Signals: Killer Tobacco ... Clay Houses ... Back to the Future II ... and more

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Volume 1,
Number 24
October 20, 2015

Tobacco’s Threat for Young Chinese Men

Smoking may eventually kill one in three young men in China, warns a new study published in the medical journal The Lancet.

Two-thirds of young Chinese males smoke, often starting before age 20, reports the team of researchers from Oxford University, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control. Unless they stop smoking, half of these men will eventually die from tobacco-related diseases, the researchers conclude.

The annual number of tobacco deaths in China had reached 1 million by 2010, according to studies beginning in the 1990s; if current trends continue, that number will reach 2 million by 2030, the researchers predict.

The trend overwhelmingly affects males: Among Chinese women, the researchers note, smoking rates have plummeted, along with women’s risk of premature death from tobacco.

Reference:Contrasting male and female trends in tobacco-attributed mortality in China: Evidence from successive nationwide prospective cohort studies” by Zhengming Chen et al., The Lancet (October 10, 2015), Volume 386, No. 10002, p1447–1456.

Image: green_intruder via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Signals: China, demographics, gender, health, mortality, tobacco

Bio-Based Building Materials Could Cut Carbon

The construction industry could help Europe meet its 2050 decarbonization goal by building with natural materials. One challenge is the perceived costs of switching back to ancient building materials such as plant waste, straw, clay, and grass. Another challenge is to convince builders that these alternatives are reliable.

“Thirty percent of houses in Germany include clay as building materials. Many of them have stood for more than 100 years,” according to Manfred Lemke of Claytec, a Germany-based developer and producer of clay building materials and systems.

Claytec is part of the European ISOBIO project to develop sustainable materials for building and construction. Such materials as clay could improve insulation by 20 percent over traditional materials, Lemke says. Biomaterials could also reduce the energy and CO2 emissions from creating and transporting construction materials, cutting a building’s total “embodied energy” in half.

“Clay plaster requires just 10 percent of the energy input of gypsum plaster,” Lemke said in a press statement. “The unique ability of clay-based materials is that they can be re-plastified at any time of use. Using just water, the material can be reactivated for repair. At their end of their life, clay-based materials can be reused without additional efforts.”

Currently, more than 60 companies in Europe are producing over 230 bio-based insulation products, according to the ISOBIO project.

Source: ISOBIO. Image: Claytec.

Signals: biomaterials, clay, construction, energy, Europe

Reading the Mind, One Neuron at a Time

Researchers at Sweden’s Lund University are a step closer to developing electrodes that can be implanted in the brain and capture signals from single neurons over a long period of time while causing no damage to brain tissue.

These electrodes must be biofriendly and flexible enough to function in the brain, which floats inside liquid in the skull, the researchers note. Led by Jens Schouenborg and Lina Pettersson, the researchers produced tailored electrodes that are extremely soft and flexible in all three dimensions, enabling stable recordings from the neurons over a long time.

This flexibility “creates entirely new conditions for our understanding of what happens inside the brain and for the development of more effective treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's disease and chronic pain conditions than can be achieved using today’s techniques,” Schouenborg said in a press statement.

Reference:An array of highly flexible electrodes with a tailored configuration locked by gelatin during implantation—initial evaluation in cortex cerebri of awake rats” by Johan Agorelius et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (September 25, 2015). DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00331.

Signals: brain, neuroscience, Parkinson’s disease

Futures Tools: Compass Methods Anthology

The Association of Professional Futurists has compiled the Compass Methods Anthology, a selection of articles on futures methodologies written by foresight professionals who have been central to developing these techniques:

  • Oliver Markley on a new taxonomy of wild card, revised and updated for this edition.
  • Richard Lum on VERGE.
  • Bill Sharpe on Three Horizons.
  • Tony Hodgson on the World Game.
  • Terry Grim interviewed on the Foresight Maturity Model.
  • Stuart Candy on The Thing From The Future, expanded for this edition.
  • Wendy Schultz on the Manoa Scenarios method.
  • Dyman Hendricks interviewed on the Systems Methodology Toolkit.

The anthology will be available on the public-facing side of APF’s website, according to Andrew Currey.

Details: Association of Professional Futurists.

Signals: foresight, futures methodologies, futurists

Blog Report: Back to the Future II

The future finally is “now.” As most science-fiction buffs are probably aware, October 21, 2015, marks the future to which Marty McFly travels in Back to the Future II.

As we write in the AAI Foresight Blog, whatever imagined gadgets and social developments might compose the daily life of tomorrow, the “futurists” tasked with executing that future on film needed to make their visions at least somewhat plausible.

So, how did the film do, future-wise? Futurist Jay Herson offers this scorecard:


  • Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Maybe. The Cubs indeed are in the playoffs as we write, so stay tuned. The film predicts the Cubs would play Miami in the World Series; while there now is a Miami team in major league baseball, it’s in the National League with the Cubs, so they could not face each other in the World Series.
  • USA Today still exists.
  • Poster for “Surf Vietnam.” The once war-torn country has become a tourist attraction.
  • Multiple channels on TV, including the Weather Channel.
  • Voice control of TV. Some people likely have this capability now, though it is not mainstream.
  • Video telephone (e.g., Skype) exists but does not display vital statistics of the person speaking.

Not correct, at least not yet:

  • Flying cars.
  • Power shoelaces.
  • Lawyers abolished.
  • Bionic implants.
  • Hoverboard.
  • Automatic fitting and drying of clothes.
  • Taxi ride from one side of town to another costing $174. Inflation slowed after the 1980s.
  • Satellite-controlled dog walker.
  • Hydrator in kitchen to make food from small models. Not here yet, but we do have 3D printing of food.

One of the more interesting accomplishments of the film’s futurists almost goes unnoticed:

“The real futuring work in the film is less flashy than the holographic billboard for the 19th sequel of Jaws,” consulting editor Cindy Wagner originally wrote in 2013. “It has to do with the existence not just of alternative scenarios, but of alternative realities. At any point when Biff or Marty or Doc could go back to the past to alter the linear path of the future, it created a new outcome and a new reality. But it did not (as happened in the original BTTF) erase the previous reality. There’s your solution to the time travel paradox: Not just multiple, but infinite universes.”

ReadBack to the Futurist at the Movies” by Cindy Wagner, AAI Foresight Blog (October 17, 2015). Signal courtesy of Jay Herson.

Signals: alternative scenarios, film, futurism, multiple universes, science fiction, time travel