Local, Not Legal, Tender
We'll range a little further afield than usual today and take a look at one of humankind's most ancient technologies: money. Money is, by definition, a common means of exchange. It's a convenient marker (traditionally paper or coin) that people agree to use (and that governments back up and administer) instead of bartering goods and services directly.
Because national governments have typically administered money systems, various nations have different currencies. The more widely accepted a currency is, the more options people have in spending it. Countries (such as those in the European Union) are trying to grease the wheels of commerce by eliminating the inconveniences inherent in converting money from one currency to another. But small communities of various sorts are realizing something else altogether about currencies: the more widely accepted a currency is, the faster community resources can exit a community, taking with them the value of community-based commerce.
Folks in Ithaca, New York, are experimenting with a local currency called Ithaca HOURS. The governing organization issues five denominations: 2 HRS, 1 HR, 1/2 HR, 1/4 HR, and 1/8 HR. The 1-HR bill is worth $10.00 because ten dollars per hour is the average of wages/salaries in the local county. (Ithaca is the home of Cornell University.) This means that farm workers working for local organic farmers who pay with Ithaca HOURS receive the highest farm labor wages in the world--the buying power of $10.00 per hour. The farmers benefit by the HOUR's loyalty to local agriculture. Although professionals are allowed to charge multiple Ithaca HOURS for an hour's services, the currency tends to put a damper on the amount charged for high-end services. The currency also tends to foster acts of community and generosity not typical of communities using only national currency.
Ithaca HOURS can buy plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, roofing, nursing, chiropractic care, child care, car and bike repair, food, eyeglasses, firewood, gifts, and thousands of other products. Businesses accepting HOURS include restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, two large locally owned grocery stores, farmer's market vendors, and the Chamber of Commerce.
The organization has issued over $58,000 of its own local paper money to more than 1,200 participants since 1991. At least 2,000 people, including 300 businesses, have earned and spent HOURS. About $2 million of local trading has been added to what Paul Glover, guiding light to the effort, calls the Grassroots National Product. Loans of HOURS, ranging in value from $50 to $1,000, are interest free. HOURS are completely legal because they are taxable income when traded for professional goods or services. The Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. federal authorities assure people that no prohibitions on use of local currency exist as long as the currency does not look like federal dollars, denominations are at least $1.00 in value, and the currency's value is regarded as taxable income. The local district attorney has declared the currency a financial instrument, assuring legal protection against counterfeiting.
Ithaca HOURS are admittedly a tiny part of the Ithaca economy, so a list of benefits that the system brings to the community is very limited in scope. Given that caveat, however, the list includes expanding the local money supply, promoting local shopping, doubling the local minimum wage to $10.00 for some people, creating zero-interest loans, and (most important, probably) cultivating a sense of community in the commercial transactions of participants. A local currency helps people realize that they are transacting business with a neighbor, not a global conglomerate.
The advent of electronic communications and networking has already transformed money into a largely electronic phenomenon--more than 70 percent of monetary transactions already take place electronically thanks to the massive networks that banks and financial institutions have set up to conduct business with each other. The coming implementation of consumer electronic commerce and electronic cash systems will only increase the facility with which money can speed around the world and out of the local community. The Ithaca HOURS effort, in spite of its humble beginnings, is an interesting discontinuity, a blip on the radar screen that is in the quadrant opposite the global trend line. It exists because people in Ithaca are looking at economics in relation to their community rather than on a strictly personal level. Without getting into speculation about what it might mean for every town and city in the United States to have a distinctive currency, let's just take note of the fact that people in local communities are becoming aware that money they spend and send away to corporate behemoths contributes very little to their local quality of life.
And don't forget: Although electronic communities are ideally structured to build and administer "local" currencies, they're also even more susceptible to cooptation than our traditional federal currency has been.
Ithaca HOURS have generated a lot of interest nationwide and offer a Hometown Money Starter Kit that provides information and instructions on setting up and running a local currency. It's available for $25.00 from Ithaca Money, Box 6578, Ithaca, NY, 14851.
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Fuzzy on the Concept
What could be a better forum for a software workshop than the Internet? Over the summer, the Society of Fuzzy Theory sponsored an online Workshop on Soft computing. Submitting a "paper" to an online workshop consists of sending in a Web address. (The organizers encouraged participants also to provide addresses for printable postscript versions of research findings.) The workshop solicited and received presentations in areas such as fuzzy logic, neural nets, genetic-algorithm theory and applications, evolutionary strategy, and rough sets. These papers included applications in domains as varied as spacecraft structural stability, auditory nerve fiber simulation, route planning, and the cutting-stock problem: how to avoid leftover dough when you're using a cookie-cutter process.
The organizers also set up special sessions on fuzzy logic in autonomous robotics, evolutionary electronics (including evolving hardware), and genetic programming. A special session on problem solving included descriptions of work on applications such as designing integrated circuits and optimizing maintenance schedules.
Take a look at this Java-based site that demonstrates genetic algorithms. The program evolves algorithms for solving a simple maze that appears on screen.
Takeshi Furuhashi of Nagoya University, one of the organizers, observed in retrospect that 100 papers may have been too many. Although discussion forums existed, participation in them was limited. Furuhashi believes that about 20 papers is a more appropriate number for a workshop and that more user-friendly software and interfaces would increase discussion participation.
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We gathered a couple of not-so-trivial gleanings from the front page Wall Street Journal article on Monsanto (24 October 1996, page 1). First, Monsanto's genetically engineered soybean seeds encourage the use of herbicides instead of reducing the need for them. (Doesn't quite correspond to the purported benefits that the technology proponents used to sell the public on genetic engineering technology.) Because Monsanto's seeds are genetically engineered to resist Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, farmers can use lots of the stuff on any field planted with the company's Roundup Ready soybeans. And farmers have to sign statements promising to use only Roundup when they buy Roundup Ready seeds.
The second item is that farmers using the seed must also be willing to submit to inspections of their property by Monsanto representatives who will make sure farmers are not saving some of their crop to use as seed next year. Monsanto gets 25 percent of the cost of each bag of seed as a technology fee, which the company needs in order to recover the money it spent developing the product.
Welcome to the world of intellectual property costs, all you farmers out there.
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Human Genome Work in Progress
The Human Genome Project and the U.S. National Library of Medicine have announced the availability on the Internet of a map of human chromosomes that specifies locations of currently available gene-based sequence tagged site markers. The project has, so far, tallied the positions of about 16,000 of the 50,000 to 100,000 genes that encode proteins and may lead to treatments for many human diseases. The National Library of Medicine is in charge of keeping the map updated with additional data as it comes in.
Just the fact that a gene exists on the map doesn't mean, however, that researchers know its functional or biochemical characteristics. The research organizations sponsoring the site hope that by making the map available, even in incomplete form, researchers will be able more easily to isolate particular genes and their effects. A researcher who has tracked a gene to a particular region of a chromosome can now consult the genome map and stands a 20% chance of being spared the long, laborious process of isolating and analyzing a gene that other researchers have already identified.
This development is part of the unfolding of an unprecedented global research effort. Network technology is accelerating the pace of dissemination and development. The intended goals involve the identification and elimination of disease. What will be the unintended fallout? The current Science is a special issue on the human genome and features, in addition to the technical articles, commentary of some of the controversial issues in rapid, non-peer-reviewed release and dissemination of sequencing data.
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Using technology originally developed to remove image noise that the earth's atmosphere creates in telescopes, Digimarc Corp. has licensed a digital watermark system to Adobe Systems Inc. for its Photoshop product. Digimarc will use the algorithms it developed to remove image noise to introduce a controlled form of noise into digital images. The system manipulates the luminance value of pixels in a random pattern that the human eye can't perceive. In addition to distinguishing the image permanently for copyright purposes, the "noise" will contain a user ID distinct to the creator, copyright information, and "adult-content" rating information. The watermarks survive all normal edit processes such as cropping, mode changes, blurring, and filtering. They're even still readable after printing and scanning so that creators can check if a printed version was originally theirs by scanning it. Professionals can identify which image is watermarked when viewed side by side with the original, but Digimarc claims that no one has been able to tell whether an image was watermarked or not when viewed alone.
The system will appear as PhotoMarc in version 4.0 of Adobe's Photoshop software. Checking for a Digimarc copyright will be an integral step of the process every time Photoshop opens an image. Image creators will have to license a user ID from Digimarc for $150 per year. The company will also offer a Watermark reader that will have the ability to provide viewers with the originator's contact info (including a Web address) or even launch a browser for access to the image owner's Web page.
The system is a good example of a creative reappraisal and repositioning of a technology--having developed algorithms to reduce image noise, the company threw the whole process into reverse gear in order to encode information into photos in a transparent way. Ignore the conventional wisdom that noise is always something to eliminate.
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Some companies are experimenting with combining changing price lists with corporate email showing customer/prospect requests. They could also be combined with projects up for bid from publications like Commerce Business Daily (for government projects) and onsale.com and other Web-based transactional services.
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