Emerging Ideas Round-Up

By Staff

Culture & politics

Not Guilty, Mate

Some of the most effective but least talked about anti-death penalty activists in the country are not even from this country. For 13 years, the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, a New Orleans nonprofit that represents death row inmates, has brought dozens of British, Australian, and Canadian lawyers to the United States to help save the lives of prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi, according to Legal Affairs (Nov./Dec. 2005). These advocates have helped overturn death sentences in all but 4 of the more than 300 cases they’ve handled. Louisiana prosecutors have been so frustrated by the foreign lawyers, writes Dana Mulhauser, that when they “detect a British accent, they are known to hang up the phone.”

Energy from Undulations

For decades, engineers have tried to harness the immense power of waves, only to have their hopes dashed along with their equipment as storms destroyed their experimental generators. “People in the wave field looked from the start for efficiency; you have to start from survivability,” says a spokesman with Ocean Power Delivery, a Scottish company that may have finally found the answer, reports Discover (Dec. 2005). OPD’s 450-foot-long cherry-red sea snake — dubbed Pelamis — generates 11,000 volts from the rolling, up-and-down motion of the waves. The key is its segmented body, which allows it to undulate over swells up to 10 times the size and 100 times the power of average waves.

Paper-Thick Walls

Americans throw away enough paper each year to build a 48-foot wall surrounding the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Maybe they’re onto something. Paper, it turns out, makes an excellent ingredient in building materials, writes Joshua M. Bernstein in Plenty (Dec. 2005/Jan. 2006). Just add water, cement, sand, or clay to a pile of old newspapers or phone books and stir. The resulting stew, known as papercrete, can be poured into molds and dried into building blocks that are lightweight, fire-resistant, and superstrong. About 50 papercrete structures have been built around the country, mostly in the Southwest, where the hot, dry weather counteracts one of the material’s potential drawbacks: It absorbs moisture.

No Joke

A hole was torn in the language barrier recently when the International Center for Advanced Communication Technologies debuted a mechanism that translates whispered language into other tongues almost instantly. Szu-Chen Stan Jou, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student, demonstrated the device at an October conference at the university. When he mouthed words in Mandarin, 11 electrodes attached to his face detected the movements in his jaw and relayed them to a computer that simultaneously translated his words into English and Spanish, reports the blog We-Make-Money-Not-Art (Oct. 29, 2005). Reporters at the demonstration noted that the translator has difficulty identifying and translating humor.

Betting on Themselves

Native Americans have long been stalwarts of the Democratic base. But when it comes to actually holding office, they’re often overlooked. That may be about to change. The Indigenous Democratic Network List (INDN’s List), a group organized to recruit and train Indian candidates for local and state offices, held its first “Campaign Camp” in October at a tribal casino near Minneapolis, reports Indian Country Today (Oct. 21, 2005). “I’m sick of the [Democratic National Committee] treating Indians like an ATM machine that has to be courted every couple of years,” founder Kalyn Free, an Oklahoma attorney, Democratic activist, and Choctaw, told the Washington Post. The group is set to make waves in the 2006 elections: The training event drew 109 participants from 21 states and 50 Indian nations.


Total annual spending of the United Nations and all its agencies, including global peacekeeping.

Total worldwide annual military expenditures.

(Sources: Global Issues, www.globalissues.com; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, www.sipri.org)

Corn-Founded Garbage

Corn-based plastics have come a long way from the flimsy, expensive containers of the ’90s that melted in the sun. With oil prices at new heights, price-competitive (and durable) plastic products can be made from processed corn. Colorado-based BIOTA Spring Water turned to this innovative polymer for its water bottles. The containers are clear and as durable as any petroleum-based bottle, and they cost about half as much to produce. The downside is that these plastics, unlike earlier iterations, are too durable to compost in your back yard. But in a commercial composting facility they break down completely within 80 days.

A Cut Below

Female genital mutilation is illegal in the United States and Canada, but girls and women ages 14 to 82 are paying plastic surgeons as much as $7,000 a snip for customized labia. Shameless (Fall 2005) estimates that thousands of women are trading in the lips they were born with, which surgeons say suffer from “deformity” and have “the unsightly appearance of excess skin,” for a “small, neat, and tidy” look. One surgeon has performed his signature procedure — slicing the lips and clitoral hood — on so many women, it’s been dubbed the “Toronto trim” after his hometown. But anti-mutilation laws could conceivably render the surgeries criminal, and the desire for down-there perfection can come with some out-there side effects: nerve damage, soreness, hemorrhaging, and lost sensitivity and pain during sex. Hey: Size doesn’t matter!

Green Palms

Lent is supposed to be a time of living lighter, but even this season of self-restraint exacts an environmental toll: All those little palm frond crosses contribute to deforestation in Mexico and Guatemala. According to the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, services on Palm Sunday (April 9) alone account for almost 30 million palm fronds, about 10 percent of the annual U.S. demand for chamaedorea palms. To ease that impact, NACEC is connecting congregations with “eco-palm” operations that are fair trade certified and use sustainable harvest practices.

Word Watch: WOONERF

noun: Dutch word meaning “living street” — where the needs of motorists have been subordinated to the needs of all other users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders. Typically, a woonerf has no traffic signals or signs, low curbs, a very low speed limit, and an abundance of traffic-calming features designed to prevent cars from driving in straight lines — like large planters, parking spaces on alternating sides of the street, and curving road designs. With no traffic signals, the thinking goes, drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians are forced to make eye contact and negotiate their passage. Data show lower accident rates and improved traffic flow on the living streets, as well as increased business for shops near them.

Word Watch: Soldier Slang

From a U.S. Army captain stationed in Iraq, who wishes to remain anonymous

Haji: any of the locals (basically, a Middle Easterner). This includes Kurds, Turks, and Kuwaitis, too. Derived from haji, meaning a Muslim who has made the journey to Mecca.

Ali Baba: an insurgent, or enemy fighter. Derived from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves under the mistaken assumption that Ali Baba was one of the bad guys. Locals use this term a lot when they’re telling U.S. soldiers about insurgents.

Fobbit: a derogatory term for a U.S. soldier who just hangs out on base and doesn’t leave the post. Derived from the acronym for Forward Operating Base (FOB) and crossed with hobbit. Also known as “wire-huggers” (they hug the barbed wire that surrounds the base so you can’t drag them away).

Area 51: a compound located on some bases used to separate Americans from locally contracted drivers. Turkish drivers who bring supplies to American bases stay in Area 51 and are not allowed to use facilities intended for U.S. soldiers.

Dad: short for Baghdad. Used, for example, like this: “Dad is angry today” or “Dad is going to kill me.”

Reprinted from BlackBook (Fall Fashion 2005).

Viewing Deja Vu

That creepy feeling that you’ve lived through this moment before has long eluded scientific study, so the psychology sleuths featured in Discover (Sept. 2005) are examining deja vu by recreating it in labs. In studies that exposed subjects to various subliminal words and images, researchers found that nearly half reported deja vu when they were exposed again to the same stimuli. Others get the flashback heebie-jeebies when electrodes stimulate their temporal lobes. Some epileptics regularly experience deja vu before seizures, while a handful of patients with brain damage suffer constant deja vu. Researchers hope that creepy feeling that you’ve lived through this moment before can help decode how our brains store memories.

Card Karma

Can meditation help your poker game?

For Andy Black, the answer seems to be yes. Last summer, after a five-year hiatus studying Buddhist teachings, the Irish card shark returned to the game and took fifth place at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas (he came in fourteenth in 1997, then quit the game in 1999). At the tournament, Black and his coach meditated each morning and sometimes read dharma texts during breaks. He recently told the Buddhist magazine Tricycle (Winter 2005) how his meditation practice and his game intersect: “When I’m playing I just try to be in the present moment . . . I find I make wrong decisions when I act out of tune with my gut sense of how things are: what this person is like, their situation at this moment, and the element of chance. My experience of Buddhist practice means that I also include how I am, how I am treating the other players, and how I respond to both winning and losing. You can disregard that feeling, just like in life, but in poker you get immediate payback. It’s always the same lesson: When your actions are not in accordance with how things are, you suffer.”

Working for a Living

72 hours
Hours per week of minimum-wage work, with no vacation, required to reach the federal poverty line of $19,223 for a family of four.

(Source: Actions Speak Louder Than Bumper Stickers)

Check Their Sources

The cable networks and op-ed pages are peppered with “experts” from think tanks, trade associations, and industry-sponsored front groups. And revelations about manufactured news stories emerge almost daily. So how do you know whom to trust — or, more importantly, whom not to trust? Enter SourceWatch.org. Like Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, the site taps the swarm intelligence of Internet users by allowing anyone to add or change an article, with a staff editor keeping a watchful eye out for accuracy. In just over three years, SourceWatch has compiled almost 9,000 articles on topics ranging from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to industry groups like the Global Climate Coalition to “fake news,” the nefarious practice of planting fake corporate or government news stories.

Obey My Odors

Think authority stinks? Take a whiff of the latest battlefield technology that delivers orders with odors. Researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles are patenting a collar adorned with capsules containing wicks dipped in powerfully scented liquid, according to NewScientist.com (Nov. 8, 2005). Each smell is assigned a predetermined action and can be released by remote control. Olfactory commands are more effective than spoken ones in noisy environments. More importantly (and frighteningly), they trigger powerful emotional responses that might prompt soldiers to carry out orders without question.

First seen in the Utne Web Watch

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