Saturday, November 24, 2012

Magnetic Levitation Trains

One trend in transportation that may have a major affect on the future is the Maglev (magnetic levitation) train.  This technology uses magnetism to levitate and propel the train and trains can travel at 350mph or more (Halal, 2008).  The jury is still out on whether the technology will succeed.  China has installed maglev trains successfully and other countries are considering installing them. The technology costs about $50 to $75 million per mile which is expensive and so some countries are cancelling their plans and reverting back to traditional high speed rail. The energy required to operate both traditional rail and maglev are similar since most of the energy is used to overcome air resistance.
Magnetic Levitation Train
 The forces that are in play for Maglev trains are economics and convenience.   Economically even though they are more costly to build, they are far cheaper to maintain and operate.  This is because traditional rail uses wheels with bearings that wear out and tracks that experience wear and tear.  If government and private industry is able to look beyond short term expense and concentrate on long term costs, the maglev trains will succeed economically. Convenience is an important factor on whether a technology will succeed and, in this case, the maglev trains are faster than conventional trains.  When installed in places where speed is a factor such as between two towns or a town and an airport, maglev trains will be well received by the busy public.




Halal, W. E. (2008). Technology's Promise. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems - Week 6

One area of research that may become the breakthrough technology in the near future is Micromachines, also called Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) (Halal, 2008).  These are tiny electro-mechanical devices that can perform functions in very small applications.  They are so small that they are produced using photolithography and etching to build the device in layers.  Besides the mechanical nature of the devices, they also generally contain a small microcontroller which is used to control the device and take feedback measurements.

MEMS Video

Some of the uses of MEMS technology include inertial sensors, actuators, accelerometers and gyroscopes (Sandia National Labs, 2008).  There are also biological and fluid oriented MEMS devices which can sample fluids on a micro scale.  MEMS technology can also be used to create tiny resonators and oscillators.  MEMS devices are also making breakthroughs in the field of optics.
MEMS Drive Gears

 MEMS Optical Shutter
 The future for this kind of device appears to be bright as devices become smaller and smarter.  There is speculation that some MEMS devices may be made to be smaller than a grain of sand and be able to transmit RF messages to communicate with a host (Halal, 2008). There is no reason to doubt the future of MEMS devices because its development follows the same trend as silicon devices.  One force that will determine the future of MEMS is technological.  There are limitations on MEMS capabilities just like there are limits on silicon technology.  This means that miniaturization will continue to a point and then hit a wall as it approaches atomic limits.  Another force will be economic.  Certain fields of endeavor have nearly unlimited budgets to research and develop MEMS technology including defense and to some extend medical applications. As the government budgets tighten, however, this may slow down research efforts.



Halal, W. E. (2008). Technology's Promise. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Sandia National Labs. (2008). MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS). Retrieved November 5, 2012, from Sandia National Laboratories:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Creating a New Agora to Overcome Spreadthink and Groupthink

The Agora was a central location in ancient Greek cities where people assembled and  decisions were made.  It has been suggested that we return to the concept of coming together to make better democratic decisions in a “New Agora” (Schreibman & Christakis, 2007).  The authors combine a number of collaborative methods to overcome known problems in group thinking and even in larger settings such as in democracy as a whole.  They point to problems such as Spreadthink where individual opinions in a group are watered down to the point where the decisions that are made are not in line with what anyone in the group would actually want.  Similarly, Groupthink is the name for what can happen in group settings where group pressures cause the group to lose touch with realistic thinking and even sometimes moral judgment.  To overcome these kinds of problems the authors indicate that facilitators of groups need to institute methodologies in the decision-making process so that the group converges on a consensus that makes sense.  Thus they collect a number of proven techniques and use them in a systematic way.
The Structured Design Dialogue Process (SDDP or SDP) is one technique that is discussed which spells out a system for defining a problem space around a critical triggering question and then formulating a group solution through a carefully laid out sequence of steps as illustrated by the author of that technique (Christakis).  The steps are illustrated in the picture provided by the author:

The SDP Process

The system helps to guide a team through a decision-making exercise by providing steps that the team can follow.  They start with a “complex problem” and generate a trigger question as a group that the team must focus on.  Each team member then provides his own ideas to answer the question and the ideas are posted for all to see. In the next round each person gets to answer questions about their ideas from the other group member which forces the team to define terms and understand the perspective of the others in the group while clustering ideas into groups and then determining the relationships between the ideas.  This relationship is called a “tree of influence” where the team decides which items have influence over other items.  This then evolves into a “tree of meaning” where they now understand the problem(s) more completely and can come up with group decisions more clearly.
There are forces that prevent widespread adoption of good collaboration techniques.  First, there is an educational problem where many facilitators have been trained poorly or have not been trained at all in leadership.  This causes them to rely on behaviors that are not constructive in group thinking.  Another force that must be overcome is cultural where it is naturally counter-intuitive to allow all of the members in a group to participate in an equal amount in making contributions during structured thinking meetings.


Christakis, A. (n.d.). The SDP Process. Retrieved October 24, 2012, from Harness Collective Wisdom:
Schreibman, V., & Christakis, A. N. (2007). New Agora: New Geometry of Languaging and New Technology of Democracy: The Structured Design Dialogue Process. International Journal of Applied Systemic Studies , 15-31.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Week 4 - Delphi Method Versus Nominal Group Technique

The Delphi Method and the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) are both techniques for achieving consensus within a group.  The Delphi method was created to make accurate predictions of the future while NGT was developed to prioritize issues within a group.  Both techniques are iterative in nature where the groups make initial assessments and then refine them as evaluations are shared within the group.  The Delphi Method can have closed collaboration where a single set of individuals work toward consensus or open collaboration where new people are brought into the evaluation as needed.
The techniques differ in some aspects.  The Delphi Method is usually used for longer term forecasting that is more abstract in nature and can take much longer to achieve consensus as team members share data sometimes via mail or email over a period of time.  NGT is usually used to achieve consensus within a couple of hours as team members quantify their opinions numerically (using for example sticky notes) and the values are ranked and summarized.  Sometimes smaller teams achieve numerical consensus and then these results are compiled into a larger group.

NGT participants quantify using sticky notes

I would use the Delphi Method to perform big picture forecasting where the subject matter is very broad and requires time to think and research the topic (Community and Economic Development).  Inherent in the Delphi Method is the social force.  Some people produce better answers when they are anonymous. As the topic begins to focus on certain technologies I would broaden the participation and allow open collaboration so that subject matter experts could be brought in to add to the discussion.
A force that would move me to use NGT is circumstantial and in this case the circumstance is time limitation.  NGT would be useful for things like course evaluations or problem solving within a small group where the problem is more narrowly focused so that consensus could be achieved in a short time frame.


Community and Economic Development. (n.d.). Modified Delphi Technique. Retrieved October 23, 2012, from University of Illinois: Step6/Delphi%20Technique.pdf

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Floating Algae Pods

Earlier this year Jonathan Trent gave a talk on a proposed scheme to create energy using "floating algae pods."

Example Floating Algae Pod

 He notes that micro algae can produce anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year.  This is in contrast to other agricultural methods that produce no more than 50 gallons in the same time frame.

One reason that the scheme has potential is that many waste water treatment plants are close to large bodies of water where they allow the waste water to empty into the water.  Instead he proposes to collect the waste water in membranes and allow them to float until the sun allows the algae to grow.  The algae would then consume CO2 and create oxygen and fuel.

There are two primary forces that affect whether this techonology will take hold; namely, environmental and economic.

He indicates that there is no danger of an environmental disaster because the worst that would happen - the bags could break and allow the waste water to escape - is what already happens now as it flows freely into the water.

There is doubt whether the method is economically viable where one needs to get more out of the system than is put into it.  He proposes using the floating membranes to host fisheries and other things to help with their economic viability.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Internet of Things (week2)

The Internet of Things is is one of the emerging technologies that are expected to prevail in the four to five year timeframe as identified by the New Media Consortium. Now that IPv6 is taking over, the address space for items on the internet has greatly increased. This allows billions of devices to be directly addressed including miniature smart sensors and other devices. These devices can provide environmental sensing and device tracking among other benefits. Additionally other technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC) allows for contactless communication between devices that are in close proximity.

(Picture created by myself using Visio)

The report claims that these devices do not need a power supply. This may be true in the sense that they get parrasitic power from the host systems that they are attached to, or possibly they contain battery power that allows them to operate for the desired mission life before the battery drains. Alternatively they might be getting solar power if the environment allows for it. But I believe that one limiting force in adopting the Internet of Things is technological and the power source is that limiting factor.

The second limiting force for adoption of the Internet of Things is cultural. People are becoming more accepting of pervasive technology with the use of electronic devices but having devices around every corner monitoring our lives may take longer to find acceptance because people still like privacy and may see the devices as an intrusion especially if employed by government or law enforcement.

I believe that the selection of this technology is the least relevant to teaching, learning, and creative inquiry than the others that made the list. If you describe learning in a broad way such as collecting information then this technology would be relevant. The Delphi approach that was used probably had a positive impact on the selection of this technology. The NMC picks an advisory board and supplies a percentage of new people every year to provide a fresh perspective. The members look at current trends and articles to select the potential technologies and narrowed in on this topic as a leading one.