Nov. 5, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Greenbacks for green energy: Based on this week's election results, President Kerry won't be able to institute the Alternative Energy Prize, as projected in our prize-winning political science-fiction story. But why shouldn't we proceed with a prize for new alternative-energy technologies regardless of who's in office?

Several Cosmic Log readers responded to the idea this week:

Mike S., Moline, Ill.: "I don't know about the rest of you, but the "AE" Prize sounds like a great idea. This should be an actual idea in play!! To focus it to fuel cells only isn't that appealing to me, but the concept ... "alternative energy" ... is great. I know I can't start this, but it should be done. Start a movement ... A great idea should be nurtured, encouraged and brought to light. Look what the X Prize has, or will, do! This should not die!!"

Don Arrasmith, application engineer, RA Mueller Inc., Cincinnati: "There is no legitimate reason  not to fund such a prize.  With the success of the X Prize and the potential for so much more practical applications of an AE fuel, I would personally chip in to pay for such a prize.  (Unfortunately at my income level my single contribution won't fund a very interesting contest)  I have done the math and know the cost break point for an AE fuel car for my commute to work.  To date it is still slightly out of reach. ... Give us a better way to power our cars, SUVs and homes and you have the attention of millions.  The government is slow to move toward new energy as long as we have such a large and effective production and distribution system for existing fuels.  The automakers don't push the envelope enough.  Show the people how to start the revolution themselves and you'll have something."

Ann: "It makes sense, so it wouldn't stand a chance. Why, it would someday make our country self-sufficient!! Then, where would the big fossil fuel companies be? Science could do wonders in this field if let loose — and helped along by federal funds."

Ray, FM Industries Inc., Chicago: "This is not a good idea. There really is only one solution to the energy problem, and it will take the financing of all the nations of the world to solve. The solution is fusion power."

James Bowery: "You should look at the 1992 legislative proposal for a series of fusion energy prizes which was picked up on by one of the founders of the U.S. fusion energy program, Robert W. Bussard."

On Saturday, the X Prize Foundation is awarding its $10 million prize for private spaceflight to the SpaceShipOne team, and the group will be looking ahead to its next challenge, the WTN X Prizes for technological innovation. The AE Prize, a Fusion Energy Prize or something similar could well be a perfect fit for the WTN X Prize program.

NASA is also moving ahead with its own prize program, the Centennial Challenges: The space agency is soliciting ideas from potential partners, and planning presentations for the public on Nov. 15 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Check out today's announcement for details — there’ll even be a Webcast for those who can't make it in person.

Finally, here's an alternative-energy prize for which we can all compete: Next week the New Dream Community will kick off a contest to come up with the best slogan for fuel-efficient hybrid cars — a catchphrase "that captures our enthusiasm, fires up the American public and moves automakers." The winner will be awarded a 2005 Toyota Prius .

Nov. 5, 2004 | 9 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Will the Leonid meteor shower start early?
GSA: Why the Titanic was speeding when it sunk
'Nova' on PBS: 'America's Stone Age Explorers'
The Economist: Searching for a royal Etruscan tomb

Nov. 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Visualizing the vote: Over the past four years, the red-vs.-blue map of the United States has become the icon for a divided electorate. Now the colors are being filled in for this week's presidential election, but the results are definitely colored by the yardsticks you use.

Our interactive map , like most others, is presented as a standard geographical snapshot of the states in three colors — red, white and blue. This presentation led some of MSNBC's commentators to remark that America was starting to look a lot like the Indian subcontinent, with a Republican-red India flanked by a Democratic-blue Pakistan and Bangladesh (which was once East Pakistan). I guess that makes the upper Midwest, my old stomping grounds, into the political equivalent of Nepal.

You get an even redder view of the country if you look at a geographical county-by-county breakdown, as illustrated in this USA Today map. My blogging colleague Rand Simberg, who is on the red side of the political spectrum, says this map suggests that the blue areas are "socialist enclaves," mere islands in a red sea.

But what if you change the color scheme? This map at BoingBoing, created by Seattle management consultant Jeff Culver, shows the "Purple Haze" that results if you create a red-to-blue palette based on voting percentages. Robert Vanderbei, an engineering professor at Princeton University, has created a sharper image of our purple nation by drilling down to a county-by-county view.

The purple palette helps smooth out the sharp red-blue divide — which Philip Klinkner, a government professor at Hamilton College, argues is a distorted depiction of America's political landscape.

All these maps carry interesting messages, but when it comes to telling the political tale, I would argue that a purely geographical view falls short. After all, in most cases, electoral success or failure is judged by population, not land area. This map of Electoral College strength, with area weighted according to total votes, is on the right track. Now we're getting into the kind of approach to visual information display long championed by design guru Edward Tufte.

I'd love to see the red-blue-purple scheme extended to a county-by-county map with area weighted by population. That wouldn't completely reflect the electoral vote split, because of the college's at-large electors. But it would help explain why our political realm is so closely divided when America's geographical map is so red. ... If anyone can point me to this kind of map, I'll pass along the link. And if any underworked graphic designer wants to devote the required hours to creating such a map, I'd be honored to add it to the Log. Just drop me an e-mail.

By the way, if you've been wondering what I've been doing over the past couple of days, take a look at Election Ticktock , my chronicle of this week's voting process.

Nov. 4, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
More science and politics on the Web: The stem cell gold rush
Defense Tech: New smart bomb for Fallujah assault
Technology Review: How technology failed in Iraq
Florida Today: Victory will jump-start space plans

Nov. 1, 2004 | 3 p.m. ET
The clear sci-fi winner: Did you hear the one about the energy prize that saved the world? The story of President Kerry's AE Prize and its implications decisively won our "Red, White and Bluetopia" contest, which solicited science fiction tales that highlighted the positive visions of this year's presidential candidates.

More than 1,000 votes were registered by today's deadline, and Stephen Kraus' tale, "Giving Away the World's Most Valuable Technology," garnered 24 percent of the vote. Kraus is a California-based psychologist, consultant and author who bills himself as a "success scientist." In this case, success comes in the form of a $20 gift certificate, as well as all the fame and glory that Cosmic Log can provide.

To my mind, the winning message in Kraus' story isn't so much about Kerry or President Bush, but about the power of encouraging and valuing technological innovation — whether through the hypothetical AE Prize, the soon-to-be-awarded $10 million X Prize for private spaceflight, the recently announced $50 million orbital space prize , or the many other inducement prizes that have furthered national goals over the past three centuries.

Why shouldn't we devise a cash prize for alternative-energy technologies right here on Earth? Send in your pros and cons, and we'll publish a selection of the e-mails after the political dust settles.

The race for the "Red, White and Bluetopia" runner-up was closer, involving two stories that set forth the rationales for future space exploration. Michael Huang's brief "item from the future" about an interplanetary Marshall Plan edged out Tom Hill's "View From the Top" by a vote of 19 percent vs. 18 percent. Huang, a longtime Cosmic Log correspondent who hails from Australia, also will receive a $20 gift certificate.

Here are the top two entries in their entirety:

First place (Bluetopia):
"Giving Away the World’s Most Valuable Technology,"
by Stephen Kraus
Although John Kerry’s surprising easy victory in the 2004 was driven in large part by unrest in Iraq, it was also driven by a shrewd maneuver engineered by a latecomer to the campaign: Ragin’ Cajun James Carville.  Carville’s brainstorm:  Create a simple, 10-point, voter-friendly platform — the “Blueprint for the Future,” styled after the “Contract with America,” which ushered in the short-lived Gingrich revolution of the early ’90s.  Where Al Gore had failed to make the case that he could represent the people in his “people versus the powerful” paradigm, Kerry was successful in positioning himself as the “candidate of the future” while painting Bush as symbol of the past.

It turned out that Kerry’s Pillar No. 4 would be the first tipping point of the 21st century: “Make the United States the world leader in alternative energy technologies.”  On the stump, he found the eloquence that had previously eluded him:

“Four decades ago, John F. Kennedy challenged this nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth before the decade was out.  Today, I challenge the best and brightest of this nation to land us in a new era of world leadership, and to prove that our technological prowess knows no bounds.  We lead the world in every form of technology except one.  When I become president, we will lead the world in every form of technology, bar none.  I challenge some American to step forward, to be the next Henry Ford, the next Thomas Edison.”

Of course, this high-road talk was very different from John Edwards’ constant campaign refrain about “George Bush and his buddies from Enron” wanting to keep our nation dependent on the archaic technology of fossil fuels, and destroy the environment in the process.  Regardless of their stylistic differences, the Kerry-Edwards Blueprint for the Future caught the imagination of America, and swept both into office.

Kerry’s clean-energy initiative didn’t have the budget of the Apollo program.  But borrowing a page from the X Prize, which ushered in the era of commercial space flight, the government created a multibillion-dollar alternative energy (AE) prize subsidized in part by Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Oprah Winfrey and Sam Walton’s offspring.  The result was an influx of mildly crazy entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. They engineered a breakthrough in fuel-cell technology that revolutionized how energy is created, transmitted and stored throughout the world.  Suddenly, energy was clean and virtually free.

Certainly Kerry deserves much of the credit for inspiring the AE Prize.  But its worldwide impact resulted from a crucial decision by President Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Thomas Friedman, who captured the White House when Kerry was unable to run for re-election due to injuries arising from a freak windsurfing accident. Their brainstorm: Give the fuel-cell technology away.

Clinton's strategy was inspired in part by the success of open-source operating systems such as Linux : Given away free, they opened up other lines of business, such as consulting, for companies with the appropriate expertise.  Although the United States gave the basic fuel-cell technology away, solving energy crises throughout the world, Detroit made the best fuel-cell cars, Boeing made the best fuel-cell planes, and so on. Just as digital technology led to more documents and thus more paper being used, rather than the “paperless office” which never emerged, the markets for these devices using fuel cells exploded, leading an economic renaissance domestically.

Abroad, ripple effects were felt as well. Oil-based monarchies such as Saudi Arabia fell, giving way to the beachheads for democracy and equality in the Middle East that Iraq never became.  President Clinton sent her husband Bill to the Middle East, where he was able capitalize on the new optimism to broker the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord he so narrowly missed as president.  Carbon dioxide levels decreased, the greenhouse effect subsided, and the ensuing enthusiasm for preserving the environment led to a boom in conservation and education efforts throughout the world.

The foreign-policy inconsistencies and the perceived arrogance that hampered America’s image abroad gave way to a new image for America, one more consistent with her self-image: a leader, a beacon of democracy, a liberator of humanity, architect of the 21st century.

Second place (Whitetopia):
"First Marshall Package Arrives on Earth,"
by Michael Huang:
Thursday, December 23 — The first aid package sent under the New Marshall Plan has arrived in the United States of America. The 60-metric-ton package — containing food, life support systems and agricultural, industrial and communications equipment — landed successfully in California. The package was launched nine months ago from Mars City Spaceport.

The New Marshall Plan, announced last year by President Kennan, will deliver humanitarian and economic aid to Earth nations recovering from the Third World War. It is modeled on the American-funded reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War.

...And the others:
Congratulations to all who entered, and particularly to the four other finalists in the contest. Follow the links below to read each one:

"The Keys to Success" (Redtopia), by Robert Cornell, looks back at the early 21st century from history class in 2042.

"The View From the Top" (Redtopia), by Tom Hill, looks down on Earth from a Constellation-class starship 2.9 million kilometers away.

"Business Triumphant" (Bluetopia), by Rob Preece, looks provocatively at the economic power that could be unleashed by a "right-D" state of mind.

"Rainbow-topia" (Whitetopia), by Ross Murker, looks at the State of the Union during a time when elections have been replaced by a lottery.

Nov. 1, 2004 | 3 p.m. ET
Calling all tech toys: is once again presenting a Holiday Gift Guide for the high-tech set, and I need your help in preparing a report on this year's high-tech and scientific toys. Check out the roundup for the 2002 and 2003 holiday seasons, then send in your suggestions for this year's crop.

Nov. 1, 2004 | 3 p.m. ET
Turn to the Ticktock: For the next couple of days, Cosmic Log will be taking a break while I turn my attention to Election Ticktock , a live journal for Election Day and beyond. Keep me company and let me know how I'm doing. If everything goes smoothly (knock on ballot-box wood), this Log will be back in action on Thursday.

Nov. 1, 2004 | 3 p.m. ET
Politics-free science on the Web: Don't knock the birdbrains
BBC: Would 'Mini-Man' be put in school or zoo?
'Nova' on PBS: 'Volcano's Deadly Warning'
PhysOrg: Physicists solve falling-paper problem


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