terça-feira, julho 29, 2008

'entails some engagement with text'

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The title is a phrase I ran into, "entails some engagement with text," in 1. below. Another was, "clean electron wildcatters," in 2. The articles are boring and pretentious, but the phrases!? Poetry! Sheer Poetry!

1. Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?, Motoko Rich, July 27.
2. Texas to Tel Aviv, Thomas L. Friedman, July 27.
A few odds & ends:
3. Rush for Natural Gas Enriches Corner of the South, Adam Nossiter, July 29.
I figgure this has something to do with T. Boone Pickens' plans around natural gas (?) see previous post.
4. TASER POLICY - WELL-FOUNDED DOUBT, Globe Editorial, July 29.
Too little, waaaay late, but something ...
5. É possível ser feliz num mundo infeliz?Leonardo Boff, segunda, 28 julho.
Seems to be a saccharine series he is writing, I posted another of these 'happiness' things the other day ... can we call them saccha-tribes (cf. 'diatribe')?
6. Obama's audacity of hubris, Rex Murphy, July 26.
Perspicacious rant.
A-and some good news on the renewable front:
7. On the farm, a back-end solution to an energy crisis, Martin Mittelstaedt, July 21.
8. Gassing Up With Garbage, Matthew L. Wald, July 24.
9. Dairy farming with renewed energy, Hank Daniszewski, January 14.
10. Ontario Farmer : The Ontario Rural Council Renewable Energy Forum 2007, Bob Reid,
November 20, 2007.
11. Alternative source 'Holy Grail' for future: U of G prof, Rob Ferguson, July 04.
An addendum from Atlantic Monthly:
12. Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr, July/August 08.

Two songs, maybe three:

You Remember Me, Jesse Winchester, 1977.

They say no one should call on you
Unless he's your permission to
But me, I just came anyway
I couldn't care less what you say
Cause I know you from long before
You hid behind a stained-glass door
And walked around in your dressing gown
And looked an old friend up and down

But anyway, I thought I'd come give you a look
At where you're from
And let you know I still recall
What a child you are underneath it all

You remember me
The funny way I cry
The funny way I sit there
When someone says good-bye
The funny way I wind up lost
When someone sets me free
Why sure, you remember me.

Well, I won't take up your whole day
I've said 'bout all I have to say
I s'pose I'll be moving on
I know you'll be glad to see me gone
Tonight is our last night in town
So don't worry about me hanging around
Tomorrow night it's Calgary
And you will be good and rid of me

But anyway, I thought I'd come give you a look
At where you're from
And let you know I still recall
What a child you are underneath it all

You remember me
The funny way I cry
The funny way I sit there
When someone says good-bye
The funny way I wind up lost
When someone sets me free
Why sure, you remember me.
 Eu ainda não sei, Alexandre Pires.

Sopra um vento
Tão frio aqui
Em minha solidão
Os minutos são anos
E a lua se escondeu
Continuo sozinho
E minha casa é uma prisão
A ilusão foi embora
E só restou
Uma pedra de gelo
Dentro do meu coração

Eu ainda não sei
Como esquecer o seu amor
Eu ainda não sei
Como acalmar a minha dor
Eu ainda me lembro
Dos momentos de paixão
E ainda te espero
A cada nova estação
Que falta

Minha vida é tão cinza
Sem a luz do seu olhar
Eu não perco a esperança
Sei que um dia vai voltar
Te procuro em silêncio
Te imagino ainda aqui
Eu escuto seus passo
É difícil suportar
Todo dia pergunto
Como foi que te perdi

Eu ainda sei que te amo
E sigo apaixonado
Eu ainda estou te esperando
Te quero do meu lado

Desaparecido, Manu Chao.

Me llaman el desaparecido
Cuando llega ya se ha ido
Volando vengo, volando voy
Deprisa deprisa a rumbo perdido

Cuando me buscan nunca estoy
Cuando me encuentran yo no soy
El que está enfrente porque ya
Me fui corriendo más allá

Me dicen el desaparecido
Fantasma que nunca está
Me dicen el desagradecido
Pero esa no es la verdad

Yo llevo en el cuerpo un dolor
Que no me deja respirar
Llevo en el cuerpo una condena
Que siempre me echa a caminar

Me dicen el desaparecido
Que cuando llega ya se ha ido
Volando vengo, volando voy
Deprisa deprisa a rumbo perdido

Me dicen el desaparecido
Fantasma que nunca está
Me dicen el desagradecido
Pero esa no es la verdad

Yo llevo en el cuerpo un motor
Que nunca deja de rolar
llevo en el alma un camino
Destinado a nunca llegar

Cuando me buscan nunca estoy
Cuando me encuentran yo no soy
El que esta enfrente por que ya
me fui corriendo mas alla

Me dicen el desaparecido
Cuando llega ya se ha ido
Volando vengo, volando voy
Deprisa deprisa a rumbo perdido

Perdido en el siglo ...
Perdido en el siglo ...
siglo XX ...
rumbo al XXI…

cuando llegare, cuando llegare ...
 The Dissappeared (The Dead)

They call me the 'disappeared'
when they come I've already gone,
Flying I come, flying I go
Quickly, quickly on a lost course

When they hunt me I'm not there
When they find me, I’m someone else
The one that’s always just ahead,
because I've already moved on

They call me the disappeared
The phantom who's never there
They call me the ungrateful,
But that's not the way it is

I carry on me a pain and sorrow,
that doesn't let me breathe,
I carry on me a final sentence,
That’s always pushing me along

They call me the disappeared
when they come I've already gone,
Flying I come, flying I go
Quickly, quickly on a lost course

They call me the disappeared
The phantom who's never there
They call me the ungrateful,
But that's not the way it is

I carry in my body a motor
that's always running and alive
I carry in my soul a destination,
but I never will arrive

When they hunt me, I'm not there
When they find me, I’m someone else
The one that’s always just ahead,
because I've already moved on

They call me the disappeared
When they come I've already gone,
Flying I come, flying I go
Quickly, quickly on a lost course

Lost in the century ...
Lost in the century ...
the 20th century,
Heading for the 21st

when will I arrive, when will I arrive ...

Rush for Natural Gas Enriches Corner of the South, Adam Nossiter, July 29.

MANSFIELD, La. — They had to repeat the amazing number, $28.7 million, over and over, to make sure it was real and would not go away. Even then, the members of the De Soto Parish Police Jury — the county commission — could hardly believe it.

They laughed, rocked back in their chairs, shook their heads, stared at the ceiling and muttered oaths to each other. “We have — $28.7 million,” said the president, Bryant Yopp, to settle the matter, definitively if still incredulously. It was nearly one and a half times the parish’s entire annual budget.

A no-holds-barred, all-American gold rush for natural gas is under way in this forgotten corner of the South, and De Soto Parish, with its fat check from a large energy company this month, is only the latest and largest beneficiary. The county leaders and everyone around them, for mile after mile, over to Texas and up to Arkansas, in the down-at-the-heels city of Shreveport and in its struggling neighbors, suddenly find themselves sitting on what could prove to be the largest natural gas deposit in the continental United States.

Already, several dozen people who own parcels of land over the field are becoming instant millionaires as energy companies pay big money for the mineral rights to the gas, which like other energy sources is worth far more than it was last year. Jalopies are being traded in for Cadillacs, plans for swimming pools are being hatched in rusty trailers, and the old courthouse here is packed to the rafters day after day with oil company “landmen” (and women), whose job it is to frantically search the record books for the owners of the mineral rights to land that has become like gold.

In the space of months, the price of such rights on an acre has shot up to $30,000 from a few hundred dollars and is still climbing. Some very modest people, in a place where the Tough Steak Meat Market sits near the Triple J Motors car lot and the courthouse square is half boarded up, are becoming very wealthy, very quickly.

“These people are not college graduates,” said Reggie Roe, a parish official who has 987 acres and is looking at considerable enrichment himself. “Now they’re walking in with $2, 3 million. They don’t know what to do with it.

“What are these people going to do with all this money?”

So far, relative restraint — or perhaps bewilderment — reigns.

“I bought a brand-new Cadillac,” said Mike Smith, an appraiser, but not for much longer. “I’ve always wanted one, and I wrote them a check for it, and that was a good feeling. It’s definitely made me, I guess you would call it, financially independent.”

“It’s just changed my whole life,” Mr. Smith said, adding, “You get over a million in one night, it’s hard to get used to.”

He is working on it though, with visions of a long-dreamed-of golfing vacation.

Linda Whatley, a bank worker who said she had become a “multimillionaire overnight,” said she had paid off her house, but being “country people” and “not extravagant,” she had kept a lid on spending.

“My retirement horizon has gotten shorter,” Ms. Whatley said.

The parish, meanwhile, overwhelmed with its windfall, is unsure what to do with it. “Let’s get the people out of the mud and the dust, in the entire parish,” said J. O. Burch, a parish leader, pleading with his colleagues for road spending. “The public has asked, all these years, for things we couldn’t afford.”

But caution prevailed. The people’s representatives listened to a few bankers preach investments and then held off on making a decision.

The upfront payments for the mineral rights are only the beginning, as people here never tire of telling visitors. The promise of additional royalties from the gas is already dancing in their heads.

“I’m going to get me one of these $70,000-a-month personal checks, and it’s going to change my life,” said the sheriff, Rodney Arbuckle. He did not appear to be joking.

The boom took off in late March, when word was announced of a highly productive new well in the area. Ever since, the gospel has been that Haynesville Shale, the name for the enormous gas-bearing rock deposit thousands of feet down, will transform this woebegone region, which has not known anything approaching prosperity since the oil boom went bust a quarter-century ago.

[photo - After leasing his property for $1 million, Mike Smith wrote a check for a new Cadillac. “That was a good feeling,” he said.]

Gas Rush Nobody knows for certain how big an area the Haynesville Shale covers — no government entity has mapped it. But energy companies and experts say it is large, possibly the largest in the lower 48 states, with an estimated 250 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. (Last year, the United States consumed 23 trillion feet.) It is up to 13,000 feet underground, extending into East Texas. A few initial wells are already producing startling amounts of gas, and the country’s appetite for the stuff is only growing larger as petroleum becomes more expensive.

“Without question, there’s money flowing in already,” said the mayor of Shreveport, Cedric Glover. “The energy in the area, you can sense it; you can feel it.”

The hotels and bars in Shreveport, a long-suffering city near the Texas line, with its semiabandoned downtown and tomblike quiet after 5 p.m., are now filled with the oil company landmen, whose numbers have blossomed overnight from the low hundreds into the thousands, by some accounts. Neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere are banding together to strike the best possible deals with the energy companies.

The experts say the hype appears to be justified, which is why companies like the Chesapeake Energy Corporation and the Petrohawk Energy Corporation are now paying top dollar for land that was once hoarded to eke out miserly timber sales, at best.

“Six months ago, you could have bought the whole parish for $1,000 an acre,” said O. L. Stone Jr., the clerk of court.

New drilling techniques, prohibitively expensive until recently, are making it easier to fracture dense rock thousands of feet below the surface to extract the gas. Chesapeake Energy predicts dozens more rigs by the end of next year.

“The way I look at it, this is for real,” said Brian J. Harder, a research associate at the Louisiana Geological Survey, at Louisiana State University. Mr. Harder said at least five wells on the Haynesville Shale were already three to five times more productive than a comparable shale formation elsewhere.

“The five wells they’ve made are real,” Mr. Harder said. With Haynesville and another shale formation in Pennsylvania and southern and western New York, the Marcellus Shale, “we’re talking about doubling the nation’s gas reserves from two fields,” he said.

As it is, there is no elbow room at the 1911 Beaux-Arts courthouse in Mansfield, a city of about 5,500 people. Open a door into a small room, or look into a corner, and two or three landmen are stuffed into it, peering into their laptops. The Records Room is shoulder-to-shoulder.

“It’s nutty right now,” said one landman, Derrick Palmer, “but it’s nutty in a good way.” He was tracing the ownership and rights on an interesting parcel back to the 1840s.

Citizens, said by some of the landmen to have grown distrustful since agreeing to deals months ago that now look pallid, are in the Records Room doing their own research about mineral rights.

“I ain’t got but an acre-and-a-quarter,” said Floyd Turner, a truck driver. “But I’m hopeful. That’s all I can say.”

TASER POLICY - WELL-FOUNDED DOUBT, Globe Editorial, July 29.

If there's a medal reserved for courageous police boards, the Saskatchewan Police Commission deserves it. It has stood up against police orthodoxy nearly everywhere in Canada to voice honest doubts about tasers. "There's a grave danger of them being abused," chair Michael Tochor said yesterday. He also expressed doubts about the medical science underpinning their purported safety. "The medical evidence is inconclusive."

Two years ago, the commission - the civilian body that sets policy for the province's municipal police forces - approved the taser in principle for the use of regular officers (in addition to the tactical squads with permission now). As soon as guidelines could be developed for taser use and training, the police services would be free to roll out the 50,000-volt weapons. But after numerous deaths and appalling police misuses of the electric stun guns, the commission rescinded that approval last week. While it believes the tasers may save lives when used in appropriate circumstances, it wants to see more scientific data, and think out what policy might fit, before moving ahead.

That may seem a small step, but it seems awfully large when most Canadian police are heading in the other direction. The RCMP, for instance, use the taser nearly 30 times a week, and their civilian chair, William Elliott, has refused to make even the minuscule alteration to taser guidelines recommended by an independent watchdog. (The guidelines allow for use on the "actively resistant," and the watchdog would raise that to "combative.")

How could there not be doubts? Twenty-two people have died in Canada after being tasered in the past five years, including a 17-year-old man last week in Winnipeg. One of the 22, Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, was shown on an amateur videotape to have been exhausted and distressed, but not violent; a clutch of RCMP officers tasered him within 30 seconds of confronting him last October at the Vancouver International Airport. Scientists have raised serious questions about taser safety at the Braidwood Inquiry in British Columbia.

Some day, civilian police boards and governments across Canada may admit to their own honest doubts. But the Saskatchewan Police Commission was first.

Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?, Motoko Rich, July 27.

BEREA, Ohio — Books are not Nadia Konyk’s thing. Her mother, hoping to entice her, brings them home from the library, but Nadia rarely shows an interest.

Instead, like so many other teenagers, Nadia, 15, is addicted to the Internet. She regularly spends at least six hours a day in front of the computer here in this suburb southwest of Cleveland.

A slender, chatty blonde who wears black-framed plastic glasses, Nadia checks her e-mail and peruses myyearbook.com, a social networking site, reading messages or posting updates on her mood. She searches for music videos on YouTube and logs onto Gaia Online, a role-playing site where members fashion alternate identities as cutesy cartoon characters. But she spends most of her time on quizilla.com or fanfiction.net, reading and commenting on stories written by other users and based on books, television shows or movies.

Her mother, Deborah Konyk, would prefer that Nadia, who gets A’s and B’s at school, read books for a change. But at this point, Ms. Konyk said, “I’m just pleased that she reads something anymore.”

Children like Nadia lie at the heart of a passionate debate about just what it means to read in the digital age. The discussion is playing out among educational policy makers and reading experts around the world, and within groups like the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association.

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.

Even accomplished book readers like Zachary Sims, 18, of Old Greenwich, Conn., crave the ability to quickly find different points of view on a subject and converse with others online. Some children with dyslexia or other learning difficulties, like Hunter Gaudet, 16, of Somers, Conn., have found it far more comfortable to search and read online.

At least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading. What is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the Web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even britneyspears.org, entails some engagement with text.

Setting Expectations

Few who believe in the potential of the Web deny the value of books. But they argue that it is unrealistic to expect all children to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Pride and Prejudice” for fun. And those who prefer staring at a television or mashing buttons on a game console, they say, can still benefit from reading on the Internet. In fact, some literacy experts say that online reading skills will help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs.

Some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy, but the United States, for now, will not.

Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.

Last fall the National Endowment for the Arts issued a sobering report linking flat or declining national reading test scores among teenagers with the slump in the proportion of adolescents who said they read for fun.

According to Department of Education data cited in the report, just over a fifth of 17-year-olds said they read almost every day for fun in 2004, down from nearly a third in 1984. Nineteen percent of 17-year-olds said they never or hardly ever read for fun in 2004, up from 9 percent in 1984. (It was unclear whether they thought of what they did on the Internet as “reading.”)

“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in the report’s introduction, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

Children are clearly spending more time on the Internet. In a study of 2,032 representative 8- to 18-year-olds, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half used the Internet on a typical day in 2004, up from just under a quarter in 1999. The average time these children spent online on a typical day rose to one hour and 41 minutes in 2004, from 46 minutes in 1999.

The question of how to value different kinds of reading is complicated because people read for many reasons. There is the level required of daily life — to follow the instructions in a manual or to analyze a mortgage contract. Then there is a more sophisticated level that opens the doors to elite education and professions. And, of course, people read for entertainment, as well as for intellectual or emotional rewards.

It is perhaps that final purpose that book champions emphasize the most.

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”

What’s Best for Nadia?

Deborah Konyk always believed it was essential for Nadia and her 8-year-old sister, Yashca, to read books. She regularly read aloud to the girls and took them to library story hours.

“Reading opens up doors to places that you probably will never get to visit in your lifetime, to cultures, to worlds, to people,” Ms. Konyk said.

Ms. Konyk, who took a part-time job at a dollar store chain a year and a half ago, said she did not have much time to read books herself. There are few books in the house. But after Yashca was born, Ms. Konyk spent the baby’s nap time reading the Harry Potter novels to Nadia, and she regularly brought home new titles from the library.

Despite these efforts, Nadia never became a big reader. Instead, she became obsessed with Japanese anime cartoons on television and comics like “Sailor Moon.” Then, when she was in the sixth grade, the family bought its first computer. When a friend introduced Nadia to fanfiction.net, she turned off the television and started reading online.

Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors. One of her recent favorites was “My absolutely, perfect normal life ... ARE YOU CRAZY? NOT!,” a story based on the anime series “Beyblade.”

In one scene the narrator, Aries, hitches a ride with some masked men and one of them pulls a knife on her. “Just then I notice (Like finally) something sharp right in front of me,” Aries writes. “I gladly took it just like that until something terrible happen ....”

Nadia said she preferred reading stories online because “you could add your own character and twist it the way you want it to be.”

“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.”

Nadia also writes her own stories. She posted “Dieing Isn’t Always Bad,” about a girl who comes back to life as half cat, half human, on both fanfiction.net and quizilla.com.

Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

The simplest argument for why children should read in their leisure time is that it makes them better readers. According to federal statistics, students who say they read for fun once a day score significantly higher on reading tests than those who say they never do.

Reading skills are also valued by employers. A 2006 survey by the Conference Board, which conducts research for business leaders, found that nearly 90 percent of employers rated “reading comprehension” as “very important” for workers with bachelor’s degrees. Department of Education statistics also show that those who score higher on reading tests tend to earn higher incomes.

Critics of reading on the Internet say they see no evidence that increased Web activity improves reading achievement. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Mr. Gioia of the N.E.A. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”

Nicholas Carr sounded a similar note in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine. Warning that the Web was changing the way he — and others — think, he suggested that the effects of Internet reading extended beyond the falling test scores of adolescence. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote, confessing that he now found it difficult to read long books.

Literacy specialists are just beginning to investigate how reading on the Internet affects reading skills. A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books. The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.

Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.

One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

Neurological studies show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. Scientists speculate that reading on the Internet may also affect the brain’s hard wiring in a way that is different from book reading.

“The question is, does it change your brain in some beneficial way?” said Guinevere F. Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University. “The brain is malleable and adapts to its environment. Whatever the pressures are on us to succeed, our brain will try and deal with it.”

Some scientists worry that the fractured experience typical of the Internet could rob developing readers of crucial skills. “Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode,” said Ken Pugh, a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale who has studied brain scans of children reading.

But This Is Reading Too

Web proponents believe that strong readers on the Web may eventually surpass those who rely on books. Reading five Web sites, an op-ed article and a blog post or two, experts say, can be more enriching than reading one book.

“It takes a long time to read a 400-page book,” said Mr. Spiro of Michigan State. “In a tenth of the time,” he said, the Internet allows a reader to “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view.”

Zachary Sims, the Old Greenwich, Conn., teenager, often stays awake until 2 or 3 in the morning reading articles about technology or politics — his current passions — on up to 100 Web sites.

“On the Internet, you can hear from a bunch of people,” said Zachary, who will attend Columbia University this fall. “They may not be pedigreed academics. They may be someone in their shed with a conspiracy theory. But you would weigh that.”

Though he also likes to read books (earlier this year he finished, and loved, “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand), Zachary craves interaction with fellow readers on the Internet. “The Web is more about a conversation,” he said. “Books are more one-way.”

The kinds of skills Zachary has developed — locating information quickly and accurately, corroborating findings on multiple sites — may seem obvious to heavy Web users. But the skills can be cognitively demanding.

Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site (http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/) about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.

Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem.

“Kids are using sound and images so they have a world of ideas to put together that aren’t necessarily language oriented,” said Donna E. Alvermann, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia. “Books aren’t out of the picture, but they’re only one way of experiencing information in the world today.”

A Lifelong Struggle

In the case of Hunter Gaudet, the Internet has helped him feel more comfortable with a new kind of reading. A varsity lacrosse player in Somers, Conn., Hunter has struggled most of his life to read. After learning he was dyslexic in the second grade, he was placed in special education classes and a tutor came to his home three hours a week. When he entered high school, he dropped the special education classes, but he still reads books only when forced, he said.

In a book, “they go through a lot of details that aren’t really needed,” Hunter said. “Online just gives you what you need, nothing more or less.”

When researching the 19th-century Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for one class, he typed Taney’s name into Google and scanned the Wikipedia entry and other biographical sites. Instead of reading an entire page, he would type in a search word like “college” to find Taney’s alma mater, assembling his information nugget by nugget.

Experts on reading difficulties suggest that for struggling readers, the Web may be a better way to glean information. “When you read online there are always graphics,” said Sally Shaywitz, the author of “Overcoming Dyslexia” and a Yale professor. “I think it’s just more comfortable and — I hate to say easier — but it more meets the needs of somebody who might not be a fluent reader.”

Karen Gaudet, Hunter’s mother, a regional manager for a retail chain who said she read two or three business books a week, hopes Hunter will eventually discover a love for books. But she is confident that he has the reading skills he needs to succeed.

“Based on where technology is going and the world is going,” she said, “he’s going to be able to leverage it.”

When he was in seventh grade, Hunter was one of 89 students who participated in a study comparing performance on traditional state reading tests with a specially designed Internet reading test. Hunter, who scored in the lowest 10 percent on the traditional test, spent 12 weeks learning how to use the Web for a science class before taking the Internet test. It was composed of three sets of directions asking the students to search for information online, determine which sites were reliable and explain their reasoning.

Hunter scored in the top quartile. In fact, about a third of the students in the study, led by Professor Leu, scored below average on traditional reading tests but did well on the Internet assessment.

The Testing Debate

To date, there have been few large-scale appraisals of Web skills. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, has developed a digital literacy test known as iSkills that requires students to solve informational problems by searching for answers on the Web. About 80 colleges and a handful of high schools have administered the test so far.

But according to Stephen Denis, product manager at ETS, of the more than 20,000 students who have taken the iSkills test since 2006, only 39 percent of four-year college freshmen achieved a score that represented “core functional levels” in Internet literacy.

Now some literacy experts want the federal tests known as the nation’s report card to include a digital reading component. So far, the traditionalists have held sway: The next round, to be administered to fourth and eighth graders in 2009, will test only print reading comprehension.

Mary Crovo of the National Assessment Governing Board, which creates policies for the national tests, said several members of a committee that sets guidelines for the reading tests believed large numbers of low-income and rural students might not have regular Internet access, rendering measurements of their online skills unfair.

Some simply argue that reading on the Internet is not something that needs to be tested — or taught.

“Nobody has taught a single kid to text message,” said Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English and a member of the testing guidelines committee. “Kids are smart. When they want to do something, schools don’t have to get involved.”

Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford who lobbied for an Internet component as chairman of the reading test guidelines committee, disagreed. Students “are going to grow up having to be highly competent on the Internet,” he said. “There’s no reason to make them discover how to be highly competent if we can teach them.”

The United States is diverging from the policies of some other countries. Next year, for the first time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers reading, math and science tests to a sample of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries, will add an electronic reading component. The United States, among other countries, will not participate. A spokeswoman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, said an additional test would overburden schools.

Even those who are most concerned about the preservation of books acknowledge that children need a range of reading experiences. “Some of it is the informal reading they get in e-mails or on Web sites,” said Gay Ivey, a professor at James Madison University who focuses on adolescent literacy. “I think they need it all.”

Web junkies can occasionally be swept up in a book. After Nadia read Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night” in her freshman English class, Ms. Konyk brought home another Holocaust memoir, “I Have Lived a Thousand Years,” by Livia Bitton-Jackson.

Nadia was riveted by heartbreaking details of life in the concentration camps. “I was trying to imagine this and I was like, I can’t do this,” she said. “It was just so — wow.”

Hoping to keep up the momentum, Ms. Konyk brought home another book, “Silverboy,” a fantasy novel. Nadia made it through one chapter before she got engrossed in the Internet fan fiction again.

Texas to Tel Aviv, Thomas L. Friedman, July 27.

What would happen if you cross-bred J. R. Ewing of “Dallas” and Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club? You’d get T. Boone Pickens. What would happen if you cross-bred Henry Ford and Yitzhak Rabin? You’d get Shai Agassi. And what would happen if you put together T. Boone Pickens, the green billionaire Texas oilman now obsessed with wind power, and Shai Agassi, the Jewish Henry Ford now obsessed with making Israel the world’s leader in electric cars?

You’d have the start of an energy revolution.

The only good thing to come from soaring oil prices is that they have spurred innovator/investors, successful in other fields, to move into clean energy with a mad-as-hell, can-do ambition to replace oil with renewable power. Two of the most interesting of these new clean electron wildcatters are Boone and Shai.

Agassi, age 40, is an Israeli software whiz kid who rose to the senior ranks of the German software giant SAP. He gave it all up in 2007 to help make Israel a model of how an entire country can get off gasoline and onto electric cars. He figured no country has a bigger interest in diminishing the value of Middle Eastern oil than Israel. On a visit to Israel in May, I took a spin in a parking lot on the Tel Aviv beachfront in Agassi’s prototype electric car, while his sister watched out for the cops because it is not yet licensed for Israeli roads.

Agassi’s plan, backed by Israel’s government, is to create a complete electric car “system” that will work much like a mobile-phone service “system,” only customers sign up for so many monthly miles, instead of minutes. Every subscriber will get a car, a battery and access to a national network of recharging outlets all across Israel — as well as garages that will swap your dead battery for a fresh one whenever needed.

His company, Better Place, and its impressive team would run the smart grid that charges the cars and is also contracting for enough new solar energy from Israeli companies — 2 gigawatts over 10 years — to power the whole fleet. “Israel will have the world’s first virtual oilfield in the Negev Desert,” said Agassi. His first 500 electric cars, built by Renault, will hit Israel’s roads next year.

Agassi is a passionate salesman for his vision. He could sell camels to Saudi Arabia. “Today in Europe, you pay $600 a month for gasoline,” he explained to me. “We have an electric car that will cost you $600 a month” — with all the electric fuel you need and when you don’t want the car any longer, just give it back. No extra charges and no CO2 emissions.

His goal, said Agassi, is to make his electric car “so cheap, so trivial, that you won’t even think of buying a gasoline car.” Once that happens, he added, your oil addiction will be over forever. You’ll be “off heroin,” he says, and “addicted to milk.”

T. Boone Pickens is 80. He’s already made billions in oil. He was involved in some ugly mischief in funding the “Swift-boating” of John Kerry. But now he’s opting for a different legacy: breaking America’s oil habit by pushing for a massive buildup of wind power in the U.S. and converting our abundant natural gas supplies — now being used to make electricity — into transportation fuel to replace foreign oil in our cars, buses and trucks.

Pickens is motivated by American nationalism. Because of all the money we are shipping abroad to pay for our oil addiction, he says, “we are on the verge of losing our superpower status.” His vision is summed up on his Web site: “We import 70 percent of our oil at a cost of $700 billion a year ... I have been an oil man all my life, but this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of. If we create a renewable energy network, we can break our addiction to foreign oil.”

Pickens made clear to me over breakfast last week that he was tired of waiting for Washington to produce a serious energy plan. So his company, Mesa Power, is now building the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle, where he’s spent $2 billion buying land and 700 wind turbines from General Electric — the largest single turbine order ever. The U.S. could secure 20 percent of its electricity needs from wind alone.

But Pickens knows he’s unique. Unless, he says, “Congress adopts clear, predictable policies” — with long-term tax incentives and infrastructure — so thousands of investors can jump into clean power, we’ll never get the scale we need to break our addiction. For a year, Senate Republicans have been blocking such incentives for wind and solar energy. They vote again next week.

If only we had a Congress and president who, instead of chasing crazy schemes like offshore drilling and releasing oil from our strategic reserve, just sat down with Boone and Shai and asked one question: “What laws do we need to enact to foster 1,000 more like you?” Then just do it, and get out of the way.

É possível ser feliz num mundo infeliz?
(cribbed from Jornal do Brasil Online, but the way they do things now there is no specific URL) .

Leonardo Boff, teólogo, segunda, 28 julho.

Não podemos calar a pergunta: como ser feliz num mundo infeliz? Mais da metade da população mundial é sofredora, vivendo abaixo do nível da pobreza. Há terremotos, tsunamis, furacões, inundações e secas.

No Brasil apenas 5 mil famílias detém 46% da riqueza nacional. No mundo, 1.125 bilionários individuais possuem riqueza igual ou superior à riqueza do conjunto de paises onde vive 59% da humanidade. O aquecimento global evocou o fantasma de graves ameaças à estabilidade do planeta e ao futuro da humanidade. Diante deste quadro, é possível ser feliz? Só podemos ser felizes junto com outros.

Importa reconhecer que estas contradições não invalidam a busca da felicidade. Ela é permanente embora pouco encontrada. Isso nos obriga a fazer um discurso critico e não ingênuo sobre as chances de felicidade possível.

Na reflexão anterior sobre o mesmo tema, enfatizamos o fato de que a felicidade sustentável é somente aquela que nasce do caráter relacional do ser humano. Em seguida, é aquela que aprende a buscar a justa medida nas contradições da condição humana. Feliz é quem consegue acolher a vida assim como ela é, escrevendo certo por linhas tortas. Aprofundando a questão, cabe agora refletir sobre o que significa ser feliz e estar feliz. Foi Pedro Demo, a meu ver, uma das cabeças mais bem arrumadas da inteligência brasileira, que entre nós melhor estudou a Dialética da felicidade (3 tomos, 2001). Ele distingue dois tempos da felicidade e nisso o acompanhamos: o tempo vertical e o tempo horizontal. O vertical é o momento intenso, extático e profundamente realizador: o primeiro encontro amoroso, ter passado num concurso difícil, o nascimento do primeiro filho. A pessoa está feliz. É um momento que incide, muito realizador, mas passageiro.

E há o momento horizontal: é o que se estende no dia-a-dia, como a rotina com suas limitações. Manejar sabiamente os limites, saber negociar com as contradições, tirar o melhor de cada situação: isso faz a pessoa ser feliz.

Talvez o casamento nos sirva de ilustração. Tudo começa com o enamoramento, a paixão e a idealização do amor eterno, o que leva a querer viver junto. É a experiência de estar feliz. Mas, com o passar do tempo, o amor intenso dá lugar à rotina e à reprodução de um mesmo tipo de relações com seu desgaste natural. Diante desta situação, normal numa relação a dois, deve-se aprender a dialogar, a tolerar, a renunciar e a cultivar a ternura sem a qual o amor se extenua até virar indiferença. É aqui que a pessoa pode ser feliz ou infeliz.

Para ser feliz na extensão temporal, precisa de invenção e de sabedoria prática. Invenção é a capacidade de romper a rotina: visitar um amigo, ir ao teatro, inventar um programa. Sabedoria prática é saber desproblematizar as questões, acolher os limites com leveza, saber rimar dor com amor. Se não fizer isso, vai ser infeliz pela vida afora.

Estar feliz é um momento. Ser feliz é a um estado prolongado. Este se prolonga porque sempre é recriado e alimentado. Alguém pode estar feliz sendo infeliz. Quer dizer, tem um momento intenso de felicidade (momento) como o reencontro com um irmão que escapou da morte. Como pode ser feliz (estado) sem estar feliz (momento), quer dizer, sem que algo lhe aconteça de arrebatador.

A felicidade participa de nossa incompletude. Nunca é plena e completa. Faço minha a brilhante metáfora de Pedro Demo: "a felicidade participa da lógica da flor: não há como separar sua beleza, de sua fragilidade e de seu fenecimento".

Obama's audacity of hubris, Rex Murphy, July 26.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus. That may turn out to be a problem.

Barack Obama was touring the geopolitical capitals of the Middle East and Europe all this week. He travelled less as a mere nominee for the U.S. presidency (even that is not yet officially secured) than as some combination of emperor and rock star.

Trailing in his charismatic wake was a whole legion of the top stars of the U.S. press corps. All three news anchors of the big networks were with him. When John McCain travels abroad, as he does and has done frequently, Mr. McCain is lucky to attract the attention of the local stringers. And back at home, during what was undeniably Obama Week in American journalism, when Mr. McCain touched down on a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., there was not a legion, not even a clutch of reporters, but one lonely local newsperson to witness the arrival of the other nominee.

Judging from this week, as far as the mainline American press is concerned, John McCain could be running for dogcatcher in Peoria and campaigning for it on Mars.

Senator McCain himself must bear some of the blame for the disproportion. He's been around a long while. His campaign is torpid and timid. And the press already had something of a one-night stand with him (in 2000 when he ran against George Bush for the nomination). But, if intensity of coverage is the index, Mr. Obama will win all 50 states by acclamation, and as a fillip - after the great Berlin rally and set speech of the colossus on Thursday - may very well be elected president of the European Union too.

A portion of this may be explained. Senator Obama is new, charismatic, a historical candidate because of his race. And the media will have their infatuations and pack frenzies. Also Mr. Obama has the almost immeasurable advantage of being the near perfect counter-icon to George W. Bush.

The deep well of visceral and reflexive contempt for Mr. Bush by most of the American press's deep thinkers (if the oxymoron may be forgiven me) is a source of fuel for their idolization of Mr. Obama. But none of these factors gives a full accounting of the Obama phenomenon.

The missing element may be the candidate's equally sterling appreciation of himself. The rally in Berlin was the cue for this line of thought. As far as I know, this was his first visit to Germany. I could see him, on a first visit, as a candidate for the presidency, making calls on the Chancellor, meeting with opposition politicians, doing - as the Windsors call it - a bit of a walkabout.

But what was the idea behind a nominee for the highest office of the United States conducting a campaign rally in Berlin? Throw away those disclaimers from the Obama camp that the rally wasn't political. Mr. Obama doesn't knot his tie without politics providing the mirror.

It's strange to have to note this, but, he isn't yet president. He has absolutely no record at all of involvement in foreign policy.

Correction: He did offer unqualified, insistent opposition to the Petraeus surge in Iraq, which turned the war around to the point that some of its most relentless critics now maintain "it cannot be lost." In other words, on the one definitive issue, post-invasion, on his country's most important foreign involvement, the one decision the inarticulate and sublimely unhip Texan in the White House made alone, and got right, Mr. Obama was perfectly, publicly wrong.

There's very little wood - if you'll allow the metaphor - in that record, on which to build a podium to address Europe at a mass rally on your first visit to one of its ancient capitals. But Mr. Obama has self-confidence, he has sublime self-assurance. It's hardly more than two years ago that he was but a Chicago politician whose entire national resumé was a speech to John Kerry's nominating convention.

And it's less than two months ago that, ever so narrowly, he managed to edge Hillary Clinton out of contention for the nomination yet to be confirmed. It was razor close.

Yet, there he was on Thursday, acting in every way as if he were already president delivering, Urbi et Orbi, a proclamation. There was something almost glorious about the presumption: Call it the audacity of hubris. There was also and equally something very reckless about it. The only set who seem more enraptured than a good part of the U.S. media about the Obama campaign is the Obama campaign and the candidate himself.

The self-assurance, the commanding confidence of his campaign may turn out to be a transcending dynamic that rockets him into the White House while Mr. McCain is still trying to find a reporter to talk with. On the other hand, he may be signalling millions of voters that this untested candidate is just a damn sight too cocky for his own, and their, good.

On the farm, a back-end solution to an energy crisis, Martin Mittelstaedt, July 21.

ILDERTON, ONT. — The hundreds of black and white Holstein cows milling about the barn at Laurie Stanton's dairy farm may not look like a valuable source of energy, but each animal on the hoof has a lot of potential.

In the search for a way to deal with the vast quantity of manure his big herd generates and to do something useful with it, Mr. Stanton, a third-generation dairy farmer, had a quirky idea: why not try to turn the dung into a valuable commodity, like electricity?

Later this summer, Ontario electricity consumers will start using power that Mr. Stanton's herd will contribute to the provincial grid. Each of his cows is expected to produce enough manure to keep three 50-watt light bulbs constantly illuminated.

The sprawling dairy operation, located near London, Ont., is poised to become the largest source of farm-biogas-derived electricity in Canada, with its cow manure turned into methane, the active ingredient in natural gas, and burned in a miniature power plant to produce electricity.

"There is huge potential for it," Mr. Stanton said of his scheme. "We're absolutely sold on this system."

The idea of turning cow waste into electricity, according to its boosters, which include the Ontario government, the source of $2.5-million in financing for the venture, sidesteps one of the biggest quandaries in agriculture today.

It's the question of whether it is good sense or folly to turn valuable human food, such as corn and soybeans, into renewable fuels, such as ethanol or diesel, to use for cars.

The rush to make ethanol from corn has more than doubled the price of the agricultural staple, and although it has also helped to curb petroleum use, it has prompted global worries about food-price inflation.

But in the case of manure, it is a material nearly no one wants; while farmers typically spread it on their land as a substitute for fertilizer, the activity is often a source of complaints from neighbours offended by its pungent smell, and worried about its potential to pollute groundwater.

There is something alluring about getting energy from "materials that are not really competing with food," observes Franco Berruti, director of the University of Western Ontario's Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternate Resources. The institute, along with two other Ontario universities, will conduct research at the Stanton farm, tracking its progress in turning agricultural wastes into energy.

Dr. Berruti says society should be looking for a "sustainable type of biomass that can be converted into value-added products, and manure is certainly one of those."

He thinks people should view manure and other similar materials in the same way they'd view a crop.

"When you look at farms, agriculture operations, nothing is waste. Everything is a resource. It's just a matter of harvesting," he said.

The province announced funding for the $5-million project earlier this month, saying it hopes the Stanton's on-farm power plant will suggest a possible way of dealing with some of the nearly 50 million tonnes of biomass, or waste residues from plants and animals, that Ontario produces annually.

If converted to energy, the biological waste could produce enough power to meet the needs of seven million homes, according to a Ministry of Research and Innovation estimate.

Manure is used to produce energy in many developing countries, although the operations are often primitive, little more than covered pits with pipes for methane collection. But in Germany, considered the Western leader of the technology, biogas projects are currently producing about the same amount of electricity as a large nuclear plant.

In Canada, only a handful of farms produce electricity from their waste material, in part because building small power stations is expensive and because it requires large-scale agricultural operations to be economically worthwhile.

The Stantons, with 750 milking cows, operate one of the biggest dairy farms in the country.

Ontario's electricity grid is also at capacity in many areas, leaving little or no room for new suppliers to hook up to it.

Yet given the huge potential for biomass energy, John Wilkinson, Minister of Research and Innovation, said he thinks agriculture can produce both food and fuel, if it uses waste materials for energy.

"It is not food or fuel. We believe innovation is the key to food and fuel," he said recently when announcing the grant to the Stanton farm.

Contractors are currently putting the finishing touches on the power plant, sited near the farm's dairy barn, in the middle of a vast expanse of waist-high corn plants.

After having been washed and scraped from the cow stalls into a series of sewage pipes that run under the barn, a series of eight, three-story-high steel tanks, located at the heart of the power plant, will be used to ferment the manure.

Once in the holding tanks, bacteria naturally present in the manure will decompose it, giving off methane gas, which will be collected at the top after bubbling through the slurry.

The gas will then run through pipes into a diesel generator that has been converted to run on natural gas, where it will be burned to produce electricity.

Although the operation will start small - with an initial capacity of 300 kilowatts, Mr. Stanton hopes it will eventually produce about 1.3 megawatts- enough to provide for the electricity needs of about 800 typical homes.

A kilowatt is the amount of electrical capacity needed to supply 10 light bulbs, each rated at 100 watts.

To boost the power output to the higher figure, the farm plans to mix manure from its cows with food waste trucked in from canneries and elsewhere in the London area.

The process of producing the methane is also known as anaerobic digestion because it takes place in the absence of oxygen.

Bacteria thrive best at temperatures of around 37 degrees, the same as normal human body temperature, so the slurry will be heated and kept at that level for the five days it is expected to take the microbes to chomp through the cow dung.

The long period of heating kills most pathogens, and eliminates the manure smell that many people often complain about, Mr. Stanton said.

After being run through the digester, the leftover liquid will be used as fertilizer, reducing the farm's need to buy plant nutrients on the open market, he said.

The solid bits the bacteria can't digest are going to be strained out to produce a matted, grey-coloured material that resembles peat moss and is going to be used on the farm as a bedding for the cows.

Under Ontario's preferential pricing system for electricity from green sources, the farm will receive 11.7 cents for every kilowatt hour delivered onto the grid.

Although the price is about double the current market level, Garry Fortune, an energy consultant for the Stantons, said it should be raised to 18 to 20 cents per kwh to reflect the big environmental benefits of getting rid of manure.


The province announced funding for a $5-million anaerobic digestion power plant at Laurie Stanton's dairy farm in the hopes that it will suggest a way of dealing with some of the nearly 50 million tonnes of biomass, or waste residues from plants and animals, that Ontario produces annually. If successful, Mr. Stanton's farm will produce about 1.3 megawatts, enough to power about 800 typical homes.

1. BARN: Slurry of manure is washed and scraped from cow stalls into a series of sewage pipes that run under the barn. The manure is mixed with other food wastes.

2. DIGESTER: The slurry is heated to around 37 degrees and kept at that level for the five days needed for the microbes to decompose the cow dung. This process gives off methane gas, which bubbles through the slurry and is collected at the top.

3. DIESEL GENERATOR: The gas runs to the generator, where it is burned to produce electricity to power the digester and the farm, and to feed into the grid.

4. SOLIDS SEPARATOR: Leftover liquids are used as fertilizer and the solids are strained to make a material to be used as bedding for the cows.

Gassing Up With Garbage, Matthew L. Wald, July 24.

After years of false starts, a new industry selling motor fuel made from waste is getting a big push in the United States, with the first commercial sales possible within months.

Many companies have announced plans to build plants that would take in material like wood chips, garbage or crop waste and turn out motor fuels. About 28 small plants are in advanced planning, under construction or, in a handful of cases, already up and running in test mode.

For decades scientists have known it was possible to convert waste to fuel, but in an era of cheap oil, it made little sense. With oil now trading around $125 a barrel and gasoline above $4 a gallon, the potential economics of a waste-to-fuel industry have shifted radically, setting off a frenzy to be first to market.

“I think American innovation is going to come up with the solution,” said Prabhakar Nair, research chief for UOP, a company working on the problem.

Success is far from assured, however. Some of the latest announcements come from small companies whose dreams may be bigger than their bank accounts. They are counting on billions in taxpayer subsidies. Big technological hurdles remain, and even if they can be solved, no one is sure what unintended consequences will emerge or what it will really cost to produce this type of fuel.

“We desperately need it, and I personally think it’s not there yet,” said Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. “You have to look at starts with a grain of salt, especially starts where they say, ‘It’s around the corner, and by the way, can you pay half the bill?’ ”

Still, the incentive to make fuel from something, anything, besides oil and food is greater than ever. Moreover, the federal government is offering grants to help plants get off the ground and subsidies for one type of fuel of $1.01 a gallon, twice the subsidy it historically offered to ethanol made from corn.

Potential controls on global warming gases would heighten the appeal of these fuels, since many of them would add little new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Tellingly, the type of companies placing bets on the field has started to expand. The earliest were small start-ups founded by people with more technological vision than business experience. Now some of the giants of global business, including Honeywell, Dupont, General Motors, Shell and BP, are taking stakes in the nascent industry.

The dream of making fuel from plants is almost as old as the internal combustion engine. Henry Ford himself was fascinated by the idea, and it re-emerges in periods of fuel scarcity and high prices. These days, advancing technology has made the notion more plausible.

Virtually any material containing hydrogen, carbon and oxygen could potentially be turned into motor fuel. That includes plastics, construction debris, forest and lawn trimmings, wood chips, wheat straw and many other types of agricultural waste.

The potential fuels include ethanol, which can be blended with gasoline, or other liquids that could displace gasoline or diesel entirely. Government studies suggest the country could potentially replace half its gasoline supply in this way — even more if cars became more efficient.

The government is pushing to get the industry off the ground. Legislation passed last year mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022, less than half of it from corn ethanol. Almost all the rest is supposed to come from nonfood sources, though the requirement could be waived if the industry faltered.

“One has to say upfront that what Congress has done is remarkable in its bravery,” said David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a group in Minneapolis that advocates biofuels.

Much of the new money flowing into the field is coming from Silicon Valley, where the venture capitalists who gave the world the Internet revolution see an opportunity to do something similar with the fuel supply.

At Solazyme, a start-up in South San Francisco that hopes to commercialize a process for making fuel from algae, President Harrison F. Dillon said, “When we founded the company in 2003, we couldn’t find a venture capital firm that had heard of the concept of a biofuel.” Now he is backed by two such firms.

Venture capital investment in the first half of this year hit $612 million, up from $375 million in all of 2007, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters. Every few days brings another announcement. PFC Energy, a Washington consulting firm, counts projects worth perhaps $1.5 billion that will total more than 300 million gallons of capacity by 2011, if they all get built.

That is small in the scheme of American fuel demand, but it would presumably set the stage for substantial growth if those first projects prove that the economics can work.

One of the first companies to bring a plant online is KL Process Design Group, in Wyoming. With experience making corn ethanol plants, it has built a small plant meant to use pine wastes from a nearby national forest. The company is still testing its production line but hopes to begin commercial sales of ethanol late this year.

“We’re still learning and tweaking, and hoping for a little bit of capital infusion,” said Tom Slunecka, a vice president of the company.

Range Fuels, of Denver, is building a commercial-scale plant in Soperton, Ga., with help from the Energy Department. That plant will take pine chips and turn them into ethanol, with commercial sales expected by late 2009 or 2010.

Some companies want to use garbage. On Friday, a company called Fulcrum BioEnergy said it would start construction later this year on a $120 million plant at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, in Storey County, Nev., to make 10.5 million gallons of ethanol a year from 90,000 tons of garbage. Operation would begin in early 2010.

In Montreal, another firm, Enerkem, plans to use arsenic-contaminated utility poles from the provincial electric company. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission approved a plan by BlueFire Ethanol to build a $30 million garbage-to-ethanol plant on 10 acres next to a landfill in Lancaster, Calif.; construction will start soon, the company said.

A handful of small companies has long made a diesel replacement from waste oil, or sold kits to individuals to do the same. One company in Carthage, Mo., even turns turkey guts into fuel. The goal of the emerging waste-to-fuel industry is more elaborate, however: to take bulky, solid feedstocks and transform them into high-grade motor fuel.

History provides plenty of warning that it will not be easy. A company called Verenium in Lafayette, La., has cut ribbons three times in one locale since 1998 on plants that would supposedly make fuel from sugar cane waste, and has yet to sell a drop because of problems converting laboratory success into smooth, commercial-scale operation.

A bigger operation, Iogen, has been running a demonstration plant in Ottawa since 2004 that can turn wheat straw into ethanol. It was expected to build a plant in Idaho but has suspended work to focus attention on a plant in Saskatchewan. “It would be our view that there are substantial challenges in scaling up a big new biochemical process,” said Brian Foody, the president.

The Energy Department early last year picked six projects as most likely to succeed, and offered each of them tens of millions of dollars. Iogen’s Idaho project was among them; so was a plant in Kansas proposed by a Florida company, Alico, that has also been abandoned. Still, increasing interest from big companies — ones with a track record of solving technical problems — suggests that a waste-to-fuel industry may not remain out of reach forever.

General Motors has invested an undisclosed sum in two companies, Coskata, of Warrenville, Ill., and Macoma, of Lebanon, N.H., that aim to turn crop wastes into ethanol.

DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, has joined forces with a company called Genencor, announcing plans to commercialize a process for making ethanol from the nonedible parts of corn and sugar cane. They plan to invest $140 million over three years.

In making their announcement, the companies estimated the worldwide market for fuels made by methods like theirs would eventually reach $75 billion, dwarfing the scale of today’s biofuels produced from food crops like corn and sugar cane.

Dairy farming with renewed energy, Hank Daniszewski, January 14.

On the Stanton farm near Ilderton, the cows are computer-tracked, the milking's automatic and manure will soon be used to generate electricity. It's a glimpse into farming's high-tech future.

Laurie Stanton looks out on his milking parlour as he points to some of the cows below.

"They're starting to chew their cud. They're good," says Stanton with a smile.

It's a signal the milking is progressing well, but that may be the only old-fashioned indicator being used in this huge dairy barn that's about as far removed from the milking stool and pail as can be imagined.

Located north of Iderton, this fourth-generation dairy farm is operated by Laurie and Sandy Stanton.

The Stanton farm is an eye-opener for any urban consumer unfamiliar with the workings of a modern farm.

With 24 employees and a capacity to handle 2,000 cows, this farm operates more like a milk factory.

Clean and bright, it is a showcase for efficient and environmentally friendly agricultural technology.

The Stantons got a fresh start in the early 1990's thanks to urban sprawl. The old family farm at the corner of Fanshawe Park and Hyde Park roads was sold to make room for the new "big box" commercial centre anchored by Wal-Mart.

Laurie and Sandy, their three sons and a daughter decided to start over. The new farm covers 728 hectares and handles about 800 cows in a massive, 326 metre-long barn. Another barn to handle 1,000 more cows is now coming into production.

Another "special needs" barn is set aside just for calving and cows that need veterinary care.

The Stanton farm also is a leading Holstein breeder, exporting cows, bulls and embryos across North America.

All of the cows on the farm wear electronic transponders on their legs, which send signals to a central computer.

The transponder is used to activate an electronic gating system that automatically herds the cow into the appropriate stall before and after their three daily milkings.

Gary Fortune, a consultant who works with the Stantons, said the transponders may seem very high-tech, but they are not uncommon in the industry and are valuable tools in handling large herds.

"Just imagine a town of 2,000 people driving through a four-block area, trying to get gas three times a day," said Fortune.

Once cows are hooked up to the milkers, the milk flows down into a chamber beneath the milking parlour where analysers at each station identify the cow through the transponder and record the quality and quantity of the milk. The health of the cow also can be monitored by analysing its milk. The information is sent to the central computer, which can record and graph the milk production and health of each cow.

The bright white milking parlour whines and hums with pumps and machinery. Stanton said isolating the analysers in the floor below the milking parlour protects the electronic equipment and shields the cows from the noise that could affect milk production.

The warm milk is cooled with a two-stage system that is unique in Canada. The milk, about 37 C when it leaves the cows, is cooled as it passes next to water pumped up from deep wells. The milk is further cooled with a heat exchanger until it is a consistent 2 C. Then it's stored in two 30,000-litre tanks.

The well water, which is warmed as it cools the milk, is used for three purposes: to water the cows, to flush clean the milking equipment and to supply a radiant in-floor heating system.

Supplementary heating is provided by propane, but soon the propane may not be necessary because the the Stanton farm will have its own power plant.

Construction of Ontario's first large-scale anaerobic digester will put the Stanton farm into the forefront of green energy. The $4.5-million digester produces methane gas from cow manure. At full capacity, the Stanton farm will have the capacity produce 300 kilowatts of power. But the digester could accommodate manure from other farms or waste from commercial food plants.

The manure is automatically flushed or scraped from the barns and mixed and pumped into sealed, heated tanks called digesters.

The mixture is digested by bacteria, producing biogas, which is 60 per cent methane.

The methane can be burned to produce heat and generate electricity that can be used in the provincial grid. The methane also can be fed into a natural gas pipeline.

Fortune said the process eliminates most odour and toxicity in the organic matter. Leftover solids can be used as animal bedding or a peat moss substitute and the liquid can be used as organic fertilizer.

Fortune said the biogas system is simple to maintain and can be easily expanded.

He said biogas is a consistent and reliable source of green alternative energy, unlike wind farms and solar power which are subject to weather conditions

Stanton said biogas plants have the added benefit of eliminating the odour and runoff problems caused by spreading large volumes of livestock manure on farm fields. The anaerobic process kills pathogens and the weed seeds and insect eggs spread when manure is applied on fields.

"It just breaks the cycle. They don't survive a trip through the digester," said Stanton.

Biogas also reduces the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere.

The biogas plant can handle much of the commercial food waste from food processors and retailers which now goes to landfills.

"Look at all grocery stores with all the vegetable, dairy and meat products that have expiry dates and end up in landfill. All of that could be used for biogas," said Fortune.

The system also has the potential to treat septic waste from municipal systems.

Fortune said biogas could become a new source of farm income.

"We think there is tremendous potential. This is renewable, reliable energy with so many other environmental benefits."

But biogas still faces financial and bureaucratic barriers.

Under the Ontario government's alternative energy plan, biogas producers get 11 cents a kilowatt-hour, compared to 42 cents for solar power.

Fortune said biogas producers also face substantial costs to connect to the provincial grid and are not entitled to the carbon credits despite the obvious environmental benefits of the systems.

Fortune said biogas is a major energy source in Germany and other European nations. However, he said the Ontario government will have to give our producers a better deal so they can help the province meet its goals for "green" alternative energy.

"There's a disconnect between government regulation and the government's agenda," said Fortune.

Hank Daniszewski is a Free Press business reporter.

Ontario Farmer : The Ontario Rural Council Renewable Energy Forum 2007, Bob Reid,
November 20, 2007.

Bureaucracy, low price barriers to renewable energy, the province is called upon to put more support behind its renewable energy goals.

The ground swell of support for renewable energy among rural land owners is being simultaneously supported and discouraged by the province.

The ruling Liberal government has set of target of having 10 per cent of the province's energy needs met through renewable energy sources by 2010. Yet an offer of 11 cents per kwh for electricity produced on farm from Ontario Hydro, through its Ontario Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program (RESOP) is far below the cost of producing that source of energy.

That was a comment echoed by several speakers involved in the emerging technology at a renewable energy forum held in Stratford recently, sponsored by The Ontario Rural Council (TORC).

That figure was based on incorrect information gleaned from solar power projects, said Garry Fortune, energy consultant to a project creating a bio gas digester for creating electricity on the farm of Laurie Stanton of Ilderton. That project has been ongoing for two and a half years, including installing a series of vertical tank digesters that allow the system to remain operational should one cease to function.

He suggested a rate of 42 cents per kwh, similar to the rate given to solar and wind generated electricity would be more in line.

A capacity audience comprised of 250 people, either already involved in renewable energy or considering entry, had the opportunity to learn about the challenges involved. Several listed speakers expressed both excitement in the potential of renewable energy as another cash crop for farmers as well as frustration in the bureaucracy involved and foot dragging on the part of Ontario Hydro.

An Embro-area farmer in the audience, currently putting power on the grid through his 30 kwh wind turbine generator, shared that he immediately lost the lower rate Ontario Hydro charges customers for the first portion of monthly electricity billed, on occasions when his farm used more power than it contributed through a net energy agreement with Hydro. "That is a disincentive," he added.

His pain was shared by speaker Carol Leeming. She and her husband Bob erected an 80 kwh wind generator on their mixed farming operation near Seaforth. In addition to waiting several weeks for Hydro to connect their system to the grid, the cost of that connection was three times their estimate for the service.

"We had no where else to go with the hook up," said Leeming "We had to pay it."

In total the eight month project cost $250,000 including erection of a 40-metre high tower refurbished from Holland. Payback is expected at 10 to 15 years, depending on the rising price of electricity and how much wind blows to generate power.

At least the Lemmings did get connected to the grid. There was concern expressed by speaker Cornell Feenstra, registered master electrician and electrical contractor to community based wind co-operatives, that the infrastructure in certain areas of the province may not allow larger generating systems to connect. This specifically involves southwestern Ontario where a combination of aging infrastructure and power distribution lines being restricted to 60 per cent capacity could be limiting factors.

It was suggested by one audience member that spare capacity was being reserved for increased nuclear power use which will continue to make up a larger portion of power generation in Ontario.

Rural land owners not having the resources to become involved in renewable energy do have the option of joining co-operatives created for that purpose. Representatives from two such organizations - Countryside Energy Co-operative based in Milverton and Co-op Val-Eo in the Lac-St.-Jean area of Quebec - relayed their experiences.

Val-Eo founder and general manger Patrick Cote said it is important for co-ops to create a local monopoly on land use for generating electricity so they are not squeezed out by the large domestic and foreign corporations which are rapidly becoming involved in renewable energy.

"They are not bad guys. They just know their business," said Cote.

Like any natural resource, the wind for power generation belongs to the community, said Cote adding "Community business means the best business practice."

He noted that wind power generation does not create a lot of jobs within the community but it provides an opportunity to put local capital to work.

He suggested keeping total control of any project during development for as long as possible, before making an agreement for the distribution of power with a licensed electricity distributor. The Val-Eo Co-op eventually reached an agreement with a Toronto-based distributor.

Participants at the day long event were able to compare the advantages and disadvantages of main renewable energy sources examined - wind, bio gas and water.

The bio gas digester on the Stanton farm, setting up to eventually milk 2,000 cows, will capture enough methane gas to power a converted diesel generator that could supply one third of all Ilderton's electricity needs, said Fortune, at a 300 kwh capacity.

He pointed out that while wind turbines need the wind to blow to create electricity, bio gas digesters work 24 hours a day regardless of weather conditions.

The methane gas can also be "cleaned up" and put into natural gas pipelines for distribution to end customers, similar to electricity distribution.

The environmental advantages of renewable energy were a high priority among those already involved in creating "a green economy" in rural Ontario. Carbon credits for reducing gas emissions will become more valuable in the future, said Fortune.

However, he noted that Ontario Hydro is already trying to "scoop up" those credits, another disincentive. "I say stop Hydro from taking away those credits."

Germany is a world leader in on-farm power generation with 6,000 on-farm bio gas digesters generating 640 mega watts. Twenty per cent of the crops produced there are used for energy production.

The Ontario Minsitry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has made a limited amount of funding available for renewable energy products (20-project limit.) Initial capital costs are high with no mature data on the actual cost of power generation because of the industry's infancy.

This has made lending institutions quite cautious so far in getting involved. Further, environmental benefits do not have a column entry on cash flow charts to date.

Hydro is offering contracts of up to 20 years fixed payment schedule, taking inflation into account.

For the industry to move ahead politicians will have to exert pressure on the bureaucracy to streamline the process, said Kris Stevens, Policy and Communications, Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA). An impact study is required for any project over 10 kwh, paid for by applicants.

He urged farmers and rural land owners not to be intimidated by the complexity of renewable energy projects or discouraged by the bureaucracy involved as several organizations have been formed to assist Ontario's energy pioneers.

John Kieran, with the Ministry of Energy's Conservation and Distribution Energy Branch, said that although farm businesses represent about two per cent of all business numbers in the province, 30 per cent of applications for renewable energy project participation have been submitted by farmers.

Alternative source 'Holy Grail' for future: U of G prof, Rob Ferguson, July 04.

TORONTO: The Ontario government is pouring another $7.5 million into research for biofuels that can be made from agricultural waste like corn husks and manure instead of food crops.

With concerns mounting that biofuels are taking food out of people's mouths and pushing prices higher, the government yesterday announced $5 million for a new biofuels institute at the University of Western Ontario in London.

Another $2.5 million will go toward a demonstration project on a farm outside of London that is turning manure and waste water into biogas, producing enough to power about 800 homes.

One scientist active in the field said the first generation of biofuels, such as ethanol based on the sugar in kernels of corn, has been relatively easy to develop, but the goal is to find a more efficient way of developing fuels from waste, such as corn husks and stalks, which aren't used as food.

"It's a whole lot trickier," University of Guelph professor Anthony Clarke said, noting it is more difficult to isolate the energy in cellulose -- the material in stalks and husks that gives the plant its strength -- than it is to extract the energy contained within the sugars of the kernel.

He called that process the "Holy Grail" for researchers involved in the quest for new fuels to replace fossil-based fuels.

"We need to boost the efficiency and make it cost effective ... a breakthrough could come tomorrow, or it could take another five years," he added.

The biogas project, located at Stanton Farms near the hamlet of Ilderton, is a collaboration between the University of Western Ontario, the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo. It uses a biodigester system that turns manure and waste water into a gas that can be used as an energy source.

Aside from working on fuels, the new Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternate Resources at Western's experimental field station will look at ways to use a process called pyrolysis for turning agricultural waste such as corn husks into organic insecticides, fertilizers and pesticides.

There is a huge potential for biofuels using tonnes and tonnes of plant material that is otherwise going to waste, said Clarke, who is working on a $600,000, three-year study on how to break down cellulose in plants into fuel, funded in part by the Ontario government.

Garbage dumps, he adds, are full of materials containing cellulose that have the potential to generate energy if the right technologies can be developed. But Clarke said such biofuels are a "stopgap measure" to replace oil, gasoline and natural gas for the time being.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr, July/August 08.

July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly
What the Internet is doing to our brains

"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep - space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances — literary types, most of them — many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking — perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter - a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies” — the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities — we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.

The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.

When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.

The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, The New York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives — or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts — as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.

About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions — an “algorithm,” we might say today — for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.

More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography — his “system,” as he liked to call it — was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”

Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method” — the perfect algorithm — to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California — the Googleplex — is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.

Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people — or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web — the more links we click and pages we view — the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link — the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong — the new technology did often have the effects he feared — but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’ — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut — “I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid” — and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

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