Termites are considered among the greatest architects on Earth. A couple of years ago, a network of termite mounds in Brazil was discovered that is as large as Great Britain. Inside each mound, which is a few meters tall, millions of millimeter-sized termites live. That’s comparable to humans living in buildings a few kilometers high. The mounds are built to harness the environment — places where temperature, humidity and gas concentrations are well controlled.
We have studied the function of termite mounds in both India and Namibia, and most recently have begun to understand the principles of how they are built. Our experiments showed that the mound operates like a lung, breathing once a day in response to external temperature changes. And we have a mathematical model that shows how the mound geometry, environmental conditions and termite behavior are all interrelated.
Seat belts, or safety belts, or restraints, have been around since well before airplanes, or even cars, having been patented in the U.S. for the first time in 1885. They were not found in early cars, and remained at best an option in certain forward-thinking automaker lines, most notably Saab, until the late 1950s. In 1966, the publication of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, which attacked the auto industry for refusing to institute basic safety features in its cars, prompted the first American law to require all vehicles (except buses) to provide safety belts.
For the U.S. more than anyone else, space war could be ruinous. The country relies heavily on its satellites to transmit signals for GPS, credit-card transactions, hospital systems, television stations, weather reports; the list goes on and on. But it depends more than any other country on its military satellites for communication and surveillance. And all satellites—bright and moving in predictable, public orbits—are essentially sitting ducks, nearly impossible to defend; space war is what the military calls “offense-dominant.”
Basically, every year just before tax season, the IRS would mail out tax forms to hundreds of millions of people around the United States. This annual mailing was, during non-Census years, the largest annual mailing that the postal service had to deal with—around 110 million individual mailings annually, according a 1991 New York Times article. And the IRS, dealing with a complicated tax code, had to manage and deal with a wide variety of exceptions and differing forms, for both businesses and individual taxpayers.
This was not only incredibly wasteful—never a good thing when you’re the Internal Revenue Service—but it represented something of a logistical nightmare, because it also hinted at the ways that paper gummed up the works throughout the federal government.
We shouldn’t overestimate how much we understand aging, and we shouldn’t underestimate how much progress we can make without full understanding.
On the margin I agree with Open Phil that basic research and engineering for biotech tools are likely to have the biggest impact on longevity, whether this research is called “longevity research” or not. I’d say this is especially true for tools to do large-scale phenotypic assays. The hard(er) part of building the atomic bomb wasn’t the nuclear physics, it was building the bomb, and I suspect longevity is similar.
For example, if a person’s face was to be photographed from behind chicken wire, it was not possible to construct an algorithm that would capture the chicken wire to the side of the face with the same sharpness as the chicken wire in front of it. The wire to the side would be as blurred as the background.
One might say, “Who cares about the chicken wire case? That’s exceedingly rare.” But for the team, sidestepping rare or extreme situations—what engineers call corner cases—would violate Apple’s strict engineering standard of zero “artifacts,” meaning “any undesired or unintended alteration in data introduced in a digital process by an involved technique and/or technology.” Corner cases sparked “many tough discussions” between the camera team and other teams involved, recalls Myra Haggerty, the VP of sensor software and UX prototyping, who oversaw the firmware and algorithm teams. Sebastien Marineau-Mes, the VP to whom the camera software team ultimately reported, decided to defer the release of the feature until the following year to give the team time to better address failure cases—“a hard pill to swallow,” Hubel admits.
View and Listen
Cosmic inhomogeneities – why is universe perfectly distributed?
Geo-engineering – might not be a distant future as we think.
An ad – but reflects the struggle of small businesses today
History and economics of fabrics and textiles – an intereresting conversation with Virginia Postrel
The science of food a discussion on hangover honey trap