Economics Environment Science

Defense, Tongue, Vending machines, Chick, Fear

An injured plant also produces traumatic acid, known as the “wound hormone,” which stimulates cell division to close up a laceration in much the same way that blood clots in an animal’s wound. These responses happen within minutes of attack: Plants begin patching themselves up while still fighting off invaders. A plant must therefore constantly decide how to divide its resources between defense and regeneration.

Cats do have a highly developed sense of savory taste—dubbed umami in Japanese (delicious savory taste)—and this makes sense because they are consuming protein all the time. What would it be like to eat meat with a cat’s tongue? It’s impossible for science to say for certain, but one can imagine for a sensory system specifically tuned to taste savory flesh, it must be delicious.

On the other hand, you would never want to eat a salad with a cow’s tongue because cows eat grass all day—something they would never be able to do if they were actually able to taste it the way we do. Unlike humans, with our dozens of bitter receptors, cows are highly insensitive to bitter foods. They still detect it, but apparently not so well.

It is estimated that roughly ⅓ of the world’s ~15m vending machines are located in the US.

Of these 5m US-based vending machines, ~2m are currently in operation, collectively bringing in $7.4B in annual revenue for those who own them. This means that the average American adult spends ~$35 per year on vending machine items.

What makes the vending industry truly unique is its stratification: The landscape is composed of thousands of small-time independent operators — and no single entity owns >5% of the market.

The encouraging feature of chicken sexing is that the process, although mysterious, is quickly learned. As a result, knowing what the brain does when it accurately determines the sex of a bird could soon bear on how soldiers distinguish friend from foe in combat, how doctors make accurate diagnoses, how bird watchers identify species on the wing, how scientists interpret seismic data, and even how kids learn to read. Industrial sexers are worth investigating because, as quickly trained experts who have to make split-second decisions, the way they learn to see chicken genitals might one day help clarify how the rest of us learn to see the world.

Fear is a powerful force not just for wintering dunlins, but across the natural world. Ecologists have long known that predators play a key role in ecosystems, shaping whole communities with the knock-on effects of who eats whom. But a new approach is revealing that it’s not just getting eaten, but also the fear of getting eaten, that shapes everything from individual brains and behaviour to whole ecosystems. This new field, exploring the non-consumptive effects of predators, is known as fear ecology.

View and Listen

A beautiful time-lapse video of a sailing trip from Rotterdam to Amsterdam.

8 years of time lapse video on buildings in Singapore

New advances in cell and gene therapies that offer the potential to transform medicine.

What it means to be alive? – A conversation with Nobel Prize winning scientist Paul Nurse.

New York during and after pandemic.

Environment Geopolitics Politics Science Technology

Pigs, Resilience, Distancing, Vaccines, Agents

Cascading shortfalls in production upended supply chains and left swaths of the country with little meat in the spring and summer. While East Germans queued in long lines for their roasts and sausages, they also complained bitterly that the regime continued to prioritize meat exports abroad, even as their own citizens grew more irate. The same industrial system that arose in the GDR continues to churn in every corner of the globe. It remains capable of producing unprecedented amounts of meat, but also pollution, sickness, and ecological disaster. In the era of climate change, environmental disruptions will only intensify, and as they do, the system of industrial meat will become more and more precarious. Before too long, it will break. It’s a lesson that East Germans learned a generation ago. And it’s one we should heed closely.

Individual organisms often respond to cues of environmental challenge by changing their behaviour or by influencing the traits of their offspring. For example, in my own work on birds, mothers in crowded populations put more testosterone in their eggs and produce aggressive offspring. Because they are good competitors, these offspring can leave overpopulated areas to find new habitat elsewhere. In contrast, mothers breeding in newly colonised habitat with a low density of breeders produce more mild-mannered offspring that are more likely to remain and acquire a territory nearby. By breeding next to their parents, these cooperative offspring are buffered from competition and from the costs of moving to a new area. But producing less aggressive offspring works only when there is lots of extra space for families to divide up. This example shows how mothers can influence offspring traits in a way that prepares their kids to deal with the environmental challenges they are most likely to face.

Like other animals, humans have a long evolutionary history with infectious diseases. Many of our own forms of behavioral immunity, such as feelings of disgust in dirty or crowded environments, are likely the results of this history. But modern humans, unlike other animals, have many advantages when plagues come to our doors. For instance, we can now communicate disease threats globally in an instant. This ability allows us to institute social distancing before disease appears in our local community—a tactic that has saved many lives. We have advanced digital communication platforms, from e-mail to group video chats, that allow us to keep our physical distance while maintaining some social connections. Other animals lose social ties with actual distance. But perhaps the biggest human advantage is the ability to develop sophisticated nonbehavioral tools, such as vaccines, that prevent disease without the need for costly behavioral changes. Vaccination allows us to maintain rich, interactive social lives despite contagious diseases such as polio and measles that would otherwise ravage us.

When you’re planning a large vaccine drive, predictability is vital. The immunization campaign that allowed India to eradicate polio in 2014, for example, worked methodically through the country’s populace of hundreds of millions of children, backed by a bank of knowledge about how the virus behaved, what the vaccine’s properties were, and where new cases could be found. Such factors dictate not only how much vaccine is manufactured but also the production of a host of ancillaries: chemical additives such as adjuvants; hypodermics, glass vials, rubber stoppers, and other parts of an injection kit; and storage equipment such as deep freezers. Without this gear, a vaccine is just a fine formula, a cure in search of its disease.

If a physical product that is widespread in American society could be manipulated by an adversary—imagine an army of home-service robots whose operating systems could be attacked by a foreign power, and turned to hold families hostage inside their houses—it would be immediately addressed as a top-priority national security threat. But social media has long had a free pass for a number of reasons that apply to the information technology industry as a whole. Today, it is protected in distinctive and persistent ways because of its “speech” functions and the constitutional protections that these functions carry.

View and Listen

Merriam-Webster defines Baryons as any of a group of subatomic particles (such as nucleons) that are subject to the strong force and are composed of three quarks. Half of the ordinary baryonic matter has been tough to find but Fast Radio Bursts made it possible to detect the WHIM.

The most popular high-end coffee species – Arabica – is highly susceptible to Climate change. Video talks about how Columbian economy is impacted by the environmental crisis and could affect global coffee drinkers in the longer term.

Is the pursuit of GDP growth is the best priority for human society? Listen to an interesting conversation between Stephen Dubner and Kate Raworth.

Know more about monastic traditions of Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans.

Environment Science Technology

Rocks, Cooker, Change, Bezos, Dinosaur

After a long break, I am starting to share some interesting articles that I come across over the week. I believe there are many people creating interesting articles that generates passion and curiosity among readers like me. I give full credit to all the authors who have written these articles.

It’s hard to imagine that we will ever succeed in building a computer system as brilliantly complex as the interrelation of fungal mycelium, far-reaching tree roots, and soil microorganisms in your average healthy forest, what scientists call the “wood wide web.” Smart devices, connected to one another through cloud-based servers vulnerable to cyberattack and plain old entropy, could never do this. And perhaps this is the real reason fully biological computers may remain always beyond our grasp. Even now, as we dream of embedding artificial intelligence into every material surface of our lives, we are at best poorly emulating processes already at play beneath our feet and in our gardens. We’re making a bad copy of the Earth — and, in mining the Earth to create it, we are destroying the original.

“With Japanese rice, what you’re looking for is for some of the starch to almost convert to sugar so that it tastes rather sweet,” explains Itoh. Other ideal elements include a sticky texture, separate grains, and a lot of moisture: all hard to obtain, says Itoh, “without any automated way to do it. And people are very, very picky about how their rice should be.”

I’m going to show how shocking the changes have been in science throughout just my lifetime, how even more shocking the changes have been since my grandparents were born, and by induction speculate on how much more shock there will be during my grandchildren’s lifetimes. All people who I have known.

Amazon has invested more than $270 billion in the U.S. over the last decade. Beyond our own workforce, Amazon’s investments have created nearly 700,000 indirect jobs in fields like construction, building services, and hospitality. Our hiring and investments have brought much-needed jobs and added hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity to areas like Fall River, Massachusetts, California’s Inland Empire, and Rust Belt states like Ohio. During the COVID-19 crisis, we hired an additional 175,000 employees, including many laid off from other jobs during the economic shutdown. We spent more than $4 billion in the second quarter alone to get essential products to customers and keep our employees safe during the COVID-19 crisis. And a dedicated team of Amazon employees from across the company has created a program to regularly test our workers for COVID-19. We look forward to sharing our learnings with other interested companies and government partners.

Your goal is the same as the impala’s: To buy time. You will have the endurance advantage. Recent studies like Dececchi’s suggest some dinosaur species may have possessed remarkable endurance for their size—but your springy hips, stretchy Achilles tendons, and efficient cooling systems make you one of the greatest endurance runners nature has ever created. The longer the race, the greater your chances.

View and Listen

GPT-3: What’s Hype, What’s Real on the Latest in AI

How reading changes your brain

Economics Environment Technology

Are the new age business supply chains turning Ouroboros?

Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, after whom the Goddard Space Flight Center was named once wrote about long-duration interstellar journeys in his essay “The Last Migration”.  He speculated that human race will send out expeditions into the regions of thickly distributed stars, taking a condensed form of all the knowledge of the human race. Pondering on the concept, I was attending the class of Prof. Sergio Chayet at WashU, where he introduced us to the concept of Just-in-time production. In the class, I realized that the business supply chains of the modern era work in a linear fashion. We produce and consume in endless supply chains. The business mantra that runs our traditional economics is the extraction of maximum profit from existing resources.

To support the model of sustainable profitability, we rely on a linear approach. We take, we make and we dispose of. To achieve profit overtimes (we do not bother whether it is sustainable or not) we transformed our economy into a cowboy economy. Since the time we settled in civilisations, the cowboy economics created the rich and poor divide in the society. The cowboy economic principle is centred on taming and exploiting a seemingly endless resource frontier. This resulted in an exorbitant appetite for resources. According to International Resource Panel, a UN body that consists of scientists and policymakers, estimates that primary materials extracted from earth rose from 22 Bn tonnes in 1970 to 70 Bn tonnes in 2010 and by 2050 the planet will need 180 Bn tonnes of material a year if the trends continue.

Is this a sustainable use of resources? It is a good time for every corporate citizen to think before it gets too late and the changes become irreversible. If we could portray the human civilization on a spaceship earth travelling to a ‘destination’, can this economics survive till we reach our destination? Is this the time to rethink our business models? We cannot allow modern business to become Ouroboros – the serpent that eats itself.

Based on the simple concepts of waste reduction, reusing and redesigning product and process flows, there is a possibility that we could still reach our ‘destination’ in a sustainable manner.  We can preserve and enhance natural capital available for future generations.  This is the concept of Circular Economics. According to Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.

The concept is congruent to the living world. There is no waste. It is just the flow of material from one form to the other. Energy is provided by the sun, things grow, then die and nutrients return to the soil and the system circulates. It is a system that has evolved over 4 Bn years. But what about human technology that runs our businesses? In the modern era when the new technology comes up, we ditch the old one. Let it be our mobile phones, Televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and the list is endless. When the iPhone X is launched no one needs the old one and Apple stops the support of the older models. Each time we use and discard, we are eating into a finite supply of resources. As an output of this process, we produce toxic waste. Technology is evolving at a much faster pace. So is the waste that is generated as part of these business ecosystems. By 2030, 3 Bn more middle class consumers will have access to latest technology. This is fantastic, but at what cost? Can the current way of consumerism be transformed by circular economics? If yes, firms can recirculate their products without any waste in their production, distribution and consumption supply chains. If companies stop selling products and start selling services, we will see this change. For example, if Apple starts selling its smartphone as a service instead of a product, the firm will have a motivation to circulate its older models within the supply chain and reduce the push of newer versions to the market.  In such a scenario, the customers can enjoy the latest technology without creating a perceivable dent on resources.  Consumers will be more interested in services and performance of such offerings rather than the product. This change in the business mantra can motivate firms to consume resources in a sustainable way and we could reach our ‘destination’.

Economics Environment Technology

Technologies in the new era of agriculture

I had been on a casual chat with my brother in law, who is running agri-business in Africa. I was surprised with the efficiency with which the agricultural economy was running and how the farmers are even using drone technology to do aerial surveillance of their farms. Curious on these advancements, I decided to do some research on the new developments in the field of agriculture.
The agriculture as a sector has a mammoth problem in hand – to feed the 9.6 billion people (as per FAO prediction) who are going to inhabit the planet by 2050. If this number is achieved by our efforts, then the food production must increase at least by 70% from the current levels. This has to be achieved despite the limited availability of cultivable lands, increasing need for fresh water and change in weather patterns that would come with the impact of climate change.
There are a few technologies that I found interesting and could change the way the food comes to our table. Have you ever imagined what is the average time for a newly harvested apple to reach to your table? One week, one month, three months..sorry! On an average, it takes around eleven months to reach your table. By that time you can be pretty sure that it is just a sugar ball rather than a fruit rich in antioxidants. So what if we could do a teleportation of such food items from one corner of the world to another corner. It is not a new Starwars movie in making.
Through the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab, we have made personal food computers possible. This could possibly make you and me the farmers of the future. This is a tabletop-sized, controlled environment provides agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber. By manipulating climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature we will be able to yield various phenotypic expressions in the plants, means we would be able to create a “climate recipe” suiting our taste. Through this project, this information can be shared across the globe on an open architecture platform to develop customised fresh vegetable and fruit recipe.Soo tomorrow we could have an apple made suiting the crispiness and sweetness customised for our taste buds. It could potentially allow farmers to induce other abnormal conditions such as drought and saline environment producing desirable traits in specific crops that wouldn’t typically occur in nature.
Another silent breakthrough happening is the creeping of Internet of Things (IoT) to the agriculture. We have started to use remote sensing technologies to make agri-farms more intelligent – means to make smart farms or feedback farms. So how do such farms work? These farms use remote sensing technologies that would observe, measure and respond to inter and intra-field variability in crops using the data gathered from farm and crop yields, atmosphere and soil-mapping, food and fertiliser consumption and weather data and apply feedback to the support systems. Such information collection is done not just in farming, but also in livestock and fishing. There are companies such as Anemon from Switzerland and eCow and Connected Cow from UK that tracks the health of livestock and recommend live solutions to the owners.Similar technologies are coming in the fish farming too. Eruvaka from India has developed a system that would control pH, dissolved oxygen, physical composition of water thus helping the water quality to be maintained effortlessly in aquaculture.
The main concerns that could come in implementing such cutting edge techniques are the ownership of data and the issues in communicating the technicalities to the farmers. In 2000, there were 525 million farms on record, out of which not a single farm was connected to the Internet of Things. IBM expects that by the year 2025 with the same base of 525 million farms, there will be 600 million sensors in use at these farms and by 2050, there will be two billion sensors used in 525 million farms – representing a major shift towards technological advancements.
Another development that would be of my interest is the one that has been developed during the interplanetary exploration endeavours of NASA in the late 60s. Since the travel time to Mars could take a year or even longer and the space on board and the resources were limited, NASA had figure out how to produce food with minimal inputs. It involved single-celled microorganisms that used hydrogen from water and the carbon from the carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts and converted into a nutritious, carbon-rich crop and eventually to a meal. The types of microbes that they used were called hydrogenotrophs – nature’s supercharged carbon recyclers. These organisms created a virtuous carbon cycle that would sustain life onboard a spacecraft, thus creating a closed-loop carbon cycle.
How beautiful would it be if we can convert the increased carbon levels in our atmosphere to edible food and solve the problem of hunger? To cope up with the incoming demand of the food, I believe the modern agriculture simply cannot sustainably scale to meet that demand. We could use the existing land resources to get better outputs through the new methods of the web and dig out the techniques that could have been used for our interplanetary expeditions.
The future of food is not about fighting over what can be done and what cannot be done. The future of food is about networking the billions of farmers and the consumers and empowering them with a platform to ask and answer the question, “What if?”
Economics Environment

Economics of fashion and pollution

It is my daughter’s holy communion and my entire family was busy in getting the best fashionable attire for her. When I had the first look of the attire it was soft as silk and was magnificent. Angels would shame seeing her in that attire. As my usual practice, I was curious to know what was the material that was used for making such a beautiful attire. The content list detailed it out as 70 percent polyester and 30 percent silk. I did not take it much seriously when I saw the attire. But over the evening, I just thought of checking out what is the impact of such synthetic fashion polymers on the environment.

Over the past few decades, there has been a major shift in the materials chosen by manufacturers, designers and consumers for the clothes they are going to work and wear. There were times when we had created trade routes for the finest silk. We also know how cotton played a central role in shaping the modern social and economic institutions including the United Stated of America and the United Kingdom.

Since the arrival of NYLON the first synthetic fibre, fifty years ago, synthetic and man-made materials have taken centre stage. As of now, industry is filled with polyester, acrylic and nylon. The shift is not irrational. Synthetics are cheaper and easier to produce in large quantities. Even though these materials are good for the bottom line, it is damaging the environment in a big way. Considering a number of pollutants expelled by the clothing and apparel industry, from the estimates of Forbes, the industry is responsible for over 10% of global emissions, an estimate that gives an idea of the grand scale we are talking about.

The plastics are made from the petroleum gases and petroleum liquids, which are by-products of petroleum refining. As per rough estimates by OPEC, in a single year, almost 70 million barrels of oil are used in the manufacturing of polyester alone. This includes the consumption of oil both as a raw material and as fuel to generate the necessary energy used in the process. Globally we consumed 100 million tonnes of textiles in 2016. In that, over 65 million tonnes were petroleum based. As highlighted in Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, this quantum of production requires 145 million tonnes of coal and a couple of trillion gallons of water.

On the consumption side, in developed economies, it is estimated that each consumer buy anywhere between 60-70 garments every year and in developing economies it is around 20-30 garments and possibly in underdeveloped countries it may even be 0-5 too. This wide disparity of the fashion is supposed to encourage us for recycling the clothes. But do we do so?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States went to either a landfill or an incinerator and not to recycling. What is the impact? If we are talking about natural fibres, unlike banana peels, these natural clothes can’t decompose. The chemicals used in bleaching, dying and printing leach from the textiles and improperly sealed landfills into groundwater. The incinerators also release toxins into the air. The agency estimates that if the trashed textiles are put into a recycling program it be equivalent to taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road. The synthetic fibres, like polyester, nylon and acrylic on the other end take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.

After this understanding, I am not so sure whether I should be in shame or the should believe that the angels would shame.

Possibly the closed-loop textile recycling could be an answer where the technology will enable a circular flow of resources in textiles. If we could separate blended fibre garments, dyes and other contaminants thus producing fibres comparable in quality and price to that produced from virgin-derived resources, the technology could be revolutionary. Tomorrow may come where we could get a discount on purchases for returning our own worn garments and could get fresh fashion made from old fashion.  Adidas, Levi’s, Nike and H&M are leading this game and would be the firms that could impact the future of what we wear and not the traditional Prada, Burberry and Gucci.