Bill Gates’ favorite TED talks

TED is a forum for “ideas worth spreading”. Having started in 1994 and now featuring two annual conferences, TED (originally Technology, Entertainment and Design) is an inspiring resource for those wishing to see the world become a better place.

Bill Gates, co-founder and for many years head of Microsoft, now heads up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife Melinda.  They are investing their fortune in combatting health, education, poverty and development problems worldwide.

Bill was recently asked to nominate his favourite TED talks.  Reportedly he said “there are too many to pick, really.”  Anyway, he has picked 13, which you can view here.  Having watched the first three, I feel I have stumbled onto a truly inspirational collection.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I currently am.


Environmentally friendly weed killer


Being a man who now owns land, I also now own weeds it seems.  I have weeds in my lawn, weeds in my flower beds, weeds in my gravel drive and weeds growing between my paving slabs.  So how should I deal with these menaces in an environmentally friendly manner?

Weed killer in whatever form is basically herbicide.  While some herbicides are selective, many will kill all plants, whether desirable, or undesirable.  So the use of a typical weed killer in an area where desirable plants are growing is perhaps something to be avoided.  The only method for weed control that is appropriate for these locations is old-fashioned pulling up the weeds on a regular basis.

So that covers the lawn and flower beds, but what about other areas where traditional weed killers might be used?  Traditional weed killers use a range of chemicals, some with significant toxicity and even carcinogenicity.  Weed killers also have known effects on bird populations due to their toxicity.

Armed with this knowledge, I began a search for a weed killer with minimal health and environmental impact.  My local DIY shop only sold traditional weed killer, with active ingredients such as glyphosate, so I turned to the web for inspiration, and there I found a great idea I put to the test.  Several websites and forums recommended a simple home recipe for weed killer – four parts vinegar, one part washing up liquid (that’s dishwashing liquid to you Americans) and one part salt.  Shake it up (though not too vigorously to avoid turning the washing up liquid to bubbles) and put it in a spray gun.  Apply liberally to weeds.

The theory as described is that the vinegar kills the weed (or any other plant you happen to spray, so be careful), the washing up liquid helps the vinegar cling to the leaves of the weed, thus aiding this process, and the salt prevents the weed from re-growing.  This is where I would advise caution; excess salt may render the soil where the weed has grown too saline to support any desirable plants.  That is why I stick with old-fashioned weeding for my lawn and flower beds.

So I tried this recipe, with a certain amount of scepticism, but I was pleasantly surprised with the results.  I had a good number of weed species growing in my garden, including many dandelions, and all have been vanquished by this weed killer.

I was rather limited in the ingredients available for that initial trial, and used malted vinegar and supermarket own-brand washing up liquid.  This concoction worked well, as I have described, and I will continue to use malted vinegar.  However I have had reservations about the use of a standard washing up liquid in the recipe.  Surfactants are a key ingredient in many washing up liquids, and many surfactants are known to cause environmental damage.  Ecover washing up liquid purports to use eco-surfactants that have less environmental impact, and will hopefully not damage my soil or the surface and ground waters it is linked to.  So the second phase of my environmentally friendly weed killer trial will use some of Ecover’s washing up liquid.  Let’s hope it is as successful as the first and I will truly have an environmentally friendly weed killer to recommend.

London Mayor Election – Voting with My Bike

Boris Johnson graffiti

Boris Johnson graffiti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 3 May, London will go the polls and elect a new mayor. Or re-elect the old one. Or re-elect the one who came before him perhaps.

As a London resident and cyclist, this election is of great interest to me.  Thankfully, a number of organisations have done the hard work and analysed the manifestos of the various candidates from a number of perspectives of interest to me.

In the last two months I have cycled over 350 kilometres on my commute, so in the upcoming election I will most definitely be voting with my bike.  Transport is one area the London mayor has massive control over, so the policies of the next mayor will have significant bearing on my life..

The London Cycling Campaign, of which I am a proud member, has been very vocal in the run up to the election. Being a charity, they do not go so far as advising people on how to vote, but they have conducted a review of the main candidates manifestoes, scoring each of the main candidates on their cycling policies.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jenny Jones of the Green Party comes out on top.  Ken Livingstone of the Labour Party was some way behind in second place, leaving Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party and Brian Paddick of the Liberal Democrat Party far behind.

The London Cycle Campaign is also running a longer term campaign under the banner ‘Love London, Go Dutch’; they say “We’re calling on the next Mayor of London to build continental-standard cycling infrastructure in the capital, so everyone has the freedom to cycle, whatever their route, and whatever their destination.” It was recently confirmed by the LCC that Jenny Jones, Brian Paddick and Ken Livingstone had all committed to taking forward all three of the LCC’s Go Dutch demands if they were elected. If only Boris were to commit, then we would be nearly certain of this happening in the next mayoral term.

Finally, as a show of the strenght of feeling with regard to cycle safety, the LCC organised the UK’s largest-ever bike ride supporting safer streets for cycling on Saturday 28 April.  The Big Ride, as it was called, attracted over 10,000 cyclists, despite atrocious weather.

The Cyclists in the City blog has been closely following the mayoral campaigning.  I have picked up a number of interesting tidbits from this.  Boris Johnson is the subject of much ire.  I found this particular post, entitled Jeremy Clarkson admits he loves Copenhagen-style cycling and implicitly rejects Boris Johnson’s cycling strategy, as fourth transport organisation slams Mayor’s transport policies. Why are London’s Conservatives so out of touch on cycling as a normal, safe, everyday mode of transport?, very interesting in highlighting some of the big problems with Boris’s transport policies.

Londoners on Bikes has been set up specifically in the run up to the election to mobilise the cyclist vote.  The organisation is seeking to engage with all of the main candidates for mayor to demand action on cycle safety.  The day before the election, they will recommend the candidate to vote for with the best plan to make London safe for bikes.  Their preliminary ranking, released a week ahead of the election, had Jenny Jones in first place, Ken Livingstone in second, Brian Paddick in third, and Boris way back in last place.

For me, this is not simply about making London a better place for cyclists.  I see it as just one fundamental part of making London a more livable city; a city fit for cyclists is also a city fit for pedestrians, a city fit for children to play in the streets, a city fit for outdoor eating and drinking, a city where you can open your window without being deafened by traffic noise and a city where thousands of people will not die prematurely due to the effects of air pollution.

interestingly, a study by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth looking at the green credentials of all the candidates from a broader sustainability perspective arrives at the same ranking as Londoners on Bikes – Jones, Livingstone, Paddick, Johnson.

Before campaigning for the election had begun I had thought that perhaps there isn’t much between the main candidates, particularly between the favourites Boris and Ken.  Having reviewed all this information I can see that there is some clear daylight between them, and also come compelling reasons to look at the other candidates too.  The voting system used also gives a great opportunity to register a first preference vote for one of the less likely candidates, while reserving a second preference for Boris or Ken, if that was your choice.  So when Thursday comes, I will be hopping on my bike to the local polling station and although it won’t be coming with me into the booth, I will certainly be voting with my bike.

Sustainable Smartphone

Green Manx phone box
Green phone?  Image via Wikipedia

After 18 months with my HTC Desire I can now upgrade to a new smartphone and I have been doing some investigating into what’s the most sustainable and smartest option out there.

Obviously the most sustainable thing to do would be to stick with what I have.  After all, it is a working smartphone.  There are two problems with that though.  Firstly, like many consumer products, it wasn’t built for long life.  As I have experienced with many phones, after a year the battery life started to noticeably deteriorate.  Now it struggles to last a full day of moderate usage.  I could buy a new battery, but battery life is just one of the ailments of this ageing handset.  In general, it doesn’t have the zip it used to have, and suffers from periodic hangs and crashes.

The second issue is that the pace of technological innovation and advances in smartphone technology is such that within six months, what was a cutting edge device outdone.  One specific example of relevance to my HTC Desire is the regular updating of operating systems.  My Desire runs version 2.2 of the Android operating system.  Version 4 was launched by Google just recently.  The latest handsets also have bigger screens, higher resolution screens, additional functionality, more memory, faster processors… the list goes on.

So, now that I have taken the decision to upgrade, what features do I want to have on my new smartphone?  The following are absolute requirements.  Any phone that can’t do these simply is not smart enough.

  • Good call quality (a fundamental basic)
  • Web browsing, with WiFi and 3G connectivity
  • A reasonable range of apps available
  • Access to work email and my Hotmail account
  • A calendar that will sync with my work Outlook calendar
  • A camera that shoots decent quality stills and video
  • Mapping
  • Music player
  • At least 16GB of storage, or the ability to supplement the onboard storage with a memory card to achieve at least 16GB in total.

That probably doesn’t rule out any specific operating systems for smartphones, but to simplify, I can immediately say that I am simply not interested in BlackBerry, iPhone or any of Nokia’s Symbian phones.  They are either not compatible enough with other systems I use or they are just not cool and attractive enough.  That leaves just Android and Windows Phone.  I had stated earlier that I was leaning towards going with Windows Phone, but things have moved on and I have been distinctly unimpressed with some of the new handsets launched for Windows Phone.  That, and the eventual release of a dedicated Hotmail app for Android, has brought Android right back into the frame.

So I decided to look next at various handset makers and their sustainability performance.  Greenpeace publishes an annual Guide to Greener Electronics.  In this, they “rank the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change.”  The version I have been looking at is almost a year old, but the next version isn’t due out til next month so it will have to do.  Also, having looked at this on occasion over the last few years, there doesn’t tend to be a lot of movement, with good companies staying near the top and poor performers near the bottom consistently.  Looking a the rankings and scores, Nokia are in the top position (score: 7.5), Sony Ericsson in second (score: 6.9), Samsung fifth (5.3), Motorola sixth (5.1), Apple ninth (4.9) and LG 14th (3.5).

That report focussed just on environmental issues though.  Looking more broadly at sustainability, earlier this year Corporate Knights produced its sixth annual Global 100 list of the most sustainable large corporations in the world.  This list ranked corporations using a set of Key Performance Indicators covering environmental, social, governance and financial data.  In terms of smartphone makers, Nokia was ranked fourth, Sony 30th and Samsung 93rd.

The Good Guide app, which I have recommended previously, against scores Nokia top in its cell phone category.  Motorola seems to do ok, with Samsung, Apple and HTC lingering some way behind.  BlackBerry gets a very poor score indeed.  Specific issues noted in the Good Guide and which form the basis for its scores include a very low score for Samsung on quality, safety and performance management, a low score for Apple in terms of its ethical policies and performance and a low score for HTC on labour and human rights.

The Free2Work app looks more specifically at labour issues.  Unfortunately in its Electronics category, only one maker of smartphones is listed, Apple.  They have been scored ‘D’, which is what most of the electronics companies listed have been scored.  Only HP score better and that is just a ‘C’.  Criticisms it levels at Apple include a lack of transparency in its supply chain and supplier monitoring and a lack of a requirement placed on contractors and subcontractors to pay workers a living wage.  It would be easy to say that Apple should be able to do better given how wealthy it is and the substantial markups on its products, but without comparator data for other suppliers I will refrain from being too critical of them.

Finally, from a purely allegorical evidence base, Nokia has a great reputation for producing good quality, long-lasting phones (my wife is still using one she got over three years ago).  Going back to my earlier point about longevity, this could also be seen as an important factor in choosing a sustainable smartphone.

Nokia Lumia 800

So in terms of sustainability, all signs seem to be pointing to Nokia.  It is good then that Nokia have just launched a new smartphone using the Windows Phone OS.  Granted that the Lumia 800 is not the highest specced smartphone out there, but it meets all of the minimum requirements set out above and looks good at the same time.

Sustainable smartphone?  You can’t do better than the Nokia Lumia 800 in my opinion.

The Good Shopping Guide App

I have written previously about sustainability smartphone apps, but here is another.  The good news this time for those of us east of the Atlantic is that it is focussed on products available in the UK.  The bad news is that it is (as yet) only available for iOS devices, meaning iPhone and iPad.

The app is called The Good Shopping Guide, and is based on the book of the same name.  According to this article in the Guardian, “more than 700 brands are ranked in 72 product-specific categories according to how ethically they have been produced.”  It does concede that “you can’t swipe the barcode and pull up information”, which is something the Good Guide mentioned in my earlier post can do.

Also, unlike the free Good Guide, the app costs £2.99 (although 10% of net revenue goes to Friends of the Earth).  In my view it is probably worth the outlay to take advantage of the UK-specific information, but until an Android version becomes available I won’t be giving it a go myself.

Green Government – Where Do We Stand?

Logo of Conservative Party UK

Green Government? Image via Wikipedia

After winning the 2010 election, the UK’s new government pledged to be the greenest ever.  So a year on where are we?

This week, the larger of the two parties forming the UK’s coalition government, the Conservative Party, held its annual party conference.  It didn’t start well for environmentalists when the Chancellor, George Osborne (the man who in 2009 said “If I become chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe”), revealed his plan that “We’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”

The Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, then revealed plans to increase the speed limit on British motorways to 80 miles per hour.  The government acknowledged soon after that this would lead to more pollution and increase the risk of road deaths.  I find this policy completely bonkers – aren’t governments there to protect the people, even from themselves?

Then we had  David Cameron, the Prime Minister, the man in charge with a clear vision for how to take the country forward.  His speech did not use the words ‘environment’, ‘carbon’ or ‘climate’ even once.  He said ‘green’ twice and, according to The Guardian, “both mentions of ‘green’ were in passing.  One was part of a wide-ranging blast by David Cameron at the [previous] Labour [government]’s failings. The other – ‘green engineering’ – also came as part of a list of technologies a new economy would be built on.”

So all in all not very promising.  The Guardian newspaper has been tracking the government’s progress using a Green-o-meter, and following the Conservative Party Conference, they dropped the needle from doing better than ‘middle of the road’ to doing worse, and I tend to agree.

There simply does not seem to be any fresh ideas coming from the government, with the same old rhetoric focussing always on GDP growth and short-sighted protectionism of established industries.  Andrew Simms in The Guardian asked Why protect BAE jobs when you can convert them to the green economy?  He argued against protecting jobs in the arms industry while setting out greater benefits that would arise from spending on houses, public transport and infrastructure.  I also think there must be a lot of talented engineers and other professionals in the arms industry whose skills could be put to more humane uses elsewhere.

And finally I also read this week about Niu Wenyuan, a senior economist and government adviser in China who is trying to promote the use of a ‘quality index’ which measures the economy not just by size, but by sustainability, social equality and ecological impact.  You might say that this would then give a truer sense of costs and benefits than relying on GDP alone as a measure of progress.  This seems like a great idea to me, and it may or may not take off in China, but I can’t see it being adopted in western democracies where our politicians can’t see past the next election and don’t seem to have the vision or courage to stray from the accepted way of doing things.

David Mitchell’s Soapbox

Comedian David Mitchell is doing a series of videos for the Guardian newspaper about a variety of topical subjects.  Two recent episodes have been on environmental topics.

In this first video, David talks about using market forces to drive sustainability, in focussing on the short shelf life of cheap modern goods and air travel.

In terms of my ‘smart sustainable home’, it has made me give some more thought to the issue of longevity of furniture, fixtures and fittings.

In this second video, David takes on climate change doubters.  He makes the point, in his inimitable style, that in addition to the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening, from a precautionary point of view we should tackle climate change because we aren’t sure it isn’t happening.  A very good line of argument indeed.

When confronted with climate change sceptics, I have always sought to broaden the argument to include other problems relating to burning fossil fuels.  For instance, carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing coming out of chimneys and car exhaust pipes.  Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are proven to cause health problems.  So surely, making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Fossil fuels will one day run out.  Already we are having to go to more remote locations to take advantage of more difficult-to-extract sources.  Some would even say that global politics and wars are ruled by the availability of oil.  This too suggests that making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Finally, fossil fuels are increasingly expensive.  Using less not only is good for the environment, but is good for your pocket too.

The whole series of David Mitchell’s Soapbox videos can be found here.

Shedding a Light on Appropriate Technology

Appropriate technology is, according to Wikipedia“technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economical aspects of the community it is intended for.”

For me, appropriate technology is about using the materials and human resources that are to hand to provide a technological solution.  Basically, don’t over-engineer technological solutions.

My sister sent me this link to a Youtube video last week and it is a great example of appropriate technology.  It features a slum community in the Philippines where they are using something as simple as a plastic bottle, water and a little bleach (to prevent algal growth) to bring light into the homes of people who cannot afford to use electrical lighting.  The Youtube clip is approaching a million hits and the BBC have also been out there to see this in action.

What gets me excited about this sort of thing is not just the immediate consequences, in this case lighting someone’s home, but the greater potential that it has.  Light in the home can lead to a better quality of life but also brings opportunities for increased productivity and education that can lift people out of poverty.  Quite simply, the ability to read at home for me is the greatest value that this can bring.

If you are interested in finding out more about appropriate technology, there are some great charities out there, such as Practical Action, that work to promote development through promotion of appropriate technology.

Why Are New Windows Phone Mango Handsets So Average?

Mango and its cross section
Image via Wikipedia

Mobile phone makers have started to launch handsets running Microsoft’s updated Windows Phone 7 OS, known as Mango.  Last week HTC announced the launch of two new handsets, the first due to be released in Europe, as reported here by Coolsmartphone.

First impressions?  Very average.  Aside from the large screen on the Titan, the specs are not a whole lot better than my current phone, the 18-month-old HTC Desire.  These phones certainly fall short of the specs we see on the current top specced phones on the market, such as the HTC Sensation and the Samsung Galaxy S II.  When you look at the (rumoured) specs of forthcoming Android phones and the iPhone 5, the specs of these Windows Phones look even more average.

For me, the single biggest shortcoming is the amount of memory on the HTC Radar.  Like many people I use my smartphone as my portable music player.  I don’t consider my music collection to be particularly large and I don’t use very high bit rates when ripping music, but I still have around 10 gigabytes of music.  As well as my 10GB of music I need memory capacity for photos, video and apps. But the HTC Radar has just 8GB of memory, well short of my requirements.

I’ve mentioned before that I intend to upgrade to a Windows Phone in the near future, so I am disappointed with these lacklustre efforts from HTC.  It seems also that HTC’s own PR department is struggling to get enthusiatic about these phones, with TNW describing their promotional videos as sleep-inducing.

I sincerely hope that Windows Phone Mango handsets expected to be released by Samsung and Nokia in the coming months offer something a little more exciting, and I certainly hope that they address the memory issue.