. “I don’t feel [the] need to defend this, but am happy with our process,” he stated. Instituting quotas, he insisted, would be a “discriminatory” way of creating diversity.

This sort of rationalization means technology companies look remarkably like the old ones they aspire to replace: male, pale, and privileged. Consider Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing and social networking service, which was founded in 2010 but only hired its first female engineer last year. While the percentage of computer and information sciences degrees women earned rose from 14% to 37% between 1970 and 1985, that share had depressingly declined to 18% by 2008.

Those women who do fight their way into the industry often end up leaving -- their attrition rate is 56%, or double that of men -- and sexism is a big part of whatpushes them out. “I no longer touch code because I couldn't deal with the constant dismissing and undermining of even my most basic work by the ‘brogramming’ gulag I worked for,” wrote one woman in a roundup of answers to the question: Why there are so few female engineers?

In Silicon Valley, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer excepted, the notion of the boy genius prevails.  More than 85% of venture capitalists are men generally looking to invest in other men, and women make 49 cents for every dollar their male counterparts rake in -- enough to make a woman long for the wage inequities of the non-digital world, where on average they take home a whopping 77 cents on the male dollar. Though 40% of private businesses are women-owned nationwide, only 8% of the venture-backed tech start-ups are.

Established companies are equally segregated. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that in the top 100 tech companies, only 6% of chief executives are women. The numbers of Asians who get to the top are comparable, despite the fact that they make up one-third of all Silicon Valley software engineers. In 2010, not even 1% of the founders of Silicon Valley companies were black.

Making Your Way in a Misogynist Culture

What about the online communities that are routinely held up as exemplars of a new, networked, open culture? One might assume from all the “revolutionary” and “disruptive” rhetoric that they, at least, are better than the tech goliaths. Sadly, the data doesn’t reflect the hype. Consider Wikipedia. A survey revealed that women make up less than 15% of the contributors to the site, despite the fact that they use the resource in equal numbers to men.

In a similar vein, collaborative filtering sites like Reddit and Slashdot, heralded by the digerati as the cultural curating mechanisms of the future, cater to users who are up to 87% male and overwhelmingly young, wealthy, and white. Reddit, in particular, has achieved notoriety for its misogynist culture, with threads where rapists have recounted their exploits and photos of underage girls got posted under headings like “Chokeabitch,” “Niggerjailbait,” and “Creepshots.”

Despite being held up as a paragon of political virtue, evidence suggests that as few as 1.5% of open source programmers are women, a number far lower than the computing profession as a whole. In response, analysts have blamed everything from chauvinism, assumptions of inferiority, and outrageous examples of impropriety (including sexual harassment at conferences where programmers gather) to a lack of women mentors and role models. Yet the advocates of open-source production continue to insist that their culture exemplifies a new and ethical social order ruled by principles of equality, inclusivity, freedom, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it turns out that openness, when taken as an absolute, actually aggravates the gender gap. The peculiar brand of libertarianism in vogue within technology circles means a minority of members -- a couple of outspoken misogynists, for example -- can disproportionately affect the behavior and mood of the group under the cover of free speech. As Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipediapoints out, women are not supposed to complain about their treatment, but if they leave -- that is, essentially are driven from -- the community, that’s a decision they alone are responsible for.

“Urban” Planning in a Digital Age

The digital is not some realm distinct from “real” life, which means that the marginalization of women and minorities online cannot be separated from the obstacles they confront offline. Comparatively low rates of digital participation and the discrimination faced by women and minorities within the tech industry matter -- and not just because they give the lie to the egalitarian claims of techno-utopians. Such facts and figures underscore the relatively limited experiences and assumptions of the people who design the systems we depend on to use the Internet -- a medium that has, after all, become central to nearly every facet of our lives.

In a powerful sense, programmers and the corporate officers who employ them are the new urban planners, shaping the virtual frontier into the spaces we occupy, building the boxes into which we fit our lives, and carving out the routes we travel. The choices they make can segregate us further or create new connections; the algorithms they devise can exclude voices or bring more people into the fold; the interfaces they invent can expand our sense of human possibility or limit it to the already familiar.

What vision of a vibrant, thriving city informs their view? Is it a place that fosters chance encounters or does it favor the predictable? Are the communities they create mixed or gated? Are they full of privately owned shopping malls and sponsored billboards or are there truly public squares? Is privacy respected? Is civic engagement encouraged? What kinds of people live in these places and how are they invited to express themselves? (For example, is trolling encouraged, tolerated, or actively discouraged or blocked?)

No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering online platforms to promote diversity unsettling and -- a word with some irony embedded in it -- paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind.  They are, as a start, designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, as well as advertisers, who want to sell us things. The term “platform,” which implies a smooth surface, misleads us, obscuring the ways technology companies shape our online lives, prioritizing certain purposes over others, certain creators over others, and certain audiences over others.

If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system, developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity through a process of trial and error. The question of how we encourage, or even enforce, diversity in so-called open networks is not easy to answer, and there is no obvious and uncomplicated solution to the problem of online harassment. As a philosophy, openness can easily rationalize its own failure, chalking people’s inability to participate up to choice, and keeping with the myth of the meritocracy, blaming any disparities in audience on a lack of talent or will.

That’s what the techno-optimists would have us believe, dismissing potential solutions as threats to Internet freedom and as forceful interference in a “natural” distribution pattern. The word “natural” is, of course, a mystification, given that technological and social systems are not found growing in a field, nurtured by dirt and sun. They are made by human beings and so can always be changed and improved.

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! andExamined Life), and activist. Her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), has just been published. This essay is adapted from it. She also helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. Original article copyright 2014 Astra Taylor.

Photo by Fotolia/gupoto



3/21/2014

Foldscope

A bioengineering assistant professor at Stanford University has created a functional paper microscope for only $0.50.

Microscopy technology has not changed much in recent history. According to Manu Prakash, a bioengineering assistant professor at Stanford University, we use the exact same technology for diagnostics today as Mohandas Gandhi did in the 1940s. “Even though [they are] the pinnacle of modern science, research microscopes are not designed for field testing,” Prakash says in a TED Talk for TEDGlobal. “Neither were they first designed for diagnostics at all. They are heavy, bulky, really hard to maintain, and cost a lot of money.”

This realization led to the creation of Foldscope, a completely functional Origami-like microscope that costs less than $0.50 to produce. No bigger than a bookmark but with the ability to magnify samples up to 2,000 times their original size, the device holds within its cardstock frame the same advanced microscopic technology of most research microscopes without the high costs and complex assembly. “I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” Prakash told Scope. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”

The Foldscope weighs less than two nickels, can be built in minutes, and forgoes written instructions for simple, color-coded perforations. It requires no external power, is durable enough to be submerged in water or dropped from a three-story building without damage, and can be incinerated after use for safe disposal of infected slides. Its straightforward design, cheap production cost, and easy application works well in field-based citizen science and educational purposes, and Prakash says he would love for today’s children and tomorrow’s future scientists to be able to “just print out a Foldscope and carry them around in their pockets.”

According to Foldscope’s website, the device is focused on democratizing science and developing tools that can be applied to problems in global health and science education. Prakash and his team are currently offering 10,000 Foldscopes to citizen scientists who apply with the most inspiring and creative potential applications of the paper telescope. The idea is to create a crowd-sourced microscopy manual with data and ideas collected from the participants in the study. “So many times people use a tool for one specific purpose and don’t realize the rich potential for other uses,” Prakash says. “This online manual will inspire further explorations.” Currently, the microscope is capable of being customized to detect specific blood-borne diseases such as malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, and Chagas. Prakash hopes citizens take advantage of the Foldscope's open-source design to develop his invention further.

Photo by Foldscope.



3/13/2014

DNA

With technology reminiscent of Jurassic Park, scientists plan to revive long-extinct species like the passenger pigeon.

The practice of cloning has long been stigmatized. Although the potential benefits have yet to be definitively weighed against the possible ethical repercussions, according to National Geographic, a technology called de-extinction is now within reach.

In the past decade alone, scientific tools and procedures have improved so that the idea of successfully cloning animals has moved from a vague fantasy to a tenable reality. Environmentalist Stewart Brand has been researching the possibility of bringing back the passenger pigeon, a species hunted to extinction in 1914. Ben Novak is a genetics student heading up the passenger pigeon research for environmentalist Stewart Brand’s Revive & Restore organization. “We’re going to build from scratch the code that is a passenger pigeon, one gene at a time, [and] compare it to its closest relative. Then we’re going to introduce DNA into the living cell of a Band-tailed pigeon,” he explains in a video from TIME Magazine. “When you introduce an extinct animal’s egg cell into a new mother, then you’ve changed the game, which has been done.”

Novak is referring to past attempts to clone the Pyrenean ibex. In 2003, Spanish and French reproductive physiologists were able to revive the cells of the extinct goat. The team used the preserved cells of the last ibex, who had died in 1989, to inject nuclei into goat eggs and implant the eggs in surrogate mothers. Few implantations resulted in pregnancies, and most pregnancies ended in miscarriage. However, one birth resulted in a clone of the Pyrenean ibex. The animal was born with respiratory defects and died within ten minutes, a short-lived and bittersweet first success at de-extinction.

Although technology has much improved since 2003, the revival of a once-extinct species is still years away and would only be possible for species that died out within the past couple tens of thousands of years. The events of Jurassic Park will not be relived any time soon. However, with the current advances in biotechnology, both scientists and the public may soon have to question whether bringing back extinct species is a reality they are willing to face. “One of the things we’ve gotten used to is the horrifying realization that extinction is forever,” Brand says. “But what if the new truth is that de-extinction is forever?”

Of course, there are several issues to work past before de-extinction becomes widely accepted. Revived species would be living in an environment vastly different from the one they inhabited before extinction, and the possibility of new diseases rapidly wiping them out is a real possibility. Protestors call the technology an expensive distraction from the more pressing matter of dwindling populations of living species. Since many of these species were killed through human interference and hunting, questions of whether the world is even ready to welcome these species back have been raised.

Supporters of de-extinction counter these reservations with suggestions of increased biological diversity and benefits to medical studies. With further research, the expenses of biotechnology should decrease rapidly. Scientists can research the protection of nearly extinct species while working on de-extinction, and as Church points out, “It’s hard to say in advance what’s distraction and what’s salvation.” As far as the complaints that scientists are attempting to play God or meddle unnecessarily, Novak says, “It was our direct activity that caused that extinction. For me, biotech is the future of conservation, because our meddling is not unnatural. It is what species do.”

Photo by John Goode, licensed under Creative Commons.



3/6/2014

Menstrual Man is a documentary that details how one dropout-turned-entrepreneur revolutionized menstrual sanitation for women in developing nations.

Arunachalam Muruganantham’s interest in the state of menstrual hygiene in India began in 1998 when he discovered that his wife was using dirty rags in place of sanitary napkins to save money for food. According to the BBC, nearly 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, and Muruganantham was shocked to discover that the simple cotton pads that could alleviate this problem were selling for 40 times the price that it cost to produce them. “I thought to myself, white substance, made of cotton… oh my God, that guy is just using a penny value of raw material—inside they are selling for pounds, dollars! Why not make a local sanitary pad for my new wife? That’s how all this started,” Muruganantham explained in a Ted Talk in Bangalore.

Muruganantham began creating his own sanitary pads and asked local women for feedback but found they were unwilling or unreliable. He created a wearable contraption that would pump goat blood to stimulate menstruation so he could test the absorption of his napkins himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he says. His village forced him to leave, believing he was possessed by evil spirits, and his wife and mother left him.

Muruganantham’s sanitary pads were not as effective as he had hoped, but he refused to give up. He studied samples sent to him from manufacturing companies and realized he needed a machine to break down blocks of cellulose. He spent the next four years designing a cheap wooden machine that produces sanitary pads in a process that can be learned in an hour. The machines cost between $1,200 and $6,000—much cheaper than the several thousand dollar machines used by big corporations. He built 250 in a year and a half, bringing them to 1,300 villages in the poorest states in Northern India.

The machines are typically bought by self-help groups and NGOs. Each one provides jobs for ten rural women, who produce and sell the sanitary pads for self-determined prices. The simple design of the machines means the women can maintain them locally and operate them with ease. Although he could have patented the machine for profit, Muruganantham offered his design in an open-source format. “I don’t want to make this as a corporate entity. I want to make this as a local sanitary pad movement across the globe,” he explains. “If anyone runs after money, their life will not [have] any beauty. . . . I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness.” With his newfound credibility, Muruganantham’s family returned to him and they were able to rejoin his village.

Muruganantham is planning to send his machines to 106 developing nations across the globe. The documentary Menstrual Man was released last May and is currently available on iTunes, with DVDs forthcoming.

Photo by Amit Virmani.





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