Monday, January 21st, 2008

The SkySail is getting some press, including this graphic from the Telegraph.

The full article offers more:

During the journey from Bremen to Venezuela, the crew will deploy a SkySail, a 160 square metre kite which will fly more than 600ft above the vessel, where winds are stronger and more consistent than at sea level.

Its inventor, Stephan Wrage, a 34-year-old German engineer, claims the kite will significantly reduce carbon emissions, cutting diesel consumption by up to 20 per cent and saving £800 a day in fuel costs. He believes an even bigger kite, up to 5,000 square metres, could result in fuel savings of up to 35 per cent.


Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Behold the Robopult:

Every hacker wants a budget to do bigger, cooler hacks. Well, we got our budget, all $1000 of it, and decided to turn a borrowed industrial robot into a catapult, a hack we’d been hoping to do for a long, long time. We’d been joking about throwing heavy objects with one of these robots ever since we saw the payload specs and an anvil in the shop.

We wanted to make a catapult that could destroy a car with bowling balls from at least 80 feet away, throw fireballs, and be controlled through a computer vision system so it could be aimed from a laptop. Result? Success.

It’s a shame the software targeting software didn’t quite work out:

When we got to the desert and actually threw some bowling balls I quickly realized two things:
  • The range of the projectile scaled strangely, at best, and the robot threw past our 100′ tape, so we would have limited data for a scaling function. For example, dropping the speed of the swing to 75% yielded about half of the distance of 100% power, but 87.5% power yielded about two-thirds of the distance of 100% power.
  • I didn’t bring a long enough usb cable so my laptop and I had to be within 3 feet of the base of robot to hit the serial send command. This wasn’t going to happen; I was not going to chance bowling ball-induced death by a catapult that was over 26′ tall at full swing.

Our solution was to abandon ranging, try targeting a few times by just manually punching in the numbers from the laptop into the controller. We finally just gave in to manually typing in the target angles into the robot, which made for some amusing trial and error.

(Hat tip to mon père.)

Girl, you’ll be a woman sooner than expected

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Girl, you'll be a woman sooner than expected — either because of estrogen-mimicking chemicals or obesity:

“We’re not backing up all events in puberty,” says Sandra Streingraber, biologist and visiting scholar at Ithaca College. “We’re backing up the starting point.” She has examined the research on female puberty and compiled a summary in an August 2007 report called “The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls.” The report was financed by the Breast Cancer Fund, an advocacy group interested in exploring environmental causes of that disease.

Earlier breast development is now so typical that the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society urged changing the definition of “normal” development. Until 10 years ago, breast development at age 8 was considered an abnormal event that should be investigated by an endocrinologist. Then a landmark study in the April 1997 journal Pediatrics written by Marcia Herman-Giddens, adjunct professor at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that among 17,000 girls in North Carolina, almost half of African Americans and 15% of whites had begun breast development by age 8. Two years later, the society suggested changing what it considered medically normal.

Detroit Public Schools Book Depository Roosevelt Warehouse

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

This scene from the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository Roosevelt Warehouse could come straight from a post-apocalyptic film — Escape from Detroit.

Of course, then it would be a scene of hope — A Tree Grows in Detroit. (In case you missed it, yes, that’s a tree growing inside the book repository.)

In War: Resolution

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

In In War: Resolution, Victor Davis Hanson claims that “what is missing from the national debate over the ‘worst’ war in our history is any appreciation of past American military errors — political, strategic, technological, intelligence, tactical — that nearly cost us victory in far more important conflicts.”

It’s a long list. He starts with intelligence failures:

American intelligence officers missed the almost self-evident Pearl Harbor attack, as an entire Japanese carrier group steamed unnoticed to within a few hundred miles of Hawaii. After fighting for four long years we were completely surprised by the Soviets’ efforts to absorb Eastern Europe. Almost no one had a clue about the Communist invasion of South Korea in June 1950 — or the subsequent Chinese entrance en masse into North Korea months later. Neither the CIA nor the State Department had much inkling that Saddam Hussein would gobble up Kuwait in August 1990.

We should remember that long before the WMD controversy, the triggers for American wars have usually been odd affairs, characterized by poor intelligence gathering and inept diplomacy — and thus endless controversy and conspiracy mongering: for example, the so-called Thornton affair that started the Mexican War; the defense and shelling of Fort Sumter; the cry of “Remember the Maine!” that heralded the Spanish-American War; the murky circumstances surrounding the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania that turned public opinion against the Kaiser; the Pearl Harbor debacle; an offhand remark in January 1950 by Secretary of State Dean Acheson that South Korea was outside our “defense perimeter”; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; and an American diplomat’s apparent signal of unconcern to Saddam Hussein immediately before he invaded Kuwait.

At the battlefield level, America’s intelligence failures are even more shocking. On April 6, 1862, Union forces at Shiloh allowed a large, noisy Confederate army under General Albert Sidney Johnston to approach unnoticed (by both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman) to within a few thousand yards of their front with disastrous results. Grant — still clueless as to the forces arrayed against him — compounded his error by sending an ambiguous message for reinforcements to General Lew Wallace, resulting in a critical delay of aid for several hours. Hundreds of Union soldiers died in the meantime. Following the battle Union generals knew even less concerning the whereabouts of the retreating, defeated Confederate forces and thus allowed them to escape in safety. The hard-won Union victory became an object of blame-gaming for the remainder of the 19th century.

Perhaps the two costliest intelligence lapses of World War II preceded the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa — both towards the end of the war, after radical improvements in intelligence methods and technology. Americans had no idea of the scope, timing, or aims of the massive German surprise attack through the Ardennes in December 1944, despite the battle-tested acumen of our two most respected generals, Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, and British and American intercepts of Wehrmacht messages. At Okinawa, American intelligence officers grievously underestimated the size, position, and nature of the Japanese deployment, and thus vastly overestimated the efficacy of their own pre-invasion bombing attacks. Yet Okinawa was not our first experience with island-hopping. It unfolded as the last invasion assault in the Pacific theater of operations — supposedly after the collective wisdom gleaned from Guadalcanal, the Marianas, Peleilu, the Philippines, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima had been well digested. Yet this late in the war, over 140,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or missing in the Ardennes and on Okinawa.

That’s just the beginning.

What Kenya tells us about Democracy in Africa

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Curzon looks at What Kenya tells us about Democracy in Africa, which is something Robert Kaplan pointed out years ago (in 1997) in Was Democracy Just a Moment?democracy works best when it emerges last:

Hitler and Mussolini each came to power through democracy. Democracies do not always make societies more civil — but they do always mercilessly expose the health of the societies in which they operate.
The lesson to draw is not that dictatorship is good and democracy bad but that democracy emerges successfully only as a capstone to other social and economic achievements.

He also cites an AFP report that Kenyan broadcast programs warning that ghosts would haunt thieves of looted property were more effective in returning stolen goods than the police:

Television footage showed fearful, if not shameful, looters and their accomplices returning beds, sofa sets and other items after rumours that victims had deployed witch doctors to punish the thieves.

Back to Kaplan:

Foreign correspondents in sub-Saharan Africa who equate democracy with progress miss this point, ignoring both history and centuries of political philosophy. They seem to think that the choice is between dictators and democrats. But for many places the only choice is between bad dictators and slightly better ones. To force elections on such places may give us some instant gratification. But after a few months or years a bunch of soldiers with grenades will get bored and greedy, and will easily topple their fledgling democracy. As likely as not, the democratic government will be composed of corrupt, bickering, ineffectual politicians whose weak rule never had an institutional base to start with: modern bureaucracies generally require high literacy rates over several generations. Even India, the great exception that proves the rule, has had a mixed record of success as a democracy, with Bihar and other poverty-wracked places remaining in semi-anarchy. Ross Munro, a noted Asia expert, has documented how Chinese autocracy has better prepared China’s population for the economic rigors of the post-industrial age than Indian democracy has prepared India’s.

I recommend reading the whole Kaplan piece, but I must cite another timely passage:

In 1993 Pakistan briefly enjoyed the most successful period of governance in its history. The government was neither democratic nor authoritarian but a cross between the two. The unelected Prime Minister, Moin Qureshi, was chosen by the President, who in turn was backed by the military. Because Qureshi had no voters to please, he made bold moves that restored political stability and economic growth. Before Qureshi there had been violence and instability under the elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto’s government was essentially an ethnic-Sindhi mafia based in the south; Sharif’s was an ethnic-Punjabi mafia from the geographic center. When Qureshi handed the country back to “the people,” elections returned Bhutto to power, and chaos resumed. Finally, in November of last year, Pakistan’s military-backed President again deposed Bhutto. The sigh of relief throughout the country was audible. Recent elections brought Sharif, the Punjabi, back to power. He is governing better than the first time, but communal violence has returned to Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. I believe that Pakistan must find its way back to a hybrid regime like the one that worked so well in 1993; the other options are democratic anarchy and military tyranny. (Anarchy and tyranny, of course, are closely related: because power abhors a vacuum, the one necessarily leads to the other. One day in 1996 Kabul, the Afghan capital, was ruled essentially by no one; the next day it was ruled by Taliban, an austere religious movement.)

Five Guys, Taking a Bigger Bite

Friday, January 18th, 2008

I hadn’t even heard of Five Guys until recently, but they’re clearly doing something right:

Four years ago, before franchising, Five Guys was just a little family burger operation with five locations and a steady, if cultish following, in Northern Virginia. Today the business is by some estimates heading toward $1 billion in value. Five Guys has 87 locations. Most are in the Washington region, but a hundred more will open along the East Coast this year, and another thousand are being phased in. Each store, the company says, pulls in about $1 million a year.

Their franchising strategy:

Thus, you can’t buy one Five Guys franchise. You have to buy at least five — essentially filling up a small territory. The current price for each one is $45,000, plus 6 percent of annual sales. By comparison, a new McDonald’s franchise fee is $45,000.

Requiring a large purchase of stores also, the Murrells said, attracts more professional owners. High-tech executives, former Marriott executives, and owners of fine restaurants have signed up. “They see something that’s a good opportunity,” said Moseley, who owns Five Guys franchises and works full time selling them for the company. “There’s a better than even chance to be really successful in something that belongs to you.”

How they make the food:

The Five Guys franchising contract is rather specific, stipulating the number of bacon strips (two) and pickles (four) placed on burgers should those items be requested. The Murrells send in secret customers to make sure, for instance, that the hand-cut French fries are shaken 15 times after seasoning. The Murrells have found through extensive study that this tactic takes off just the right amount of grease.

Also, after a burger is placed on the grill, it is to be flattened only once, so as not to squeeze out all the juice. Tyler Murrell was once a customer at a franchise store. He saw the grill man press down more than once on the meat. He leapt over the counter to stop him.

There is also a stipulation that franchises use Mount Olive pickles. “We have tasted every pickle that you could cut and slice and put in a jar,” Matt Murrell said. “We have been using the Mount Olive pickle for the last 10 years. It’s crunchy. If you eat pickles, you know there are sweet pickles, sour pickles, soft pickles, crunchy pickles. There’s all kinds of pickles, but we like the Mount Olive pickles.”

The Murrells, who bake the buns for all the stores, run the operation out of a warehouse in Lorton, with each son overseeing different parts of the business.

VC’s New Math: Does Less = More?

Friday, January 18th, 2008

VC's New Math: Does Less = More?

Mr. Thiel, the former CEO of online-payment company PayPal, is making waves in Silicon Valley with an investment strategy that differs significantly from the traditional approach. His company invests only modest amounts of money, sometimes just a few hundred thousand dollars, and focuses on entrepreneurs Mr. Thiel and his partners often know personally. He also takes an uncharacteristically hands-off approach to company management.
Mr. Thiel, who based Founders Fund in San Francisco rather than the traditional VC hotspot of Sand Hill Road in suburban Menlo Park, Calif., is structuring deals differently from how traditional venture capitalists do. Significantly, the fund often buys only a 5% or 10% stake in a company and sets up a special class of stock that start-up founders can sell while they are building their companies — and before venture-capital investors see profits. That way, the thinking goes, the company founders can reap some financial reward and stay motivated to build the company before an IPO or company sale, which can take years.

Some traditional investors don’t think founders should make money before backers do, since early paydays might distract them from the task at hand.

All of this is causing traditional VC firms to re-examine the way they invest in tiny tech start-ups. VC concerns including Trinity Ventures, for example, are now letting a few of their entrepreneurs “take money off the table” early on by selling stock.

Many big venture firms have also started looking at much smaller deals. Accel did six deals less than $1 million this year, although the company says that was in response to increasing valuations for larger-sized investments.

About a year ago, Charles River Ventures announced a program to offer $250,000 loans to fledgling Internet start-ups, far smaller than its usual investment size. Charles River is now also making equity investments in companies through its QuickStart program.

Partner George Zachary said his company launched the program because it was encountering many companies that didn’t need a traditional, multimillion-dollar VC investment and the attendant hand-holding.

Just how successful Mr. Thiel’s investing tactics are remains to be seen; Founders Fund hasn’t yet seen any payout from the Facebook stake. However, it recently collected a big return when one of its investments, computer-security and antispam concern IronPort Systems Inc., was sold to Cisco Systems Inc. for $830 million.

Atheism and Religion

Friday, January 18th, 2008

David Friedman looks at Atheism and Religion — and atheists’ arguments against religion:

A correspondent points me at a lecture by Richard Dawkins and two by Sam Harris, attacking religion in pretty strong terms. I’m also an atheist, but I think there are a number of problems with their arguments:

1. Dawkins describes religious belief as due entirely to faith and almost entirely inherited from one’s parents, scientific belief as due to rational and skeptical investigation. In doing that, he is implicitly comparing the average religious believer with the professional scientist — indeed, with the upper end of professional scientists. The average believer in evolution or relativity or whatever is no more able to provide a convincing account of the evidence and arguments for his position than the average religious believer — both of them hold their beliefs not because of rational investigation but because the people around them told them those things were true. And religious leaders, at least some of them, offer arguments for their positions which are based on more than just faith, whether or not those arguments are correct — offer the evidence of miracles, rational arguments such as those of Aquinas, and the like. It’s true that there is more rehashing of old arguments and less new argumentation in religion than in science — but then, religion is an older project than science, so presumably more of the relevant arguments have already been made.

If, after all, everyone got his religious beliefs from his parents, it’s hard to see how multiple sects could come into existence. At some point someone, Luther or Calvin or the founder of one or another of the multiple Islamic sects, concluded that his parents’ view was wrong, produced his own, and persuaded others to follow it instead of their parents’ views.

2. Dawkins complains about four year old children being labelled “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Hindu.” What he is ignoring is that religious labels identify communities as well as systems of belief. For many people the communal identification — “I am a member of this group” — is probably more important than the belief; there are surely lots of members of one Christian denomination or another who could not adequately explain the difference in beliefs between their denomination and others. Seen from this standpoint, it makes as much sense to describe a four year old child as “Christian” as it would to describe her as “French.”

I’m reminded of the story of the visitor to Northern Ireland who is asked by a local whether he is a Protestant or a Catholic. He replies that he is a Jew. To which the local responds with “Are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” The religious labels here have become primarily identifications of which faction you are a part of, not of what you believe.

It’s tempting to blame religion for a good deal of past violence, but it isn’t clear if the fundamental cause was religious beliefs or the tendency of humans to identify with groups. There’s been lots of violence between Catholics and Protestants or Christians and Muslims, but also between English and French or French and Germans. And the USSR, whose official religious doctrine was atheism, was also one of the most murderous states in history.

3. Harris, and I think also Dawkins, points out that there are lots of different religions, they disagree with each other, so they can’t all be true. That’s a persuasive argument against many religious positions taken literally. But it’s not a very persuasive argument against religion in general, because there is an obvious rebuttal.

One of the speakers, I think Dawkins, quotes J. B. S. Haldane’s speculation that the universe may be too complicated for us to understand. Similarly, it might be that religious truth is too difficult for us to fully understand. If so, different religions might each be giving a partial and imperfect view of the truth, narrowed down to what a human can make sense of.

Consider, for an obvious analogy, the scientific view of the nature of light. A critic could argue that some scientists describe light as particles, some as waves, and they cannot both be true. The response is that they can both be true — we can write down a mathematical description of light that is consistent with all of the experimental evidence. What we can’t do is to clearly intuit that description. We can intuit the wave version, we can intuit the particle version, to our intuition they seem inconsistent, but in fact each is a partial description of a single consistent reality.

Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God — including one I am married to. Part comes from weaknesses I can perceive in the foundations for my own view of the world. At some point, I think, each of us is using the superb pattern recognition software that evolution has equipped us with to see a coherent pattern in the world around us — and since the problem is a harder one than the software was designed to deal with, it isn’t that surprising that we sometimes get different answers.

Abu Dhabi: East Leans West

Friday, January 18th, 2008

In Abu Dhabi: East Leans West, Judith Miller looks at the largest of the United Arab Emirates:

Abu Dhabi’s turning point, al-Fahim observes, was August 1966, when Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan came to power with British support. Two years later, when the British, largely for financial reasons, announced plans to withdraw from the Trucial States — the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, including Abu Dhabi, that they’d controlled for 170 years — Zayed doggedly sought an alliance with the other sheikhs. Bahrain and Qatar opted for independence, but Zayed wooed the others into a federation by promising to share oil with the five emirates that had none, by granting their ruling families considerable autonomy, and by promising to divide key federal posts among the families. So while his clan, the al-Nahyans, continues to rule Abu Dhabi (the sheikh himself died in 2004), the Maktoums have long presided over Dubai, free to pursue their own economic vision (which has been to turn their emirate, producing fewer than 100,000 barrels of oil per day to Abu Dhabi’s 2.7 million, into a world-class financial hub). Zayed’s commitment to his pledges gave the UAE political stability; Emiratis today revere him as their George Washington. And that stability in turn helped Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE make effective use of the area’s abundant oil and grow very, very wealthy.

The tiny native population — Emiratis are just under 20 percent of the UAE’s 4.5 million people, with the rest of the population made up of guest workers — has fully shared in the prosperity. Per-capita income for the 420,000 or so Abu Dhabians, for instance, is a healthy $52,500. And until the 1980s, when land finally ran out, Abu Dhabi gave each citizen free property to develop as he saw fit. “For Emiratis, there is free education, free health care, and many other benefits,” notes Yousef al-Otaiba, 34, the director of international affairs for the crown prince’s office.

Oil Econ 101

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Arnold Kling wrote Oil Econ 101 a few years ago, but his point still stands that “oil is oil”:

I teach economics in high school. Here is a good question for an introductory course:
If the United States currently satisfies 10 percent of its demand for oil with imports from Saudi Arabia, by what percentage must the U.S. reduce its consumption in order to be 100 percent independent of Saudi oil?

If you answer “10 percent,” you get an F. If we reduce oil consumption by 10 percent, then we will not cut 100 percent of our imports from Saudi Arabia. We cannot arrange to consume only American oil and no Saudi oil. Oil is oil. If we reduce demand by 10 percent, we probably will reduce our demand for Saudi oil by 10 percent, not by 100 percent.

(Actually, oil is not exactly the same everywhere. Saudi oil is somewhat cheaper to extract and refine than other oil. What this means is that if we reduce our demand for oil, the impact is likely to be felt somewhat more on other oil, and somewhat less on Saudi oil. Lowering our demand by 10 percent might not lower Saudi oil exports much at all. But we can leave that aside for now. Just keep in mind that oil is oil.)

But what if we passed a law against importing Saudi oil? In that case, the Saudis would export their oil to us via Venezuela. They might not physically use this channel, but if the Venezuelans sell more oil to the U.S. and the Saudis sell more to other customers no longer served by Venezuelans, it has the same effect.
The correct answer to the question of how much the United States would have to reduced oil consumption in order to drive our demand for Saudi oil to zero is 100 percent. Only if we stop using oil altogether can we be sure that we are not contributing to the demand for Saudi oil. Oil is oil, so that any demand for oil creates demand for Saudi oil.

Inflation or Deflation?

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Tyler Cowen makes a point about inflation and deflation:

Any single year there has been inflation, from one year to the next.

From 1900 to 2008 there has been radical deflation, for instance in the Sears catalog. You’d rather spend 10K in the modern catalog than in the old catalog.

David Brin’s Two-Dimensional Political Landscape

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

David Brin offers up his own Two-Dimensional Political Landscape:

In my two dimensional political landscape there is still left versus right. Only now we shall do something unprecedented and actually define our terms. Taking only one of the many and often contradictory attributes commonly associated with the old linear model, let’s assign the horizontal axis the task of depicting a person’s attitude towards personal property. In other words, the far left is where we’ll assign people who consider personal property a suspect, if not an inherently evil notion. The further to the right you go, the more property-holding is seen as innate and irrevocable, one of the fundamental rights of man.

Along our second (vertical) axis we shall then array various opinions regarding State or Private Coercion, or the desirability of some authority with the might to impose its will (perhaps for the “common good”) upon recalcitrant individuals or competing systems.

One advantage of figure two over the old linear model, is apparent at a glance. It separates natural foes who should never have been lumped together in the first place.

Stalin believed nobody should own anything, but that he could and should feel free to torture his opponents to death. Therefore, he is placed in the upper left corner as both coercive and anti-property. Ferdinand Marcos, Anastasio Somoza and Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, ran their nations as personal fiefdoms, enforcing programs of inherited family wealth and power to benefit their oligarchic supporters. They were classic coercive aristocrats of the kind that dominated nearly all human cultures since agriculture and metallurgy came along, feudalists who believed they could by right both torture and own people. That puts them at the upper right.

(Want to learn a magic trick? How to make most dogmatic libertarians turn purple? Show them what we’ve drawn so far, and ask—WHICH type of coercive repressor destroyed freedom and markets in most cultures, across 4,000 years of recorded history? Taken across that span, it has been propertarian wealth-accumulating aristocracies that were the market-repressors, 99% of the time! True, we grew up terrified by anti-propertarian (socialist) tyrants, like Stalin. But these were, in fact, a recent invention. A mutation of the older, more pervasive pattern of owner-aristocrats. But, having thrown that idea-grenade, let’s get back to model-making.)

Let’s look at a few other examples. For example, Hitler’s position in the top center in no way makes him “moderate.” This chart simply portrays the syndicalist economic program the National Socialist Worker’s Party (Nazis) imposed upon both labor and factory owners, soon after it killed off all opponents and confiscated the goods of non-Aryans. Their rule was one of unparalleled horror, but Nazi opinion about personal property was indisputably far more centrist (with syndical-socialist elements) than old-line Marxists would have us believe.

This at once illuminates a lesson which the old model conveniently disguised, and yet one of vital importance to us all—that the center, too, can go mad.1 The concept of populist madness is an especially important one for Americans. Our Jeffersonian traditions seem to protect us against being suborned by the radicalisms of the far left or right, since our myths teach us to despise aristocrats, while even the most average middle American has only contempt for “the masses” (who are quite distinct from “the people”).

Life After People

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

The History Channel will be premiering Life After People next Monday (January 21, 2008), and I’m afraid I’m powerless to resist its siren song:

Abandoned skyscrapers would, after hundreds of years, become “vertical ecosystems” complete with birds, rodents and even plant life. One small animal might be responsible for bringing down the Hoover Dam hydroelectric plant. Swelled rivers, crumbling bridges and buildings, grizzly bears in California and herds of buffalo returning to the Great Western Plains: In a world without humans, these would be the visual hallmarks. Our cars would shrivel to piles of dust, our house pets would be overtaken by flourishing wildlife and most of the records of our human story — books, photos, records — would fade quickly, leaving little evidence that we ever existed.

Watch the many promo videos.

This topic has, of course, been recently addressed in The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

Rebuilding Everything

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

David Brin prepared a pitch for a reality show I would definitely watch — Rebuilding Everything:

Imagine a “reality” TV show with a more elevated aim and loads of attractive content for the mind… but also heaps of tension and drama.

Picture “Survivor” meets “The 1900 House” meets “Junkyard Wars”… then throw in lots of fascinating Discovery Channel riffs… along with a dash of “The Flintstones”. Then add a sensation that viewers are actually learning something of value, becoming a little more capable and knowing about their own culture.

In the ultimate challenge, competitive teams race each other, starting from scratch to rebuild civilization!

Participants begin almost naked, except for a handheld web-communicator device — a top-end, broadband web accessory — that lets them consult with “the gods”… in other words with experts anywhere in the world. Editors will splice these capsule “how to” lessons with contestants’ fumbling efforts to follow the advice.

Instead of just surviving, they must chip flint, make spears and arrows and traps, stitch clothing from hides (no animals will be killed directly by the show). Once the Stone Age has been conquered, the contestants move on to re-invent pottery, weaving and agriculture — then mining and smithing copper ore, then bronze, iron and so on. Any next step must be taken by using technologies achieved at the previous level.

Once they succeed at a task, it is assumed that their “civilization” (their team) has that technology from then on. They will be provided any tools they require from that level, in order to attempt the next. (A ready supply of primitive tools can be found, easily available, from many amateur groups online. And more support groups may be spawned by the show itself.)