What goes up, come down. If it's a satellite or a spaceship then you hope it comes down in the South Pacific in a place as far away from inhabited land as possible. Someday someone (some alien?) is going to across all the space junk currently sitting at the bottom of the sea—only by then it will be embedded in a rock atop a mountain—and wonder what the heck happened here. It's a PhD thesis in the making. Fascinating read via How Stuff Works.
"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency" --Daniel Burnham, "The Plan of Chicago" (1909)
Although separated by a century and continent, Burnham would have applauded Boyan Slat's efforts to clean up the world's oceans—a project Slat began when was just 16-years old and living in the Netherlands. Now in his mid-twenties and with millions of dollars in funding, Slat's big plan is about to be put to the test. This summer a two-mile boom / filter designed to clean up "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch" (the largest of five garbage patches swirling aound the world's oceans) will be towed into place by Slat's nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup.
There is so much plastic in the sea that recently a dead whale washed up with 64 pounds of the stuff in its stomach.
Even if successful, there is second problem with recycling the plastic, which comes from many different sources. Some of the plastic contains harmful chemicals, but those bits are impossible to sort out. However, a recent, serendipitous discovery of a super-enzyme capable of dissolving plastic into its component petroleum parts may provide a solution. Not only would all the existing plastic be recyclable, but there would also be no need to use oil to create new plastic. Win-win!
There is a certain awe-inspiring doggedness to these aquatic Roomba-style waterway vacuum cleaners. The video on the top is from Dutch company called RanMarine, which has field-testing WasteSharks all over the world. The founder Richard Hardiman made a prototype in his garage after seeing a couple of fisherman trying to clean up an area around their boat with a pool net. His tinkering has morphed into a business and a calling. Rán, btw, is a Norse sea goddess: "Famously independent and impetuous, Rán catches sailors who fall overboard in her magical net (a gift from Loki, the god of mischief) in return for whatever gold they are carrying."
The Trash Robot in the second video will be patrolling the Chicago River this summer. It is the latest project from Urban Rivers, an intrepid grassroots organization focused on low-cost, innovative, crowdfunded solutions. Not only did Trash Robot beat its $5000 funding goal on Kickstarter (shout out to Makerbiz member Nick Wesley!), but the campaign offered a unique reward to backers: the chance to operate the bot remotely—a real world riff on Pac-Man. I can't wait to see this is action!
Recently I was asked to be part of a workshop at IIT looking at the food manufacturing industry in Chicago. One the exercises involved choosing two technologies and imagining their combined impact across the food system (growing, packaging, disposal, etc.). The technologies were listed on two decks of cards, each a different color, which gave the whole thing a sort of Tarot-meets-Board-Game feel. My group chose "Open Source Design" and "Robots" (hat tip to Chris Bue whose admiration of the Roomba tribe runs deep). Very quickly we zoomed in on disposal as a sector full of opportunity riffed on the city's potential to become a trashbot hub. That got me curious... Sure enough, trashbots are a thing! It is hard to get a sense of just how big, but according to a new industry report, the sector globally is expected to enjoy a robust compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 20% by 2024. There is a gold mine in garbage!
I have a weakness for trade shows and Waste Expo is amazing. I went to one several years ago at McCormick Place and I hope it returns here for 2019 (I would really like to keep my streak of never having been to Las Vegas going as long as possible...).The technologies are amazing and the opportunities are vast. However, it is an industry dominated—at the management level—by white men. Just look at the promo video. There is no good reason for this.
There are a couple of ways this can be fixed. The first is more aggressive outreach by the industry (e.g., free passes for students). The second is for people simply to make the decision to go and learn. Many of these kinds of conferences offer free-with-registration access to the trade show floor. Vendors are generally very friendly and it's a good way to research job prospects. It is a one-stop shop for trade magazines, too. If you live in a city with a convention center, find out what's coming to town and whether there might be a way you for you to attend. Whenever I walk into a big show at McCormick Place I alway sigh and think, "They did this all for me?"
Fight garbage with garbage? This could be genius...
"If bots can be used to spread propaganda, bots can also be used to create an immune system-like response to isolate and envelop these abusive sites while they starve for resources. If bots can be used to spread disinformation, they can also be used to create a crowd within which to hide and stay anonymous.
"Most importantly, it’s much harder for the next Cambridge Analytica to abuse data that’s riddled with synthetic but plausible garbage." — Chad Loder CEO, habitu8
Of course, all that fakery comes at an energy cost as servers serve up every greater quantities of faux fluff. Also, as the lines between what's real and what's not blur, it's possible to create an auto-immune response that makes it harder than ever for the truth to shine through. (via The Register)
In this age of tariff tiffs and looming trade wars, the business case for recycling electronics has become that much more compelling. It is cheaper to reuse materials such as aluminum, tin and rare earth metals if the quality can be maintained. Daisy, Apple's latest dis-assembly bot, is designed to do just that. However, given Daisy can take apart only 200 iPhones per hour, while more than 30,000 are sold in that time, it's going to take an immense field of Daisies to make a dent. Still ,it is a promising move in right direction: circular. Everything old can become new again when waste becomes resource.
Let's take a moment and welcome this year's much-better-late-than-never Spring. I was walking north on Wacker Drive yesterday afternoon when I spotted the little guy in the photo. Perhaps he flew in for an audition at the Lyric Opera, which is just up the street (have you heard him sing?), or maybe he'e en route to (literally) greener pastures. Either way, Winter is no match for this tiny powerhouse. Spring it on, then!
Last night I was at a Passive House meetup in Chicago where among many other things, I learned about Energisprong. (For those new to Passive House, it is a method—and a philosophy—for designing super efficient buildings.) Energiesprong, which came out of the Netherlands (hence the quirky-fun word), is extreme-retrofitting. As the slightly Monty Python/Terry Gilliam-ish animation above explains, older homes get new, better-insulated facades, solar roofs and system upgrades. The kicker is that the work is completed in about a week. Energiesprong is catching on in Europe. Here in the US, Rocky Mountain Institute's REALIZE initiative is working out the logistics to make this practical at scale.
Given all the gobsmacking advances in bestiary robots (fish, snakes, bees, bugs, dogs...), and ever-cleverer AI (e.g, Who / what wrote that poem?!), perhaps the time has come for V.2 of Alan Turing's famous test. Merely matching—or exceeding—human intelligence doesn't seem like much of a challenge anymore. On the other hand, hacking bird-of-paradise intelligence would take things to a whole new alien-psychedelic level. Famous for the males' extravagant courtship displays, you would think scientists would know all there is to know about these flashy dancers. It's not like they're hiding, which makes the identification of a new species in Indonesia all that more amazing. Look at this fellow go! Now write the algorithm... (via National Geographic)
Of all the mechanical critters in the ever-expanding robot bestiary, I think the fish could be my favorite (the headless dog is most definitely my least favorite). The video is certainly much more soothing to watch than the typical tech fare, shot among the coral reefs of Fiji. While the researchers were focused on testing out the fish itself, I'd like to see some of what the fish saw. I guess that's the next trip. Another suggestion: paint the fish like a tropical fish! If the idea is to send schools of these things into the deep as unobtrusive observers, they need to blend in!
Last year at the Automate conference at Chicago's McCormick Place, it was clear that the future, at least in terms of robots, was soft and bendy. Multi-jointed robotic arms have hands with multi-jointed fingers. Now researchers at Harvard have figured out how to make artificial skin designed to slither and made a robo-snake. Robo-eek!
Remember when origami was for making pretty paper swans? The mash-up of drone, extendable origami arm, a gripper and a camera is truly a mythical beast of a maker's dream. While it may not be lovely, it is impressive. The folding arm is some darn clever engineering. Related article on The Verge.
If it weren't so darn adorable, I'd probably reach for a shoe to squash it. That's a lot of "Wow!" in a small package.
While actual bees are plotzing all over the planet from pesticides, mites and disease, the buzz has shifted to itty bitty electronic drones. Interest is coming from all quarters. Retailer Walmart just took out a patent on a drone bee, which kind of makes sense when you consider that more than half its profits come from groceries and much of the food supply is tied into pollination. Artificial bees as the fix for our collective failure to save the real ones? There's not a lot of joy in that. Then there are NASA's "Marsbees," swarms of which could soon be heading to the red planet. Imagine the sound of thousands of tiny plastic wing beats at dawn... (Related: "Supply chains at risk as pollinators die out" )
Puffin beaks glow in the dark. We know that because a scientist having a "'troubling' time in the lab" one day decided to shine a UV light on a puffin carcass in the dark. Ok, it wasn't an entirely random, whimsical, weird thing to do. It turns out there are other birds with fluorescent beaks. Now the question is whether live puffins are as brilliantly wired as dead ones. Field trip! (via CBC)
Researchers at MIT infused plants with the enzyme that makes fireflies glow, making them glow, too. It's neat, but why do it? "Imagine that instead of switching on a lamp when it gets dark, you could read by the light of a glowing plant on your desk." Seriously? If the point is grid-independent lighting, then a solar-charged lamp does the job better and without the eerie green glow. "This technology could also be used...to transform trees into self-powered streetlights, the researchers say." What happens in winter? For that matter what happens when insects nibble the leaves? Will they glow, too? No doubt there is a useful future for nanobionic technology, but what that may be in unclear in the faerie light dazzle.
It is halfway through April and there is snow on the ground in Chicago. At least it's not 28" of snow, which is what fell north of here. Still, in this extended season of gray I find myself desperate for color, the more audacious and science-fictional the better. Thank goodness it turns out we live on a glowing, technicolor planet. Thank goodness for National Geographic.
Slideshow by me! Be patient, the photos will change. From "News from the..." . (more about the ongoing project here)
I have a weakness for the itty bitties... Yeast, the leaven of life, turns out to have a pretty amazing backstory. All life-forms came from somewhere and for yeast that somewhere is China. It took some game-changing microbiological sleuthing to figure it out:
"...How yeast strains are different from each other turned out to be surprising, too. A standard way to measure difference is to take the same gene in two separate yeast strains and compare how many letters have changed—like typos that have accumulated over time. But Liti and Schacherer found that the number of times a particular gene is repeated in the genome—a phenomenon known as copy-number variation—actually accounts for more of the differences between, say, strains used to brew tasty lagers and strains that live on insects in the wild. In other words, it’s not just the sequence of the gene that matters, but the number of copies the yeast has..." (via The Atlantic)
Yeast was hard to come by during WWI in France, so bakers had to get clever. They mashed up raisins in water, which attracted wild yeast floating the air so they could grow their own. A baker in the Ardennes has recreated a recipe for the bread upon which the French military depended. These were the soldiers who literally fought in the trenches where modern chemical warfare came of age. He now sells 120 loaves a week, with portion of the profits going to a soldiers' remembrance organization. (via Seveva.net)
Slide guitar, sparkly outfits, a banged-up old guitar...check, check and check!
"...So look around you
And take a good look
At all the local wannabe's
Are you sure that this is where you want to be?"
These days the devils are everywhere, but the details are always revealing. From Wired's Rowland Manthorpe:
"...About six months ago, I spent a day at the campus you built in Silicon Valley. I’m guessing people don’t tell you this kind of thing, but, just so you know, it’s not a pleasant place. It’s too big, for a start. Plus those posters you have everywhere make it seem like an AA meeting, only for people who’ve never been drunk. There was one at reception saying, “Silence = Death.” Right above the spot where you force people to sign a non-disclosure form to enter the building..."
Meanwhile, the gentle and brilliant giant (all definitions) Jaron Lanier spoke about the Faustian "oops" of social media at the TED conference this week: "We cannot operate as a society if the only way two people can communicate is if it is financed by a third person who wants to manipulate them."
Well, we can, but it's an Orwellian society (see China).
Watching Lanier's talk Iwondered how many in the audience made their fortunes from mining and manipulating data...
"We're not looking backwards. We're looking forwards" Remember when we had a President that thought looking ahead was a good idea? That listening to scientists was common sense? That investing in science was important? That clean air and water mattered? This was just two-and-half years ago. "Today an African-American child is more than twice as likely to be hospitalized from asthma. A Latino child is 40% more likely to die from asthma. If you care about low income, minority communities, start protecting the air that they breathe and stop trying to rob them of their health care." Rather than destroy Obama's legacy, the systemic dismantling of the Affordable Care Act and the Clean Power Plan have only made it stronger. We were on the right track. Come November, vote.
One thing leads to another. A new friend recently told me about an organic farmer's conference in Wisconsin. I looked it up and discovered that one the keynoters, Melinda Hemelgam, records a podcast with the intriguing if concerning title "Food Sleuth Radio." Who could resist such a rabbit hole? Not me... Her latest interview is with Dr. Lori Byron, a pediatrician with a fabulous backstory. Once Dr. Byron gets going in the interview, it's an interesting listen. She connects the dots between climate change, nutrition, public health, poverty and childhood development.
In a span of about 25 years, the number of diesel-powered cars on European roads went from 3% to 37%. Because diesel doesn't generate as much CO2, consumers thought they were doing a good thing. Whoops! It turns out diesel pumps out prodigious amounts of nitrogen dioxide and also soot filled with small particulates the perfect size to clog up lungs. The spike in air pollution led to spikes in respiratory illnesses and premature deaths. German automakers have long fought to keep diesel because it's been so profitable. Volkswagon even went so far as to fudge emissions data. Now on the roads from lawsuits and the rise of EVs, the tide is turning. via Yale 360
With its a robotic narration, the embedded video is admittedly a challenge to watch, but provides a good overview on a fascinating shift towards solar roadways. Bloomberg just published a more in depth article on this latest stretch of solar road in China. It turns out that the mobility revolution is just as much about the reinvention of pavement as it is about EVs and ridesharing. In addition to generating electricity for the street-lighting and for selling to the grid, the Chinese envision on-the-go wireless EV battery charging. Imagine, the more you drive, the more power you would have to drive even further. Tailpipes? What's a tailpipe? There are still a lot of details to be worked out, e.g., Do these roads get pot holes and if so how do you fill them? For more about next generation roads, see post on The Ray.
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