Economics Environment Science Society Technology

Odor, Dive, Michelin, Starship, History, Biomass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starship is Still Not Understood

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

Here’s how this all happened.

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

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

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

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

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

Economics Environment History Science Technology

Mattresses, Tombs, Nickel, 52, Algorithm, Machines

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

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

A Death Full of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Law Politics Science Society Technology

Data, Exhausted, Ports, Ethiopia, Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peek into our adaptive immune system

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

History Science Society Technology

Garum, Saliva, Childcare, Spiders, Empire

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

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

The Bizarre Cultural History of Saliva

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

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

Liberty and Limitation

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

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

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

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

Environment Geopolitics Science Technology

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

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

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

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

Asteroid spotting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Messy Truth About Carbon Footprints

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 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

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.

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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