The Footprint Of Our Data-Driven Lives

New-Dark-Age-1050-5927870a2b206657f6b87133d3f776c4.jpgThanks to John Harris, writing in the Guardian, for “Our phones and gadgets are now endangering the planet,” an opinion essay that doubles as a review of the book to the right:

It was just another moment in this long, increasingly strange summer. I was on a train home from Paddington station, and the carriage’s air-conditioning was just about fighting off the heat outside. Most people seemed to be staring at their phones – in many cases, they were trying to stream a World Cup match, as the 4G signal came and went, and Great Western Railway’s onboard wifi proved to be maddeningly erratic. The trebly chatter of headphone leakage was constant. And thousands of miles and a few time zones away in Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the world’s largest concentrations of computing power was playing its part in keeping everything I saw ticking over, as data from around the world passed back and forth from its vast buildings.

Most of us communicate with this small and wealthy corner of the US every day. Thanks to a combination of factors – its proximity to Washington DC, competitive electricity prices, and its low susceptibility to natural disasters – the county is the home of data centres used by about 3,000 tech companies: huge agglomerations of circuitry, cables and cooling systems that sit in corners of the world most of us rarely see, but that are now at the core of how we live. About 70% of the world’s online traffic is reckoned to pass through Loudoun County. Continue reading

Biobrick, Another Wonder Enabled By Mycelium

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The Hulett hotel, Cleveland, which Redhouse are currently building using the biocycling process.
Illustration: Redhouse Studio

Thanks to Redhouse Studio and the Guardian’s Laura Dorwart for this story:

Magic mushrooms: how fungus could help rebuild derelict Cleveland

Could a process that uses mycelium to help recycle old buildings into new ones solve the problem of the city’s many abandoned homes?

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A biobrick created using broken down construction waste combined with biobinders made of fungi, plant material and microbes. Photograph: Redhouse Studio

Over 7,000 abandoned or condemned homes litter the urban landscape of Cleveland, Ohio, where a stunning population loss of about 100,000 residents in 25 years and widespread foreclosures have sparked a housing crisis marked by growing racial and economic disparities. Posing concerns in terms of economic stability, public health and safety, the abandoned homes that line many of the city’s streets are at once symbols of its resilience and ongoing obstacles to growth and prosperity.

Cleveland native Christopher Maurer, founder and principal architect at local humanitarian design firm Redhouse Studio and adjunct professor at Kent State University, has plenty of ideas about how to address the city’s complex challenges.

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Construction debris is ground to a pulp and combined with biobinders, then pressed and treated to make bricks and other materials. Illustration: Redhouse Studio

Continue reading

Technology To Battle High Seas Ecological Crimes

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China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea account for well over two-thirds of high seas fishing. Photograph: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

If you are trying to watch what you eat for sustainability and impact, Justin McCurry, in Tokyo writing for the Guardian, has this story to keep in mind:

The ‘dark fleet’: Global Fishing Watch shines a light on illegal catches

Low light imaging data being used to expose unregulated and unreported fishing on the high seas

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These vessels (indicated with blue boat icons) in the Natuna Sea off Indonesia were detected by VIIRS, and are suspected to not be using VMS. The red lines indicate VMS tracks from the same day.

New data is being used to expose fleets of previously unmonitored fishing vessels on the high seas, in what campaigners hope will lead to the eradication of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

Global Fishing Watch (GFW) has turned low light imaging data collected by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into the first publicly available real-time map showing the location and identity of thousands of vessels operating at night in waters that lie beyond national jurisdiction. Continue reading

Make Your Opinion Known About New Labeling For GMOs

 

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The USDA has released several options for what the labels might look like.
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If the questions and concerns surrounding GMOs are of interest to you, then in the next six weeks you have a unique window of opportunity. Until July 3 you are invited to share your opinion with the folks responsible for these label design options to the right. Thanks to our friends at the salt (National Public Radio, USA) for bringing this to our attention:

USDA Unveils Prototypes For GMO Food Labels, And They’re … Confusing

Foods that contains genetically modified ingredients will soon have a special label.

We recently got the first glimpse of what that label might look like, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its proposed guidelines.

This is the product of a decades-long fight between anti-GMO campaigners and Big Agriculture companies, which left neither side completely satisfied, as NPR has reported.

After Congress passed a bill in 2016 requiring labels on foods containing GMO ingredients, the USDA launched a long process to figure out the specifics. When it asked for feedback, it received 112,000 responses from consumers, farmers and manufacturers, among others.

The result? Continue reading

Road Electrification, The Latest Automotive Paradigm Shift

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Take a minute to watch this video, and you may find the article below worth the read:

World’s first electrified road for charging vehicles opens in Sweden

Stretch of road outside Stockholm transfers energy from two tracks of rail in the road, recharging the batteries of electric cars and trucks

ElecCar1.jpgThe world’s first electrified road that recharges the batteries of cars and trucks driving on it has been opened in Sweden.

About 2km (1.2 miles) of electric rail has been embedded in a public road near Stockholm, but the government’s roads agency has already drafted a national map for future expansion.

Sweden’s target of achieving independence from fossil fuel by 2030 requires a 70% reduction in the transport sector. Continue reading

Thermal Imaging For Species-Level Learning

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A thermal image of elephants, part of an effort to apply tools from astronomy to help conservationists and fight poaching. Credit Endangered Wildlife Trust/LJMU

We have noted this technology more than once in recent years, and who can resist the images? But Joanna Klein’s story here is a bit different from our earlier notes:

How Do You Count Endangered Species? Look to the Stars

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The research team has been working with a local safari park and zoo to film and photograph animals, like these chimpanzees, to build up a reference library of different animals. Credit Endangered Wildlife Trust/LJMU

The conversation started over a fence dividing two backyards. On one side, an ecologist remarked that surveying animals is a pain. His neighbor, an astronomer, said he could see objects in space billions of light years away.

And so began an unusual partnership to adapt tools originally developed to detect stars in the sky to monitor animals on the ground. Continue reading

Why Did The Robot Swim Like A Fish?

Thanks to for this story about how a Robotic Fish Moves Like The Real Thing — So It Can Observe The Real Thing:

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SoFi, the robotic fish, swims in for its close-up. MIT computer scientists hope SoFi will help marine biologists get a closer (and less obtrusive) look at their subjects than ever before. MIT CSAIL

Scientific advancement: It’s all in the wiggle.

OK, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But when a team of researchers at MIT unveiled their robotic fish Wednesday, one of the keys they emphasized was the graceful undulation of the prototype’s tail — which, besides being rather eye-catching, serves a crucial role in the robot’s ultimate mission: giving scientists the ability to unobtrusively observe marine wildlife remotely.

robot-fish.gif“Because the fish moves through undulating movement rather than thrusters, the impact it has on how the water moves around it is much more like what is expected of physical fish,” Daniela Rus, director of the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, tells NPR. Continue reading

Humans Still Best Machines In The Berry Patch

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Credit: Dan Charles/NPR

Thanks to Dan Charles and his salt colleagues at National Public Radio (USA) for this look at one of machine-learning’s agricultural challenges:

Robots Are Trying To Pick Strawberries. So Far, They’re Not Very Good At It

Robots have taken over many of America’s factories. They can explore the depths of the ocean, and other planets. They can play ping-pong.

But can they pick a strawberry?

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The strawberry-picking robot enters a field near Duette, Fla.
Dan Charles/NPR

“You kind of learn, when you get into this — it’s really hard to match what humans can do,” says Bob Pitzer, an expert on robots and co-founder of a company called Harvest CROO Robotics. (CROO is an acronym. It stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.)

Any 4-year old can pick a strawberry, but machines, for all their artificial intelligence, can’t seem to figure it out. Pitzer says the hardest thing for them is just finding the fruit. The berries hide behind leaves in unpredictable places. Continue reading

Podcast Proliferation

VoxPodNearly one month ago, Vox launched a new way for us to source stories. We have sourced from their website when the story fits our mission. For us to scan the news daily and link to at least one article or book review or other media that seems consistent with our mission, we increasingly bump up against the fact that producers of and channels for accessing relevant information seem to be increasing faster than we can possibly keep up.

Today we sampled from their sonic venture, a story about changes way up north, wrought by climate change, geopolitical ambitions, head in the sand-ism and other intrigue. Finding an episode like this one stretches our horizons in a healthy, productive manner:

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There’s a new Cold War being fought in the North Pole between the United States and Russia (but also China, Finland, Norway, Canada, Greenland and more). Fueling the battle is the melting Arctic, which just had its warmest winter in recorded history. Vox’s Brian Resnick gives us the science before Yochi Dreazen takes us to the war.

It must also be mentioned that having outlets we trust recommend other outlets is a must. And here is an example of one we appreciate:

“Today, Explained”: An Edgy New Vox Podcast to Compete with “The Daily”

By 

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Hosted by Sean Rameswaram, the Vox podcast “Today, Explained” feels funny, knowing, and energetic—which, in this news climate, isn’t easy. Photograph by James Bareham / Vox Media

Podcast-wise, 2017 was arguably the year of “The Daily,” the beautifully produced, gently voiced narrative-news offering from the Times, hosted by Michael Barbaro, which started last January and quickly became indispensable. The show, which parses a different news story in each episode, through a conversation with a reporter or other guest, then delivers a brief news roundup, has sufficient perspective and empathy that it produces in its listeners an intoxicating, if temporary, feeling of sanity; by now, its theme song alone cues in me a Pavlovian calm. The show garners 4.5 million unique listeners each month; in April, it will expand to public-radio syndication. Continue reading

Disruption Reconsidered

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Gabrielle Lurie / Reuters

Derek Thompson, writing in the Atlantic recently, has a very readable consideration of the fashionable obsession with disruptors, a topic we give too little attention to in these pages. So, a small step forward:

Airbnb and the Unintended Consequences of ‘Disruption’

Tech analysts are prone to predicting utopia or dystopia. They’re worse at imagining the side effects of a firm’s success.

The U.S economy is in the midst of a wrenching technological transformation that is fundamentally changing the way people sleepworkeatshoploveread, and interact.

At least, that’s one interpretation. Continue reading

What Do We Want In A City Of The Future?

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lillisphotography / Getty / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

We do not normally link to the writing of science fiction authors, nor is the topic of the essay below typical of the themes in our 2011-2018. But it is not unheard of; nor is it too late to add more to this short thread of links to sci-fi authors. If Bruce Sterling catches your attention with these first few paragraphs pasted below, you may want to go to The Atlantic to read the rest:

Stop Saying ‘Smart Cities’

Digital stardust won’t magically make future cities more affordable or resilient.

The term “smart city” is interesting yet not important, because nobody defines it. “Smart” is a snazzy political label used by a modern alliance of leftist urbanites and tech industrialists. To deem yourself “smart” is to make the nimbyites and market-force people look stupid.

Smart-city devotees all over this world will agree that London is particularly smart. Why? London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.

London also has a large urban-management bureaucracy who emit the proper smart-city buzzwords and have even invented some themselves.  The language of Smart City is always Global Business English, no matter what town you’re in.

So if grand old London is smart, with its empty skyscrapers, creepy CCTV videocams, and sewers plugged with animal fat, then we probably needn’t fret about the Elon Musk sequins and stardust of digital urbanism. Better to reimagine the forthcoming urban future as a mirror of Rome, that “Eternal City,” where nothing much ever gets tech-fixed, but everything changes constantly so that everything can remain the same. Continue reading

Water Independence, A Trend Worth Watching In 2018

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At Opal Springs Water Company in Oregon, raw water is prepared for shipping to the company Live Water. Credit Leah Nash for The New York Times

Closing out 2017, a note on water. Nellie Bowles wrote this story, Unfiltered Fervor: The Rush to Get Off the Water Grid, for the Food section of the New York Times. It could just as well have been in either the Science or the Tech section.

One new technology allows anyone, in dry or humid climates, to produce and store their own drinking water. The story is in the Food section presumably because it is a luxury for the improvement of your drinking pleasure; but the implications for natural resource management are interesting. And what about the projects that societies have embarked upon, forever, to determine ever-better ways to distribute necessities like water?

SOURCE: a HydropanelTM that makes drinking water from sunlight and air

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A standard residential SOURCE array is made up of two panels: one primary panel and one additional panel with array sizes designed to meet your drinking water needs.

  • Daily Production

    A standard array averages 4-10 liters each day or 8-20 16.9oz standard water bottles, depending on sunshine and humidity.

  • Footprint

    Each panel is 4 feet x 8 feet (1.2m x 2.4m) and a standard array contains 2 panels.

  • Water Storage

    Each panel holds 30 liters in a reservoir where it is mineralized and kept clean for optimal taste and health. Standard arrays have 60 liters of water storage capacity.

  • Power

    SOURCE utilizes solar power and a small battery to enable water production when the sun shines and water delivery on cloudy days or at night.

The story includes several technologies that seem worth knowing about:

Continue reading

Battery Story, 2017

Tesla grid storage South AustraliaBattery technology is the thing. It seems to be a holy grail that environmentalists and technologists can agree on for helping us, humans who want a habitable planet for generations to come, mitigate climate change. And occasionally it is at the core of short term fixes. Once the dust has settled on 2017, and we are looking back on stories that were on the positive side of long term impact on the planet, this story will probably get more attention. For now it seems like a footnote at the end of the year to note that this Tesla scheme actually seemed to work:

Tesla Grid Storage Battery Reacts Insanely Fast To Coal Power Outage

Last spring, Elon Musk made a daring bet. He claimed he could build and install the world’s largest grid storage battery in South Australia within 100 days of the date a contract was signed or the system would be free. The contract was signed on September 29. Installation was completed by the third week of November. On December 2, the giant 129 MWh system was activated. Continue reading

The Business Sense of Doing Good

The Google logo is spelled out in heliostats (mirrors that track the sun and reflect the sunlight onto a central receiving point) during a tour of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border February 13, 2014. The project, a partnership of NRG, BrightSource, Google and Bechtel, is the world’s largest solar thermal facility and uses 347,000 sun-facing mirrors to produce 392 Megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power more than 140,000 homes. Photograph: Steve Marcus/Reuters

The often maligned Calvin Coolidge quote the “Business of America is Business” takes on a positive note when we consider that in the current political climate many corporations are stepping up where the federal administration falls short.

American companies are still investing in renewable energy

After the November elections, many of us in the climate and energy fields were rightfully fearful. What would happen to international agreements to cut greenhouse gases? What would happen to funding for climate research? What would happen to the green energy revolution?

In most instances, Trump is worse than we could have imagined. But in one special area, the president may not matter. That is in the growth of corporate purchasing of renewable energy. It turns out there are factors that even he cannot stop that make choosing renewable energy an easy decision for many companies.

New evidence about the unstoppable renewable energy wave recently came out in a report that was released by Apex Clean Energy and the GreenBiz Group. These groups surveyed corporations to determine their future plans on renewable energy installation and adoption. They wanted to know whether these plans had changed in the past few years and what motivated their decisions to implement renewable energy strategies. The outcome of this survey is available here for people who want to read the entire document.

The groups surveyed 153 major corporations (both public and private), whose combined revenue was in excess of $250 million. Among these companies, 84% are “actively pursuing or considering purchasing renewable energy over the next 5-10 years.” Surprisingly, they found that 43% of the corporations intend to be more aggressive in their pursuit of renewable energy in the next two years. 87% of those actively pursuing renewable energy purchases stated that the election had no impact on their decision.

In fact, 11% were more inclined to purchase renewable energy. Continue reading

Is This The Future Of Agriculture?

hfh-logo_1Automated machines growing the first arable crop remotely, without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. ​

Nicola Twilley, a contributing writer for newyorker.com and the author of the blog Edible Geography, is also a co-host of the Gastropod podcast that we link to from time to time. She has brought our attention to an “underfunded initiative” which, considering what looks like a shout out from Monsanto on the initiative’s website, we read with simultaneous wonder and dread:

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A Field Farmed Only by Drones

Across the United Kingdom, the last of the spring barley has been brought in from the fields, the culmination of an agricultural calendar whose rhythm has remained unchanged for millennia. But when the nineteenth-century poet John Clare wrote, in his month-by-month description of the rural year, that in September “harvest’s busy hum declines,” it seems unlikely that he was imagining the particular buzz—akin to an amplified mosquito—of a drone. Continue reading

The Origin Of Feasting

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A life of hunting and gathering had advantages over one of farming and settlement. Illustration by Golden Cosmos

John Lanchester’s article, pondering technology versus science, gives fire its due in the course of reviewing a new book about how hunting and gathering gave way to progress. At the same time, Lanchester raises reasonable doubts about the gains:

book-scott-grain…We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. Continue reading

Scale, Distribution & Disruption

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Three stories in today’s New York Times, two in the main Business section and the other in the Media subsection of Business, are an interesting read in tandem:

As Amazon’s Influence Grows, Marketers Scramble to Tailor Strategies

While Other U.S. Companies Flee China, Starbucks Marches In

With ‘Logan Lucky,’ Soderbergh Hopes to Change Film’s Business Model

 

That Thing About Uber

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For what it is worth, a confession. I deleted this app with the intent to never use it again, and then I switched to this one. That felt good. Then last week I was up in the mountains of Escazu, in Costa Rica, and I had to change my mind. At 3:30 a.m. a local taxi driver who was supposed to pick me up to take me to the airport did not show up. After a few minutes I finally relented and downloaded the app I had deleted. And something unexpected, something very good happened. Continue reading

The Technological Wow Factor of Archaeology

Crist’s post about this fascinating National Geographic article last week touched on its excellent graphics but barely began to scratch the surface of the amazing technology that would certainly have left the readers of the early issues of the magazine speechless.

In addition to the world-class photography, the interactive 3-D graphic of the frieze above uses SketchFab technology to allow viewers to not only zoom in and out, but to turn the object around in all directions, as if handling it in person. Do take the time to play with it! Continue reading

Suddenly, Lyft

Lyft1.jpgWhen I decided to delete that app it was without hesitation. I wanted to avoid sanctimony, but the point of making a show of my resolve was a simple message, i.e. that manners matter. Even though that app had been extremely useful to me over the past year, it was not so useful that I could ignore its founder’s behavior once I finally paid attention.

So now I am paying attention, and need a new app. And where better to start looking? I liked the message of that story, for reasons akin to my boyhood preference for Bjorn Borg over John McEnroe. I believe in disruption and I believe in winning, but if one is going to develop new rules of the game, then they should definitely be better rules that lead to better behavior. Continue reading