Geopolitics Politics Society Technology

100, Privacy, Amazonian, Covid, Poison

98. People don’t realize how much they hate commuting. A nice house farther from work is not worth the fraction of your life you are giving to boredom and fatigue. 

99. There’s some evidence that introverts and extroverts both benefit from being pushed to be more extroverted. Consider this the next time you aren’t sure if you feel like going out. 

100. Bad things happen dramatically (a pandemic). Good things happen gradually (malaria deaths dropping annually) and don’t feel like ‘news’. Endeavour to keep track of the good things to avoid an inaccurate and dismal view of the world.

The black market for data, as it exists online in India, resembles those for wholesale vegetables or smuggled goods. Customers are encouraged to buy in bulk, and the variety of what’s on offer is mind-boggling: There are databases about parents, cable customers, pregnant women, pizza eaters, mutual funds investors, and almost any niche group one can imagine. A typical database consists of a spreadsheet with row after row of names and key details: Sheila Gupta, 35, lives in Kolkata, runs a travel agency, and owns a BMW; Irfaan Khan, 52, lives in Greater Noida, and has a son who just applied to engineering college. The databases are usually updated every three months (the older one is, the less it is worth), and if you buy several at the same time, you’ll get a discount. Business is always brisk, and transactions are conducted quickly. No one will ask you for your name, let alone inquire why you want the phone numbers of five million people who have applied for bank loans.

We have a product called Snowmobile. It’s a gas-guzzling truck. There are no public pictures of the inside, but it’s pretty cool. It’s like a modular datacenter on wheels. And customers rightly expect that if they load a truck with all their data, they want security for that truck. So there’s an armed guard in it at all times. 

It’s a pretty easy sell. If a customer looks at that option, they say, yeah, of course I want the giant truck and the guy with a gun to move my data, not some crappy system that I develop on my own.

A year into the pandemic, STAT is outlining a portrait of SARS-CoV-2 based on what scientists learned as the virus raced around the world, crippling some economies, societies, and health systems in its wake.

How the virus cracks open cells and wards off the body’s first-line attack. How it can spread before people start feeling sick. How it’s changed since the dawn of the pandemic, and what, if anything, that means. How the omnivorousness of the disease it causes, called Covid-19, reaches not just the lungs but into the heart, brain, gut, and beyond.

How this virus has caused the damage it has, unlike other respiratory viruses that also prey on our impulses to get together — to pack into crowds, to laugh, to sing — and use them as stepping stones in their mission to infect cells and make copies of themselves.

While Kudryavtsev makes it clear that he was not part of the operation that administered the poison, he positively answers “Maxim’’s question where the highest concentration of residue of the toxin might be expected to be found on Navalny’s clothes. Kudryatvsev promptly answers that this must be the inside of Navalny’s underpants, and in particular the seams in the crotch area. On a follow-up question by “Maxim” if those would be “the grey boxers”, Kudryavtsev specifies that as far as he remembers they were blue. In fact, the “grey underpants” was a decoy question, as Alexey Navalny told us he was hospitalized in blue undepants, and that these were part of the clothes that were left behind at the Omsk hospital.

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In 2020, the study of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was undoubtedly the most urgent priority. But there were also some major breakthroughs in other areas.

Using high resolution cameras with macro-lenses, the drying out process that takes hours, days or even weeks is shot in time-lapse.

Does our efforts to make ourselves more productive making us feel even busier and even more stressed? – A conversation with Oliver Burkeman – author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

Psychologist Angela Duckworth, discuss basic questions about human behaviour and well-being

Geopolitics History Politics Technology

Russia, Chess, Photography, Reset, Tech-war

In the long term, agriculture presents perhaps the most significant illustration of how a warming world might erode America’s position. Right now the U.S. agricultural industry serves as a significant, if low-key, instrument of leverage in America’s own foreign affairs. The U.S. provides roughly a third of soy traded globally, nearly 40% of corn and 13% of wheat. By recent count, American staple crops are shipped to 174 countries, and democratic influence and power comes with them, all by design. And yet climate data analyzed for this project suggest that the U.S. farming industry is in danger. Crop yields from Texas north to Nebraska could fall by up to 90% by as soon as 2040 as the ideal growing region slips toward the Dakotas and the Canadian border. And unlike in Russia or Canada, that border hinders the U.S.’s ability to shift north along with the optimal conditions.

Shogi is the version of chess that is native to Japan, and it is wildly different from western chess – both western chess and shogi have evolved continuously from the original chaturanga as the game spread out from India. The core difference between shogi and the familiar western chess is that once a piece has been captured, the capturing player may later place the piece back on the board as his own piece. But if that was the only difference, it would make for a very crazy game, since the pieces in western chess are so powerful while the king is so weak, that the game would be filled with precarious situations that would require the players to always have their guard up for an unexpected piece drop, and checkmate is never more than a few moves away unless both players are paying close attention.

Pictures have always been a meaningful part of the human experience. From the first cave drawings, to sketches and paintings, to modern photography, we’ve mastered the art of recording what we see.

Cameras and the lenses inside them may seem a little mystifying. In this blog post I’d like to explain not only how they work, but also how adjusting a few tunable parameters can produce fairly different results.

Covid-19 appears to have engendered a similar crisis in our world, the main difference being in scale. Whereas the crisis Thucydides describes was confined to Athens, the coronavirus pandemic has destabilized governments from Brazil to Belarus, not just that of a 5th century city-state. The political reckoning has been particularly rapid in the United States, where Donald Trump’s inability or unwillingness to check the spread of the coronavirus was a key factor in his recent election defeat. Now, the lockdowns and social distancing measures look set to plunge the world into the worst economic depression since the 1930s, raising the spectre of further political instability.

Given the wide-ranging social, economic and political impacts of Covid-19, it is natural to assume that the same must have been true of past epidemics and pandemics. But is this the case? Do pandemics really have the historical impacts that are often claimed for them or are these claims simply the product of particular narratives and readings of history?

Today, the U.S. internet giants resemble expansionist empires jostling for power, influence, and market position around the world. Each has its impregnable base of power — e.g., search for Google, social networking for Facebook, online shopping for Amazon — but their spheres of influence are so great that they can’t help but overlap. At times, their drive for growth brings them into conflict in outlying territories, such as streaming, messaging, voice platforms, and cloud services.

That seems to be happening more often, or at least more publicly, of late. And it may be because we’re nearing the end of a digital Pax Americana — an epoch of internet history in which lax regulation and unfettered access to global markets allowed the great U.S. tech powers all to flourish at once.

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How China changed the recycling industry by a two page notification to WTO.

Eddy Goldfarb, who is ninety-eight – The Man Who Invented More Than 800 Iconic Toys.

On December 3rd, 2020, an international three-person team of codebreakers made a breakthrough with the Zodiac Killer’s unsolved 340-character cipher.

An interesting conversation on the mushiness of Dr. House.

A wine merchant – John Baker hears that Stalin’s wine collection, including bottles looted from the Tsars, is up for sale, after being hidden for decades in Georgia.

Geopolitics History Opinion Science Society

Titanic, Billionaires, Dual circulation, Complex, Goat

Eighty-four years later, a scientific expedition to the bottom of the Northern Atlantic ocean recovered a chronometer from the bridge of Titanic. It stopped the moment it hit the water, at 2:11 am.

In other words, you will have 151 minutes to escape.

That seems like it would be enough time, but out of Titanic’s 702 steerage passengers, only 178 survived. That’s for a few reasons. The first is simple logistics. Titanic had lifeboats for only half of its passengers, and in steerage you’re not only bunked the farthest from them, but the escape route is a labyrinth of unmarked and heretofore off-limits tunnels and ladders. And even if you do somehow find the way, crew members haphazardly block steerage passengers from ascending to the upper-class decks. Even with the best preparation, your odds of acquiring a seat are low. And if you fail, a long arctic swim awaits. But do not be alarmed. The maze, discrimination, chaos, and cold can be overcome if you make a few bold and counterintuitive choices.

The ideal combination is the group of founders who are “living in the future” in the sense of being at the leading edge of some kind of change, and who are building something they themselves want. Most super-successful startups are of this type. Steve Wozniak wanted a computer. Mark Zuckerberg wanted to engage online with his college friends. Larry and Sergey wanted to find things on the web. All these founders were building things they and their peers wanted, and the fact that they were at the leading edge of change meant that more people would want these things in the future.

Many experts have noted a changing Western consensus on China, as leaders in Washington abandoned the idea that economic modernization would inevitably lead to political liberalization in Beijing. But there has been a comparable shift in China’s internal conversation on the West too. Beginning with semiconductors but potentially expanding to all manner of other areas, China now expects it will have to develop technologically on its own. Xi’s new theory now sits at the heart of the country’s 14th five-year plan, which covers development from 2021 to 2025, and was unveiled in draft form in October. The result will accelerate China’s decoupling from the West, while also increasing the importance of trading links forged with other parts of the world — for instance, via Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. Put more bluntly, while the world was distracted by the drama of the U.S. presidential election, Xi quietly unveiled an economic strategy fit for a new Cold War. Both for China and for globalization itself, the results are likely to be profound. 

There are currently over 17 million shipping containers in circulation globally, and at any given time, about 5 or 6 million shipping containers cross the sea. The U.S. alone imports over 20 million shipping containers’ worth of products a year. While it’s common to talk about iPhones and high-end sneakers when we talk about imports from China and Asia, the truth is the vast majority of those containers are stuffed which much more mundane goods: socks, umbrellas, pencils, paper, packing materials, bedsheets, fruit, car parts, frozen food, pharmaceuticals — the endless inventory of physical items that make our modern lives possible.

Imagine a circular fence that encloses one acre of grass. If you tie a goat to the inside of the fence, how long a rope do you need to allow the animal access to exactly half an acre?

It sounds like high school geometry, but mathematicians and math enthusiasts have been pondering this problem in various forms for more than 270 years. And while they’ve successfully solved some versions, the goat-in-a-circle puzzle has refused to yield anything but fuzzy, incomplete answers.

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Possibilities of mind uploading and Digital immortality.

How does a Christmas tree grow and is harvested?

The short documentary Spoils: Extraordinary Harvest profiles three groups, each with their own philosophies and motivations, converging on the grocery story Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn to mine for imperfect but still-very-much-edible foods that would otherwise be bound for landfill. 

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist and primatologist, talks about how stress and poverty can produce deep and damaging changes in the ways people think and behave.

William Davies on truth in statistics, trust in statistics, and the threat to both from big data

Geopolitics Science Society Technology

Frogbirds, Asia, IoBodies, Physics, Dads

It is interesting to ask if birds and frogs in physics can be broadly classified. The boundaries can be fluid, but generally speaking, Cartesian thinkers tend to be birds while Baconian doers tend to be frogs. This is partly because thinking about a broad landscape of ideas is easier than getting your hands dirty even on a single, well-crafted scientific experiment. Similarly, physicists who are unifiers tend to be birds, while physicists who are diversifiers tend to be frogs. One of the great and continuing themes in the history of physics is that of unifying different theories and different forces of nature.

Asia’s experiment with larger government comes at an interesting geopolitical moment, too. Regional leaders once looked westward for inspiration on public services reform. But disastrous pandemic responses from the likes of American President Donald Trump and Britain’s Boris Johnson have undermined faith in once-admired Western models, denting along with them the ideas of freedom and limited government that thinkers in the U.K. and U.S. have often espoused.

Earlier attempts to use the human body to communicate have usually shied away from these lower frequencies because the body is typically high loss at low frequencies. In other words, signals at these lower frequencies require more power to guarantee that a signal will make it to its destination. That means a signal from a glucose monitor on the abdomen might not make it to a smartwatch on the wrist before it’s unreadable, without a significant boost in power. These previous efforts were high loss because they focused on sending direct electrical signals, rather than information encoded in potential changes. We’ve found that the parasitic capacitance between a device and the body is key to creating a working channel.

The 21st century is often called the age of biology. Or artificial intelligence. Or any other emerging field. This relegates physics to the previous century — the golden days when the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics shook the world, and the discoveries of elementary particles led to a string of Nobel Prizes. Nowadays, people worry about a “desert scenario,” where no new particles will be found for many decades to come, if ever.

As with other vertebrate parents, when human fathers come into contact with their offspring (in our experiment, through a photo) it activates the dopamine hub and the motivational system in the midbrain. The more the midbrain was activated, we found, the more involved the father was in caring for the child. This could mean that fathers who were more rewarded by their child became more involved in caregiving, or it could mean that, as fathers became more involved and formed stronger bonds with their child, they came to find the child more rewarding. Viewing pictures of their child also activated a number of other brain regions not included in animal models of parental brain function. These areas, including the anterior cingulate, the thalamus and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, all play a role in empathy. In humans, and likely many other species, parenting involves not only the motivation to deliver care but also the ability to perceive and understand the needs, feelings and mental states of the offspring.

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Former CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez talks about some of the tactics, gadgets and disguises CIA operatives used in the field during the Cold War.

 Satisfying lasagna cooking video

What to learn from bumblebee?

How a pitch-correcting algorithm became the signature sound of modern pop music

Yuval Noah Harari talks just about everything in a Marathon discussion

Environment Geopolitics Science Technology

Inspiration, Seat belts, Space conflicts, PDF, Longevity, Apple

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.

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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

Economics Geopolitics History Science Society

Predictions, Creativity, Noses, Alaska, Pill

There is a better way, one that would allow the United States to make decisions based not on simplistic extrapolations of the past but on smart estimates of the future. It involves reconciling two approaches often seen to be at philosophical loggerheads: scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting. Each approach has a fundamentally different assumption about the future. Scenario planners maintain that there are so many possible futures that one can imagine them only in terms of plausibility, not probability. By contrast, forecasters believe it is possible to calculate the odds of possible outcomes, thereby transforming amorphous uncertainty into quantifiable risk. Because each method has its strengths, the optimal approach is to combine them. This holistic method would provide policymakers with both a range of conceivable futures and regular updates as to which one is likely to emerge. For once, they could make shrewd bets about tomorrow, today.

The atomic bomb marked the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. The creativity of Manhattan Project scientists and engineers has been abundantly celebrated by later commentators, not so much in the immediate aftermath: the word ‘creativity’ doesn’t appear in the official Smyth Report (1945) on the Project. And the only invocation of the notion of genius is deflationary and morally exculpatory: ‘This weapon has been created not by the devilish inspiration of some warped genius but by the arduous labour of thousands of normal men and women.’ But the new atomic world was just the institutional and cultural environment in which creativity emerged, flourished and was variously interpreted.

Ancient Egyptians were an African people who created a distinctive, stable, and long-lasting civilization in the Nile Valley by at least 4400 BCE. They believed that images — objects representing the human form, rendered in stone, metal, wood, clay, or even wax—could be activated to host a supernatural power. This power could be either divine or the soul of a deceased human who had become divine at death. The occupied image was a meeting point between the supernatural and the terrestrial. It was also a physical body enabling such powers to act in our material world. Without an image, supernatural forces could not intervene in events on earth.

When the hapless JFK is assassinated in 1963, it seems that America may be on the losing side of history. The USSR has put a man in space, extended its influence in Latin America and it also has a large nuclear arsenal in the American SSR. The explosion of the Apollo 11 rocket on the launchpad in 1969, killing everyone on board, set against a background of civil unrest and the disastrous war in Vietnam, becomes a bitterly potent symbol of a nation that has lost its way. A year later Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, becomes the first man to walk on the moon.

Advocates of psilocybin-assisted therapy tout it as the solution to the burgeoning mental health crisis. But, like MDMA, psilocybin is far from a culturally neutral drug, carrying both the shame of Schedule 1 status and a checkered social history. It too may need to build the kind of politically heterogeneous coalition of supporters that MDMA-assisted therapy enjoys.

But to generate a breadth of appeal, one challenge stands out: psilocybin seems to make people more liberal. Scientific reports associating psychedelic use and liberal values stretch back as far as 1971, and although these findings have been replicated more recently, a noncausal explanation is readily available. Those with conservative attitudes tend to look more disapprovingly on illicit drug use, making them less likely than liberals to try a psychedelic drug in the first place.

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Story of blood transporter in Nigeria

Inventing a mechanical basketball hoop – an ingenious work of engineering creativity

Morgan Freeman narrates a mini-doc about the ocean’s newest species: plastic

Sound designer Al Nelson and paleontologist Julia Clarke talk about how the cries of dinosaurs were created for the Jurassic Park films

An interesting discussion on Life and works of Alan Turing.

Four hundred years ago Galileo Galilei’s scientific findings were rejected because they didn’t fit the prevailing beliefs of the time. His story is disturbingly relevant today. Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio talks about its relevance.

Geopolitics Science Technology

Jellyfish, Labs, Questions, Surveillance, Rice

In the hope of solving this, some naturalists proposed a new grouping. Dubbed ‘protozoa’ or ‘protoctista’, it would consist of all those ‘indeterminate’ or ‘incomplete’ subjects, that seemed to bear no relation to anything else. But no one could agree whether it should be a class, a phylum, or a kingdom – much less what it should contain. 

This left jellyfish in limbo. There were, of course, some who still believed that they were animals. In 1843, Richard Owen (1804-92) gave an exceptionally detailed description of their anatomy and argued forcefully for their inclusion in Animalia. But he struggled to explain why. He had to admit that, at certain stages in their life cycle, they actually looked more like protozoa – and when pushed, had to fall back on the ‘essentialist’ arguments of old.

No one is quite sure why the lab model failed. It’s obvious that a scenario where Xerox is paying scientists to do research that ultimately mostly benefits other firms, potentially even competitors that help to put it out of business, could never survive. Similarly, the tension between managing scientists with their own pure research goals in such a way that they produce something commercially viable, while still leaving them enough latitude to make important leaps, seems huge. But these problems were always there in the model. What is harder to identify is an exogenous shock or set of shocks that changed the situation that existed from the 1930s until somewhere between the 1960s and the 1980s.

One possibility is antitrust enforcement. From 1949 authorities pursued a case against AT&T’s Bell Labs, which ultimately resulted in the forced divestiture of their non-telecoms arms, separation from their vertically integrated manufacturing, and compulsory no-fee licensing of all 7,820 of its non-telecoms patents (1.3% of the total stock of patents in force in the USA at the time). There is evidence that this move rippled across the US economy, providing a foundation for many of the great innovations of the next fifty years. But this would be true of almost any mass patent invalidation: the monopoly restrictions of patents once they are granted are the cost we pay for the investment in innovation that came before.

People frequently ask us what high-impact research in different disciplines might look like. This might be because they’re already working in a field and want to shift their research in a more impactful direction. Or maybe they’re thinking of pursuing an academic research career and they aren’t sure which discipline is right for them.

Below you will find a list of disciplines and a handful of research questions and project ideas for each one.

They are meant to be illustrative, in order to help people who are working or considering working in these disciplines get a sense of what some attempts to approach them from a longtermist perspective might look like. They also represent projects that we think would be useful to pursue from a longtermist perspective.

In 2018, a columnist for The Guardian asked Google to give him all the data it had collected on him. The company turned over 5.5 gigabytes of information—the equivalent of three million Word documents. When I repeated this experiment in March 2020, Google informed me that I was being “tracked across fifty-one products” and that I should be patient while my data were being assembled. “This process can take a long time (possibly hours or days) to complete,” the company wrote. “You’ll receive an email when your export is done.”

Ten hours later, Google emailed to say that my “archive” was complete. When I unzipped the files, they contained 214.47 gigabytes of data, roughly equal to streaming 214 hours of movies on Netflix. As a book printed in 10-point Arial, it would be 13,893,796 pages long. The archive included all my contacts, photos, search history, purchases, call logs, and correspondence—pretty much everything I had done on the Internet from its origins to the present. Like everyone else, I had agreed to this surveillance by clicking “yes” to unread agreements that promised to “enhance your user experience.” Apart from Google, I am being tracked by a host of other companies. They scrape data from my financial transactions and then sell it back to me as my credit rating or pass it on to Bluffdale, Utah, as part of the NSA’s effort to comprehend information in its totality.

The thing to note about rice is that it is both much more productive on a per-acre basis than wheat or barley, but also much more labor intensive; it also relies on different forms of capital to be productive. Whole-grain wheat and brown rice have similar calorie and nutritional value (brown rice is somewhat better in most categories) on a unit-weight basis (so, per pound or ton), but the yield difference is fairly large: rice is typically around (very roughly) 50% more productive per acre than wheat. Moreover, rice plants have a more favorable ratio of seeds-to-plants, meaning that the demand to put away seeds for the next harvest is easier – whereas crop-to-seed ratios on pre-modern wheat range from 3:1 to 10:1, rice can achieve figures as high as 100:1. As a result, not only is the gross yield higher (that is, more tons of seed per field) but a lower percentage of that seed has to be saved for the next planting.

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The history of universe using 13,799 dominoes.

This video from KQED’s science documentary series Deep Look offers carnivorous close-ups of the Cape sundew – a bog-dwelling plant species native to South Africa.

Everyday life in the Secretive North Korean capital

An introduction to some of the finest architects and fiercest warriors of the insect world 

Interesting story on the history of air conditioning.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter discusses about the limits of translation.

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.

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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.

Economics Geopolitics Technology

Emergence of the New five data sisters

On August 28, 1928, in Achnacarry Castle of the Scottish Highlands, there was a private appointment among a Dutchman, an American and an Englishman. If anyone knew the potential of oil, which could turn the fortune of corporations and empires, it was them. The Dutchman was Henry Deterding of Shell, American was Walter Teagle of Standard Oil the current Exxon and the Englishman, Sir John Cadman from Anglo-Persian Oil Company, soon to become BP.

With fuel-hungry ships, planes, and tanks on one side and the fast developing automobile industry on another side, when the oil became “the blood of every battle and economy”, it was these corporations that the oil men founded later known as the seven sisters, became the cartel that waged the merciless contest of money. There were times prior to the 1973 oil crisis when these Seven Sisters controlled around 85 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves.

Now let us consider the same perspective for the data. Since the time of counting, we have used information for making decisions. But it was never before this information used to be so concentrated in the hands of a five new emerging sisters. ‘Google’, ‘Facebook’, ‘Amazon’, ‘Apple’ and ‘Microsoft’. If we consider Google, there are over 100 million active users. It also has youtube with 1 billion unique monthly visitors. Facebook boasts around 2 billion monthly active users (Let alone the Instagram and the marketplace). Apple too has over 1 billion devices that are actively used around the world. Over half of the product searches happen on Amazon that has over half a billion active users. As far as the oldie Microsoft is concerned, 1.2 billion users use their product globally across over 100 countries. With Internet of things (IoT) developing, the world we survive is turning to a mine that churns out the new precious commodity data.

So what is the data that these companies are collecting from their users? They gather the information such as ad clicks, device details, email addresses, facial details, IP and location details, phone numbers, personal profile, search queries and the time information.They do it through cookies, device tracking and third party codes that we may not be much aware. We may not be even so much concerned about this information. But it makes a lot of logical sense for these companies to understand and predict the user behaviors. We will understand their power when PWC estimates the addressable market size of data to be at $1.3 trillion by 2019.

The question that whether the data is the new oil is not new. The data explosion has been predicted since 2006. There are 3 characteristics that are common for any resource that become such a powerful economic driver.

First is it’s omnipresence. If you consider the oil, it is not just a driver of our car. It is vital to the production of many everyday essentials. Oil’s refined products are used to manufacture almost all chemical products, such as plastics, fertilizers, detergents, paints and even medicines, plus a whole host of other products that you might not expect. Overall only 60-70% of the oil is consumed in the transportation sector that includes land, air, and water. Balance is consumed in chemicals and pharmaceuticals industry.

If the same parlance is taken, the mobile and smart devices that we use ever day has become the opportunities for interactions that produce customer data. The 2017 global edition of the GSMA’s ‘Mobile Economy’ report reveals that there is a 5 billion mobile subscriber base out of the global population of 7.5 billion. This is massive !!

Second is its economics. Through its extensive supply chain, the oil and gas industry employs hundreds of thousands of people and make a major contribution to the global economy in terms of global trade and technologies. Over 5-6 million people work directly in this industry globally and several million more indirectly. According to market research by IBISWorld, a leading business intelligence firm, the total revenues for the oil and gas drilling sector came to $5 trillion in 2014. 2015 estimates for global gross domestic product range between $77 trillion and $127 trillion. The oil and gas drilling sector make up between 6% and 8% of the global economy.

If we take the statistics, according to Forrester Research, Global tech industry is over $3 trillion and approximately it is over 3% with an average growth rate of over 5%.

The third is the potential for high correlation to the global economy. If we look at the correlation between the oil prices and the global economy, it is fairly complicated. The prices of the oil determine the fiscal and monetary policy of the governments.The fluctuations of its price could severely impact the corporate and sovereign ratings thus driving the investments in and out of a country. This is a direct impact on the common man whose daily life is impacted in all ways by the fluctuations of this commodity.

Similarly, if we take the impact of data, it is the dark horse that drives the consumer behavior. The targeted advertisements and customized product launches for specific user requirements are the ways to go.

But can we expect the nationalization drive that happened in the oil-rich nations will not happen again? The way in which governments responded to the 7 sisters, by nationalizing the oil resources, we possibly could see the nationalization of data. Since the new 5 sisters are extracting this resources free of cost and profiting from it, it may not be long enough to see this transformation. But I never expected that the history would repeat so perfectly.


Possibly the end of globalisation – The populism in Europe

United we stand, divided we fall – one of the proverbs that had been taught to us to understand what makes us – the homo economicus – a social animal, may soon change. This may not only change the seal of Kentucky, the seal of American commonwealth states that include 4 of the 50 American states but also questions the existence of the largest economic and political union that the history of mankind has ever seen – the European Union (EU) and the motivation behind it – The globalisation.

If we scroll through the history of EU formation, the roots lie in the Second World War when there was a new movement to create unity between Germany and France, which were in shambles by the end of the war. Originally formed as European Economic Community the infant step the globalisation, the union aimed to prevent wars and strengthen economic bonds. Britain joined the union in 1973. The pillars of formation were free movement of human and goods and protection of rights across countries. European union was a move from a single market to a single currency, a single banking system, a single budget and eventually a single political entity. With the Lisbon treat of 2007, the formation of EU as we see today was complete.  As on today, covering around 7.3% of the human population, the union generated 16.5 Trillion dollars of nominal GDP – around 22.2% of the global nominal GDP. To give an economic perspective, of the top 500 largest corporations in the world measured by revenue in 2010, 161 have their headquarters in the EU, which enabled the union to hold control over the global trade till date.

For Britain, the cost of EU membership was around 12 Bn Euros and it used to get subsidies and grants worth 4.5 Bn Euros. Obviously, a country still struggling to get employment for the youth will not like this bargain. In June 2016, the British public decides to vote against continuing in the union. In an emotional drama, David Cameron resigned as prime minister the next day. This is the story as we know it and is the dream of a single political entity is almost over.

How does this affect the global power politics? Brexit will inevitably increase the friction between the Britain and its international trading partners. Many large businesses, unsure of future on their access to the Eurozone, will most likely freeze their major investments in the U.K. Since global business is so interconnected, there is a good prospect of a global economic slowdown.

There has been pushing back against globalisation over the years. The violent protests seen in Seattle during the World Trade Organisation meeting in December 1999 were the first sign that not everyone saw the move towards unparalleled freedom in a positive attitude. With the Brexit populism has become an increasingly important force in global politics, followed by the promise of Marine Le Pen to move the France from EU and reinstate the French mark may trigger an avalanche that could result in similar movements in already brewing markets such as Italy, Netherlands and Austria. With the decreasing role of trade alliances such as NAFTA, OPEC and Mercosur and the TPP that Trump nailed to the wall, it is high time for us to bet on the Anti-Globalization.