Economics Environment Science Society Technology

Odor, Dive, Michelin, Starship, History, Biomass

Researchers at Firmenich established the primary chemical components of the aroma of sewage and then determined which odorant receptors they activate. Then they tested perfumery ingredients against these sewage-linked receptors. To their surprise, they found hundreds that blocked them. “One of the big contributions that our team has made, in the last few years, has been to show that, actually, blocking of receptors seems to be about as common as activation of receptors,” Ben Smith, a research director at Firmenich who has worked on the company’s receptor program, told me. Perfumers often find that the addition of a new ingredient mysteriously causes a fragrance to go “flat.” Blocking is almost certainly why.

Among the more effective blockers were several lily-of-the-valley–type ingredients. Firmenich designed a fragrance around two of them. When mixed with latrine scent—the company concocted its own for testing purposes—the perfume kept its white floral aspect, while the sewage seemed to fade away. Bill Gates reported the finding on his blog. “I took a whiff of the future of sanitation,” he wrote, “and it smells pretty good.”

Alenka starts her Vertical Blue dives with a 100 meter-plunge and completes it easily. A few days later, 103 meters. Then a meter deeper. If she can manage 105 meters, she will equal Zecchini’s world record. On the live internet stream of the dive, the commentator remarks on Alenka’s “perfect control, perfect technique” after she comes up.

Hirose and Zecchini also reach 105 meters. Each diver has another two dives to go deeper. But a voice in Alenka’s head tells her to pause.

There is no menu at Bros. Just a blank newspaper with a QR code linking to a video featuring one of the chefs, presumably, against a black background, talking directly into the camera about things entirely unrelated to food. He occasionally used the proper noun of the restaurant as an adverb, the way a Smurf would. This means that you can’t order anything besides the tasting menu, but also that you are at the mercy of the servers to explain to you what the hell is going on. The servers will not explain to you what the hell is going on.

Starship matters. It’s not just a really big rocket, like any other rocket on steroids. It’s a continuing and dedicated attempt to achieve the “Holy Grail” of rocketry, a fully and rapidly reusable orbital class rocket that can be mass manufactured. It is intended to enable a conveyor belt logistical capacity to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) comparable to the Berlin Airlift. That is, Starship is a powerful logistical system that puts launch below the API.

Starship is designed to be able to launch bulk cargo into LEO in >100 T chunks for <$10m per launch, and up to thousands of launches per year. By refilling in LEO, a fully loaded deep space Starship can transport >100 T of bulk cargo anywhere in the solar system, including the surface of the Moon or Mars, for <$100m per Starship. Starship is intended to be able to transport a million tonnes of cargo to the surface of Mars in just ten launch windows, in addition to serving other incidental destinations, such as maintaining the Starlink constellation or building a big base at the Lunar south pole.

Starship is Still Not Understood

If you fell asleep in 1945 and woke up in 2018 you would not recognize the world around you. The amount of growth that took place during that period is virtually unprecedented. If you learned that there have been no nuclear attacks since 1945, you’d be shocked. If you saw the level of wealth in New York and San Francisco, you’d be shocked. If you compared it to the poverty of Detroit, you’d be shocked. If you saw the price of homes, college tuition, and health care, you’d be shocked. Our politics would blow your mind. And if you tried to think of a reasonable narrative of how it all happened, my guess is you’d be totally wrong. Because it isn’t intuitive, and it wasn’t foreseeable 73 years ago.

Here’s how this all happened.

Our planet supports approximately 8.7 million species, of which over a quarter live in water.

But humans can have a hard time comprehending numbers this big, so it can be difficult to really appreciate the breadth of this incredible diversity of life on Earth.

To fully grasp this scale, we draw from research from “The biomass distribution on Earth,” by Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo to break down the total composition of the living world, in terms of its biomass, and where we fit into this picture.

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Challenges coming up with the launches of numerous satellites in the fields of astronomy

Mattress: a tool for modern self-improvement that’s as mysterious and necessary as sleep itself.

Economics Environment History Science Technology

Mattresses, Tombs, Nickel, 52, Algorithm, Machines

Inspiration comes – not surprisingly – from the Netherlands. The sea has been a threat in the Low Countries since long before climate change. The Dutch built their country partly at the bottom of the sea, drained it with windmills, and surrounded the new land with dykes. The Dutch coast has fine-grained, sandy soil that offers little resistance to the friction of the water. Currents, waves, and propellers of ships scour the bottom and can easily lead to the collapse of dykes, banks, quays, locks, and abutments.

It might go without saying, but for as long as humans have lived, we have also died. Our answers to the question of what to do with our earthly remains have evolved alongside religions and beliefs. Prehistoric humans buried their dead, sometimes with weapons or animal heads to offer some protection — against wild beasts, perhaps, or spirits — in the beyond. Some placed cadavers on mountaintops instead, trusting the elements, and scavengers, to scatter them (this practice persists in Tibet and in some parts of China and India). The first architect, the Egyptian Imhotep, is known for his mortuary constructions. Methods of interment have changed throughout the ages.

A Death Full of Life

Originally built as a resource colony by prisoners in the Soviet Gulag, Norilsk has been a metal making center for 80 years. Norilsk Nickel outlasted communism, embraced capitalism, and now aims to ramp up production to sell the high-purity metals needed for batteries and other technologies of the 21st century clean energy economy. The company’s ambitions coincide with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin for greater development in the Far North, which he maintains can be accomplished sustainably.

In the Russian Arctic, One of the Most Polluted Places on Earth

The world’s second most popular electric car (after the Tesla Model 3) is the Wuling HongGuang Mini, which costs $5,000 and outsells vehicles from Renault, Hyundai, VW and Nissan. [Brad Anderson & José Pontes]
Airline Food is a programming language whose programs look like Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routines. [Jamie Large]
Early versions of PowerPoint were created by a technical team that was 43% women, compared to an average of 10% in Silicon Valley at the time. [Russell Davies — buy his book here from Fluxx friends World of Books]

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Using the standard method devised more than 70 years ago by Richard Feynman, he had sketched diagrams of hundreds of possible ways the colliding particles might morph and interact before shooting out three jets. Adding up the individual probabilities of those events would give the overall chance of the three-jet outcome. But Gehrmann needed software just to tally the 35,000 terms in his probability formula. As for computing it? That’s when “you raise the flag of surrender and talk to your colleagues,” he said.

As early as 3,000 years ago we encounter interest in intelligent machines and AI that perform different servile functions. In the works of Homer (c. eighth century BCE) we find Hephaestus, the Greek god of smithing and craft, using automatic bellows to execute simple, repetitive labor. Golden handmaidens, endowed with characteristics of movement, perception, judgment, and speech, assist him in his work. In his “Odyssey,” Homer recounts how the ships of the Phaeacians perfectly obey their human captains, detecting and avoiding obstacles or threats, and moving “at the speed of thought.” Several centuries later, around 400 BCE, we meet Talos, the giant bronze sentry, created by Hephaestus, that patrolled the shores of Crete. These examples from the ancient world all have in common their subservient role; they exist to serve the desires of other, more powerful beings — either gods or humans — and even if they have sentience, they lack autonomy. Thousands of years before Karel Čapek introduced the term “robot” to refer to artificial slaves, we find them in Homer.

Surveillance, Companionship, and Entertainment: The Ancient History of Intelligent Machines

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“A Fascinating, Sexy, Intellectually Compelling, Unregulated Global Market.” (Ep. 484)

Tales of cross-species communication. When we gaze into the eyes of a wild animal or a beloved pet, can we know what they might be thinking? Selection bias may be at work here, but just about everybody in this podcast, from whale-rescuers to dog-walkers, says “Yes”

Economist Steve Levitt talks to cosmologist and physicist Max Tegmark, co-founder of the Future Of Life Institute, about the existential threats facing humanity

Government Law Politics Science Society Technology

Data, Exhausted, Ports, Ethiopia, Dog

While social norms are changing towards non-consensual data collection and data exploitation, digital norms seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Advancements in machine learning algorithms and data storage capabilities are only making data misuse easier. Whether the outcome is revenge porn or targeted ads, surveillance or discriminatory AI, if we want a world where our data can retire when it’s outlived its time, or when it’s directly harming our lives, we must create the tools and policies that empower data subjects to have a say in what happens to their data… including allowing their data to die.

At every “node” along such a circuit, “inputs”—ecological, political, social, individual—are extracted and “exhausted.” The circuit, like capital, crosses boundaries without entirely obliterating them, and, similarly, connects a vast potential political subject across disparate lines—Global North and South, gender, class, race, nationality, religion, and sexuality. The extractive circuit is the socioecological portrait of capitalism historically and its transformations to maintain profitability in the face of immanent headwinds, like the long economic downturn and ecological limits themselves.

The impact of the container crisis now hitting residencies in proximity to trucking companies. Containers are being pulled out of the port and dropped anywhere the drivers can find because the trucking company lots are full. Ports are desperate to get containers out so they can unload the new containers coming in by boat. When this happens there is no plan to deliver this freight yet, they are literally just making room for the next ship at the port. This won’t last long, as this just compounds the shortage of chassis. Ports will eventually find themselves unable to move containers out of the port until sitting containers are delivered, emptied, returned, or taken to a storage lot (either loaded or empty) and taken off the chassis there so the chassis can be put back into use. The priority is not delivery, the priority is just to clear the port enough to unload the next boat.

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And the honor bestowed upon him by the Nobel Committee has likely emboldened on his relentless course. “Abiy seemed to think,” says former diplomat Berhane Kidanemariam, “that he has now arrived all the way at the top, almost next to the Creator.” Tsedale Lemma, editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard newsmagazine, says that after receiving the prize, Abiy and his government had the feeling they were no longer accountable to anyone. “The Nobel Prize was like a coronation for life, that gave him the right to do whatever he wants.”

If humans disappeared tomorrow, about 1 billion dogs would be left on their own. The first clue to whether dogs would survive is here, in the basic demographics of current dog populations. These billion dogs occupy all corners of the globe, exploit diverse ecological niches, and live in a wide range of relationships with humans. Although many people, when asked to picture a dog, will think of a furry companion curled up on the couch by a human’s side or walking on the end of a leash, research suggests that roughly 20 per cent of the world’s dogs live as pets, or what we call ‘intensively homed dogs’. The other 80 per cent of the world’s dogs are free-ranging, an umbrella term that includes village, street, unconfined, community, and feral dogs. In other words, most dogs on the planet are already living on their own, without direct human support within a homed environment.

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David Salee discusses the fifteen (or so) functions of good art, why it’s easier to write about money than art, what’s gone wrong with art criticism today, how to cultivate good taste, the reasons museum curators tend to be risk-averse, the effect of modern artistic training on contemporary art, the evolution of Cézanne, how the centrality of photography is changing fine art, what makes some artists’ retrospectives more compelling than others, the physical challenges of painting on a large scale, how artists view museums differently, how a painting goes wrong, where his paintings end up, what great collectors have in common, how artists collect art differently, why Frank O’Hara was so important to Alex Katz and himself, what he loves about the films of Preston Sturges, why The Sopranos is a model of artistic expression, how we should change intellectual property law for artists, the disappointing puritanism of the avant-garde, and more.

Peek into our adaptive immune system

Explore the origins and evolution of industry-funded experts who shaped everything from the breakfast table to our understanding of the economy and science.

History Science Society Technology

Garum, Saliva, Childcare, Spiders, Empire

When small fish start to decay, the bacterial flora in their guts burst through cell walls, initiating the process of autolysis. The fish essentially digest themselves, liquefying the proteins in muscle tissue. The presence of salt slows this fermentation process, promoting lactic acid bacteria that defeat pathogens and such foul-smelling toxins as cadaverine and putrescine. (Too much salt stops autolysis altogether; too little invites botulism.) Palacios’ team found that the result, after 25 days, was a paste of dissolved fish bones and flesh topped by a salty, amber-hued liquid, which smelled like a “mixture of dried fish, seaweed and spices.” The sauce proved to be a protein bomb, especially rich in glutamic acid, the same amino acid that gives Parmesan cheese, tamari sauce and cooked mushrooms their savory, umami intensity.

Bodily fluids ever enjoyed a high prestige as curative agents. Holy Scripture informs us that Jesus’ method of restoring a blind man’s sight included spitting on his eyes, either directly (Mark 8:23) or indirectly, by first preparing a paste of saliva and mud, then anointing the blind person’s eyes with it (John 9:6). It is true that interpreters are quick to point out that Our Savior did this only for the form, so to speak, since divine might had no need to resort to any physical means. But such means He did use, because the people, the Romans, and the Jewish rabbis expected it, saliva being then considered a legitimate agent in ophthalmological therapy.

The Bizarre Cultural History of Saliva

As I thought, a story broke. The United States’ fertility rate was declining. But this wasn’t actually news, the reporters informed us. The birth rate had been down for several years, which was good, and also bad. Fewer births meant fewer teen pregnancies and more accessible contraception. The planet couldn’t support more people anyway, some pundits said.

At the same time, many women who wanted to have children had been delayed, even deterred. They had student debt. The rents were too high. Childcare was unaffordable, but a one-income household wasn’t feasible. These problems could be helped, other pundits argued, by universal preschool, paid parental leave, remote work and the child-tax credit. As I read, I found myself in agreement. Children shouldn’t be a luxury good.

Liberty and Limitation

Human infants as young as just five months old tend to be more threatened by images of spiders than those of other organisms, suggesting that our aversion to them is partly innate, perhaps having evolved to prevent us from casually picking up ones that are venomous.

This natural wariness is then thought to be compounded by cultural factors, such as having parents who describe them as frightening as we grow up. Alarmist news articles and other depictions are likely to add an extra frisson of panic – some experts have linked the irrational fear many people have for sharks to the 1975 film Jaws, and it’s possible that the villainous spider trope is also having an impact.

Although individual enslaved people were often brought to Britain by the people who claimed to own them, for most Britons, mass enslavement was something that happened ‘over there’ – in the colonies, especially the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean. This fact of geography shaped British antislavery. The ‘mother country’ could also be the stern but benignant ‘father’, correcting children in the ‘infant colonies’. In the slave colonies, opposition to slavery could be a revolutionary threat to the social order. In Britain, antislavery affirmed Britain’s superior virtue in relationship to its empire.

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Showing up in food, cosmetics, fuel, medicine, and even the air we breathe, corn has become one of the most ubiquitous presences in our lives. In this episode of The Broken Nature Series, host Paola Antonelli talked to Bex, who runs the blog Corn Allergy Girl, cultural anthropologist Alyshia Galvez, and community organizers Yira Vallejo and Jonathan Barbieri about the proliferation of corn and its consequences for our health, environment, and communities.

Environment Geopolitics Science Technology

Trees, Asteroid, Brush, Virus, Obesity, Trojan, Food, Carbon

People primarily take interest in plants for what they can give them. For instance, medicinal plants are used without anybody asking why it is that they synthesize precious, valuable molecules in the first place. Everything has a function in the animal world; nothing there is without a purpose. The sheer number, among plants, of examples such as the rubber tree — whose latex has no clear reason for existing — makes me think they don’t work like animals. Are they capable of selfless acts? The hypothesis isn’t very satisfying, but that might be another thing that sets them apart from animals.

Walking Trees, Parasitic Flowers, and Other Remarkable Plants: An Illustrated Guide

2012 DA14 had been spotted when it passed moderately close to the Earth in the previous February – moderately close being about two million kilometres away, roughly seven times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. But it had a very similar orbital period to the Earth’s own, 368 days to our 365, which meant that it would come fairly close every year.
NASA was able to predict that on its next pass it would come much closer – about 28,000 kilometres away, barely twice the diameter of the Earth, and within the orbits of geosynchronous satellites. It would be travelling, relative to Earth, at 7.8km/s, or about 28,000 kilometres an hour. That pass was due on 15 February 2013 and would be the closest ever recorded pass of an asteroid that large.

Asteroid spotting

Hairbrushes as we know them are a fairly modern invention. One of the first brush manufacturers, Kent Brushes, has been producing since 1777, with their first brushes taking upwards of 12 people to complete just one. Often seen in portraits of society women in front of their vanities, the brush was a luxury object. Over the next 150 years, patents were still coming through for slight modifications like vents or synthetic bristles. In the U.S., Lyda D. Newman, a Black inventor and suffragist, put in a patent in 1898 for a brush using synthetic bristles and a removable back to make it easier for cleaning. Her innovation paved the way for other Black women in beauty like Madam C.J. Walker. More ornamental hair brushes, such as those patented by Hugh Rock in 1854, were plated in silver with elaborate designs and often given as gifts to new brides. Sets were complete with brush, comb, and handheld mirror. For those that can be persuaded, a 1930s Art Deco silver set from Tiffany & Co. can still be found at auction for over $1,500.

Viruses closely related to the mimivirus have been grouped into the family Mimiviridae. The other giant viruses have been classified into three families: Molliviridae, Pandoraviridae, and Pithoviridae. Mimiviridae and Molliviridae produce virions, or viral particles, with a characteristically icosahedral shape. Pandoraviridae and Pithoviridae produce strange ovoid particles that have often been confused for intracellular protists.7 One of the most unusual of the giant viruses is a member of Mimiviridae. Discovered in Brazil, the Tupanvirus contains a virion featuring a gigantic head and an equally gigantic membranous tail. Such a shape is without precedent in the viral world.

Beginning with the first animal models of obesity in the late 1930s (more on that shortly), researchers, with the very rarest of exceptions, have conceived of their work as elucidating the psychological, genetic, and physiological determinants of eating behavior. They’ve assumed, without justification, that what they observed translated directly and mechanistically to the excessive accumulation of fat in fat tissue. Ask a simple question, as I have as a journalist, like “Why is it that some of us fatten easily and some of us don’t — just as some breeds of livestock fatten easily and others don’t?” and obesity researchers can’t answer it because, curiously enough, that’s not what they study.

How a ‘fatally, tragically flawed’ paradigm has derailed the science of obesity

An0m, as it was called, looked like any off-the-shelf smartphone, a polished pebble of black glass and aluminium. The device had been modified to remove many of its core functions. An0m could not be bought in a shop or on a website. You had to first know a guy. Then you had to be prepared to pay the astronomical cost: $1,700 for the handset, with a $1,250 annual subscription, an astonishing price for a phone that was unable to make phone calls or browse the internet.

The history of humanity is in no small part the story of our increasing control over our sustenance. Around 2 million years ago, our early human ancestors began processing food by slicing meat, pounding tubers, and possibly by cooking. This allowed us to have smaller teeth and jaw muscles, making room for a bigger brain and providing more energy for its increasing demand. Around 10,000 years ago, humans began selectively breeding plants and animals to suit our preferences, and the increased food production helped us build bigger and more complex societies. The industrial revolution brought major advancements in food preservation, from canning to pasteurisation, helping to feed booming cities with food from afar. In the 20th century, we used chemistry to change the flavour of food and prevent it from spoiling, while modern breeding and genetic engineering sped up the artificial selection we began thousands of years ago. The advent of humans, civilisation and industrialisation were all closely tied to changes in food processing.

For far too long, media discussions around climate change have focused primarily on the individual scale. And too often, those discussions have shifted attention away from holding the powerful to account. Say one word about the need to reduce carbon emissions or divest from fossil fuels, and you’ll soon be met with a question about how you traveled to work today, or where the electricity powering your computer comes from. And if you are just starting out on the journey to climate awareness, chances are you’ve received more advice on changing your diet or refusing straws than you have on activism, advocacy, or organizing. In other words, you’ve been told how to contribute less to the problem, but not necessarily how you can be most effective in actually fixing it.
Yet lifestyle choices do matter. They just matter for entirely different reasons than we’ve been told.

The Messy Truth About Carbon Footprints