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.

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.

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 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 Science Society

Particle, Mammals, Serendipity, Life, Fire-ants

With any other object, the object’s properties depend on its physical makeup — ultimately, its constituent particles. But those particles’ properties derive not from constituents of their own but from mathematical patterns. As points of contact between mathematics and reality, particles straddle both worlds with an uncertain footing.

Mammals rarely engage in repeated stereotypical behaviour when presented with a task wherein they cannot directly obtain their goal, but will change their behaviour and attempt different strategies. This could provide one possible definition of intelligence in animals: the more complex the improvised strategy, the more intelligent the animal. Other behaviours can also be used as markers of intelligence and there are gradations in intelligence.

It still feels hard, if not reckless, to imagine the upside of Covid-19. We may not have even seen the worst of it yet.

But everyone in the world has suddenly been exposed to problems they had never seen before. They’ve become aware of new risks. New constraints in how they live, work, and play. A whole new set of perspectives on how to keep your family safe, run a business, and use technology.

Some of the changes that will bring are obvious. We’re already better and faster at creating vaccines than we were a year ago. Doctors are more knowledgeable. Remote work is more efficient. Travel is less necessary.

Then there’s a second tier of change: perhaps using our new knowledge of mRNA vaccines to treat other diseases, like cancer. It seems likely, but who knows.

Whether we are creating new forms of life in a lab on Earth or elsewhere in the Universe – we are currently creating new chemical possibilities, and therefore new potential forms of appreciation and value that can affect the way we live. The technological possibilities of applied prebiotic chemistry are only now beginning to be resolved. We can imagine using chemical reactions to perform computational processes much more efficiently than silicon chips. We can imagine self-organising organic chemical systems engineering solutions to pressing environmental problems. We can imagine hybrid systems composed of Earth life and prebiotic chemical systems greatly expanding and stabilising human exploration of the solar system.

Over the last 90 years, fire ants have irrevocably altered the southeastern United States. Some 30–60 percent of the human population there is stung every year, to say nothing of the wildlife and livestock. In their quest for protein, swarms can kill calves and strip the bones. The ants have displaced many native species, reduced biodiversity, spread disease and even likely caused one species of lizard to evolve longer legs just to provide more leverage for flinging them off. The costs are not just physical. Fire ants cost the U.S. around $6.5 billion annually on a combination of control, medical treatments, livestock and crop loss, and vet bills. We are not alone in our suffering. In just the last 20 years, fire ants have colonized China, Taiwan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Macao, the Caribbean and Australia.

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A video on life and size of living things – magic of diffusion

Types of bridges – Every Bridge For Every Situation, Explained By an Engineer

A brilliant ad by German government on staying indoors during COVID

Discussion with Jimmy Wales of how Wikipedia works, why it works, and how well it can go on working if the culture wars continue to escalate.

Food scientist Harold McGee talks about the workings of smell, and its connections with taste

What to do if the plane crashes?

History Science Society Technology

Ma, Limbs, Nukes, Brain, Risks

Today’s financial system is a product of the Industrial Age, a comprehensive financial system designed to address the needs of industrialization and to fulfill the two-eight theory. What is the two-eight theory? It’s about investing in the 20% to solve 80% of the problem. And the future of the financial system is about the eight-two theory, helping 80% of small businesses and young people to drive the other 20% of people. We must transition from the old way of people looking for money, businesses looking for money, to money looking for people and money looking for good businesses. The only standard to evaluate this system is whether something is universal, inclusive, green, and sustainable. The cutting-edge technologies backing this standard, like big data, cloud computing, and blockchain are already ready today to take on this huge responsibility.

Ramachandran had the genius idea to place a mirror next to the amputee’s intact limb. When the patient sits in the right position and the mirror is set at the proper angle, the reflection of the intact limb looks to the patient just like a copy of the missing limb, and in a location where that missing limb would naturally be. Movements of the intact limb are visually processed by the patient’s brain as copycat movements of the missing limb as well. Thus, if a patient is feeling pain in their phantom right arm, watching a mirrored reflection of their left hand clench and unclench a fist can train their brain to realize that the (missing) right arm is not at all contorted in a manner that should cause pain. For cramping and other muscular pain in the phantom limb, Ramachandran’s procedure is remarkably effective.

This post discussed the three plausible mechanisms of human extinction caused by nuclear weapons. The fact that one of these mechanisms, nuclear winter, wasn’t characterized until the 1980s, is a good reminder of the possibility of unknown unknowns. While nuclear tests provided information about the effects of these weapons, the test environments were significantly different than war environments. Large model uncertainties remain. Given that the greatest existential threat from nuclear war appears to be from climate impacts, it would be great to see more researchers study the climate effects from nuclear war and the resilience capacity of different human groups.

Almost all scientists and ethicists agree that so far, nobody has created consciousness in the lab. But they are asking themselves what to watch out for, and which theories of consciousness might be most relevant. According to an idea called integrated information theory, for example, consciousness is a product of how densely neuronal networks are connected across the brain. The more neurons that interact with one another, the higher the degree of consciousness — a quantity known as phi. If phi is greater than zero, the organism is considered conscious.

Two things happen when you’re caught off guard. One is that you’re vulnerable, with no protection against what you hadn’t considered. The other is that surprise shakes your beliefs in a way that leaves you paranoid and pessimistic. Driving by car surged after 9/11 as people avoided air travel, leading to more excess car deaths than casualties from the actual terrorist attacks. After Pearl Harbor it was a foregone conclusion, doubted by few, that Japan would soon attack California.

An important lesson from history is that the risks we talk about in the news are rarely the most important risks in hindsight. We saw that over the last decade of economists and investors spending their lives discussing the biggest risk to the economy – was it Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy? Barack Obama’s fiscal policy? Donald Trump’s trade wars?

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Fast-forward through a history of human artefacts, from arrowheads to plastic toys

A cyclical, forgetful Universe – Roger Penrose details an astonishing origin hypothesis

A group of Swedish skiers and snowboarders travel by train and boat from Stockholm, through Russia, to Japan

Clifford Woolf, a renowned expert on understanding pain, talks about the biology of pain.

John Mackey, the C.E.O. of Whole Foods, speaks about “conscious leadership” to the behavioral roots of the obesity epidemic.

Economics History Politics Science Society Technology

Cancer, Clusters, Powell, Greyhound, Populist

One critical problem with traditional chemotherapies is that the rapid high doses – which are aimed at eradicating the tumour – can actually end up selecting for cancer cells that are resistant to the drugs. When the cancer grows back (as it often does), the drugs no longer work because all of the cells that remain are ones that grew back from the few resistant cells that survived the high-dose therapy. Ironically, the higher the chemotherapy dose, the stronger the selection pressure favouring drug-resistant cells (because the differential fitness between sensitive and resistant cells is higher with stronger treatment).

Historically, clusters have been pivotal in driving long-term US growth and for creating innovations that improve the lives of billions of people around the globe. As economists William Kerr and Frederic Robert-Nicoud summarize, there has been a continual movement of leading tech clusters over time in the US. In the 1800s, Lowell, Massachusetts was the center for textile mills relying on water power. By the early 1900s, Cleveland, Ohio was instrumental in pushing forward the frontier on electricity and steel. Detroit, Michigan, of course, developed into the powerhouse for automobile manufacturing in the mid-1900s. 

Currently, US tech clusters are the envy of the world. There are only four trillion dollar companies in the world. Two of them are based near San Francisco (Apple and Alphabet), and two near Seattle (Amazon and Microsoft). Of the global top 30 Internet firms, 14 are based in SF alone.

In March, as panic over the coronavirus caused stock prices to crash and made banks and bondholders skittish about lending, the Fed acted to support the economy by flooding it with extra cash it hoped would help keep normal what could be kept normal. It cut interest rates from 1.5 percent to zero, announced it would purchase $700 billion in Treasury bonds and other assets to push down long-term interest rates, and provided liquidity to keep corporations able to borrow and banks able to lend. The Fed’s actions have saved Wall Street — the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which bottomed out at 18,214 on March 23, regained half its losses by mid-April and returned to near-record levels in early September — and have also done a great deal to reduce the pain on Main Street by keeping consumer credit available and interest rates on mortgages and credit cards low. Through its swift and sensible action, the Fed helped forestall corporate bankruptcies and prevented the job losses of the spring from being even worse. The Fed did not — and could not — fix everything that was wrong in our economy with the tools it has available. But imagine if this year had featured a new financial crisis on top of over 220,000 deaths and tens of millions of job losses, and you can see what we have the Fed to thank for.

Wickman, it turns out, pretty much invented intercity bus travel—which for most Americans equals Greyhound, the company that emerged from that long-ago Hupmobile ride. “Greyhound has become generic for bus travel,” says Robert Gabrick, author of Going The Greyhound Way. “Like Kleenex for tissues.” Indeed, this classic American business icon—which, as it happens, is now owned by a British conglomerate—today has more than 7,300 employees, with estimated yearly sales of $820 million and 2,000 buses serving 3,800 destinations in 48 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces. “I’m amazed at Greyhound’s brand recognition,” says DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman, an authority on intercity bus travel. “It’s an American success story.”

Right-wing populism did not emerge in the United States because of Trump’s deranged charisma. Nor did it begin with the news media’s infatuation with his outrageous statements, or with Russian meddling, or with social media. Rather, right-wing populism resurged as a potent political force at least two decades before Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party—remember Pat Buchanan? And it has analogs all over the world, not just in mature democracies reeling from the loss of manufacturing jobs but in countries that have benefited economically from globalization, including Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey.

View and Listen

A documentary on the Cold War – particularly Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet lieutenant colonel who saved the world.

A mesmerizing video on Monsoon – a result of 30,000+ miles, hundreds of thousands of time-lapse frames captured and 60+ days chasing

Conversation on Space exploration – The final economic frontier?

An interesting conversation with Fahmi Quadir, known as the assassin of Wall Street on short selling.

Nathan Myhrvold, a computer scientist and physics student of Stephen Hawking speaks about his interests

Economics History Politics Society

Fama, Xi, Skepticism, Long-live, Mystery

Every day we hear a story about the movement of stock prices. But the story is different each day. So basically, these stories are made up after the fact. But when we look at it systematically, we don’t see a big effect of Fed actions on real activity or on stock prices or on anything else. That’s why I use to say that the business of central banks is like pornography: In essence, it’s just entertainment and it doesn’t have any real effects.

It is unusual that Xi “does not perceive his power to be completely consolidated, even eight years in,” said Sheena Greitens, a professor of public affairs who studies Chinese approaches to security at the University of Texas at Austin. Xi may be launching this campaign to prepare for 2022, when he will transition into an unprecedented third term, she said.

But a political system prone to crackdowns can turn suspicious and brittle, with everyone afraid to point out problems or admit mistakes. It is what allowed the initial cover-up of a virus spreading in Wuhan last winter, at the cost of thousands of civilian deaths. When things go wrong, however, Xi has used a classic technique: punishing local officials while keeping the emperor free of blame.

Unfortunately, if you want to do new things, you’ll face a force more powerful than other people’s skepticism: your own skepticism. You too will judge your early work too harshly. How do you avoid that?

This is a difficult problem, because you don’t want to completely eliminate your horror of making something lame. That’s what steers you toward doing good work. You just want to turn it off temporarily, the way a painkiller temporarily turns off pain.

Institutions can be mapped across the pace layers diagram as well. Take Apple Computer, for example. They’re coming out with new iPhones every six months, which is the fashion layer. The commerce layer is Apple selling these devices. The infrastructure layer is the cell phone networks and chip fabs that it’s all built on. The governance layer—and note that it is governance, not government; they’re mostly working with governments, but they also have to work with general governing systems. Some of these companies are hitting walls against different types of governments who have different ideas of privacy, different ideas of commercialization, and they’re now having to shape their companies around that. And then obviously, culture is moving slower underneath all of this, but Apple is starting to affect culture. And then there’s the last pace layer, nature, moving the slowest. At some point, Apple is going to have to come to terms with the level of environmental damage and problems that are happening on the nature pace layer if it is going to be a company that lasts for hundreds or a thousand years. So we could imagine any large institution mapped across this and I think it’s a useful tool for that. 

The notion of weaponizing microwaves dates back to the Cold War, when, in 1961, an American biologist named Allan Frey discovered that irradiating a human head with microwaves could produce the sensation of sound—even in deaf ears, even from thousands of feet away. Playing with the frequency and intensity of the microwave beam could produce a range of different sensations in a person. In 2018, Frey told the New York Times that the Soviets took immediate notice of his work and flew him to Moscow, where they squired him around secret military facilities and asked him to give lectures about the effects of microwaves on the brain.

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Simple equation creating complex behaviors and the Feigenbaum constant

Making the New York Subway map

Why hasn’t space tourism taken off by Richard Branson

A Dog’s world-view by cognitive scientist and dog devotee Alexandra Horowitz

An absolute pitch by Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin and musician Jacob Collier