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- Next Nature Researcher
Cliff swallows, as their name suggests, like to build nests on cliffs and other rocky outcroppings. They also like building their nests on bridges and overpasses, and sunbathe on warm roads. This puts them in the path of traffic, and adds thousands of swallows to the nearly 80 million birds killed by cars each year in the US. Swallows in the state of Nebraska, however, appear to be getting wise to the ways of the highway – or at least their genes are.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska have been collecting swallow bodies along several highways for the last thirty years. Not only have the total number of fatalities decreased over this time, but the wing length of the birds has also been decreasing. The swallows, it seems, are evolving to become more nimble. Shorter wings makes it easier to take off vertically or to quickly maneuver around vehicles. Time to add “vehicular selection” to the sub-categories of “natural” selection.
Psychiatrist Jeffrey P. Kahn believes that beer, far from being an agent of chaos, is what gave our ancestors modern civilization. Beer, he writes, triggered our leap from rule-bound hunter-gathers into the creative, complex societies we’ve been for the last 10,000 years. There’s certainly evidence to back up his claims. Grain may have been domesticated to satisfy our craving for alcohol rather than for bread. In fact, brewing does appear to predate baking by 3,000 years. There’s no doubt that dense towns and cities flourished on fermented beverages when plain water was too dangerous to drink. And, as Guinness likes to point out, beer has certain nutritional benefits, not to mention that it’s high in calories.
Kahn’s argument, however, extends far deeper than beer ‘s early role as a safe drink and easy source of calories. What Kahn identifies as humanity’s five core social tendencies – codependence on our tribe members, hierarchy, responsibility, fear of offending others, and conveniently dying when we get too old to be of use – were vital but rigid. According to Kahn, humans needed booze to shake off these instinctual strictures in order to become more expressive, creative, and experimental. No beer, no art. No wine, no democracy. But is tipple really that vital, or is something deeper at play?
China’s biggest e-commerce website plans to virtually transform 1,500 vacant lots around the country into augmented reality supermarkets. It’s a cheap and near-instantaneous way to use dead space in cities. Each one of Yihaodian‘s AR supermarkets will take up 1,200 “real” square meters, and have about 1,000 products each. Customers will wander around using their smart phones as an interface to buy items, and get their purchases delivered at home.
Unlike Korea’s AR shopping on subway platforms, Yihaodian’s stores seem to require that shoppers go out of their way to look for items that could just as easily be purchased online. Because of this, we’re a little skeptical about the life of this idea beyond its novelty as a marketing stunt. To really draw the crowds to empty areas, AR pop-ups would have to offer something exclusive: products, art, or checkpoints in a city-wide game that sends people swarming over the streets to earn discounts.
Via Pop Up City
Along with drowning polar bears and melting glaciers, global warming is enacting another astonishing change on the arctic landscape. The vegetation at the earth’s northernmost latitudes now resembles that found 250 to 430 miles south. ”Ecologically off limits” only a few decades ago, an area the size of the continental United States is now green with new vegetation.
While the northwards march of lower-latitude ecosystems may seem great at first glance, it’s actually contributing to what’s called an amplified greenhouse effect. Darker forests absorb more energy from the sun than white snow, while the melting of the permafrost releases methane and CO2, two major greenhouse gases. Good news for anyone looking to invest in Arctic farmland, bad news for everyone else.
Courtesy of our friends at the Ja Natuurlijk exhibition in The Hague, we are happy to offer a new book in the Next Nature store: Yes Naturally: How Art Saves the World. Yes Naturally sets out to explore what is “natural”, and who or what gets to define what is natural and what is not. With essays and artworks that offer new insights into the relationshop with between humans and the environment, Yes Naturally is an excellent addition to any next natural library.
The exhibition runs until August 2013. We’ve very happy that our controversial Rayfish Footwear shoes were selected as part of the catalog.
Vast and sparsely populated, the rangeland in the western US is managed on horseback, on ATVs, and with thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing. Fencing is both a vital and imperfect technology. In the arid regions that stretch from Texas to Idaho, grass that is thick and green one week might be dust and tumbleweeds the next. Patches of poisonous plants come and go. Endangered birds might nest along a lush river for only a few weeks out of the year.
Put into widespread use in the late 1870s, the barbed wire fence destroyed one quintessentially American “technology” – that of the cowboy. It may now be time for a new technology to usurp the reign of barbed wire. Using GPS and a “bovine interface”, Dean M. Anderson, a scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, is hoping to transform the way we manage cattle, and by extension, the entire ecology of the American West.
One of the many arguments for high-wattage storefronts, streets and parking lots is that bright lights deter crime. Since neighborhood thugs lurk in the shadows, the reasoning goes, it’s best to make sure there are no shadows at all. This commonsense conclusion has been called into doubt by findings that show no correlation between crime levels and lighting.
So why is this finding great news? It gives us all an excuse to turn off the lights. Artificial lighting at night wreaks havoc on our circadian rhythms, leaving us at risk for obesity, depression, even cancer. It’s also bad for wildlife, from birds to turtles and flying insects. Light pollution is even unhealthy for our sense of awe: Eight in ten kids born in the United States today will never see the Milky Way outside of a planetarium.
The end of bright, pushy electric lights might also make way for more humane nighttime lighting. Imagine navigating canals by bioluminescent bacteria, or walking down side streets illuminated with gentle bacterial glow. Or, just plant the whole city with rows of bioluminescent trees.
A new study from the marine conservation group Oceana reveals that a full one-third of seafood across the US is mislabeled. Not surprisingly, the most expensive fish is also the most lied-about. Tuna was anything but tuna 57% of the time, while red snapper was another species in a whopping 87% of all cases. While cheaper, harmless species like tilapia are often substituted for the real deal, there’s at least one health threat on record: “White tuna” might actually be escolar, a tasty fish that nonetheless causes oily, explosive diarrhea.
As with the horse meat scandal, it’s astonishing how few consumers can tell the difference between species the we assume to be wildly different. It all comes down to marketing that treats fish like brands – just as that Nike swoosh is more important than the shoe itself, the words “bluefin tuna” matter far more than the actual taste.
Image from Flickr user Whologwhy.
Over at the New York Times, a recent article exposes the clever and surprisingly immoral ways the food industry manufactures foods to rival hard drugs for their addictive potential. Well worth the read, the article discusses “designer sodium”, the genesis of the ideal kid’s lunch, and the search for the morphine-like “bliss point” in soda. One scientist’s description of Cheetos, in particular, highlighted the extraordinary detail that goes into what we see as a normal, familiar food:
“This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”
Nearly all widely available foods, from Cutie clementines to the dozens of Pringles flavors, have been exquisitely manufactured to appeal to our primal need for salt, fat and sugar, and for our just-as-ancient yearning to get the most calories for the least amount of labor. We’re all hungry and lazy. Anyone looking to introduce new and untested food – in-vitro meat, for instance – would do well to remember that food science has already perfected the art of hooking consumers on whatever they care to feed us.
Photo via Flickr user Bunches and Bits.
Now that our cooler friends can Instagram, tweet, and FourSquare the heck out of every underground concert and speakeasy cocktail, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) has become a persistent problem for the less-hip. But there’s hope for those who would rather spend their Saturday nights watching re-runs of Downton Abbey than heading downtown to the newest brewpub.
The new application CouchCachet promises to give you the fully-booked, in-the-know life you so desperately wish to present. The app is a full-service social booster: Not only does it check you in to the trendiest places in your neighborhood, it also periodically tweets obscure lyrics and photos of hipsters in skinny jeans. As one of the quotes from the site says: “I can finally be who I want you to think I am”. And what you are, along with the rest of the internet, is mostly an algorithm.
Via the New York Times.
It’s a self-evident truth that there’s nothing that can’t be better with bacon – including housing. While Next Nature was busy dreaming up new in vitro meat (IVM) foods, the mad scientists of Terreform ONE in New York went ahead and designed an entire dwelling made of IVM pig cells. While the prototype for the “victimless shelter” is just conventional pig leather, the real deal (if it ever exists) would be a complex structure with tissue-engineered bone for support and giant sphincters for windows. We’ll leave it up to the religious authorities to decide whether a pork house is kosher.
In a darkly ironic reversal of its normal role, Photoshop is now being deployed to make models look more fleshy than they actually are. In part spurred on by the impossible beauty standards that Photoshop has made commonplace, models have become so adept at self-starvation that magazine editors have to use software to make them look healthier.
Former Cosmo editor Leah Hardy recently described the “reverse-retouching” that occurred under her tenure:
With each swipe of the razor or rip of the waxing strip, the world has unwittingly been massacring one of its most familiar species. In what may be the first extinction caused by porn and string bikinis, pubic lice are disappearing from the world’s nether regions. The popularity of hair removal has, supposedly, decimated the louse’s habitat.
The food writer Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork, has put forth a surprising theory about forks and teeth that has received widespread online coverage. According to Wilson, humans had an ape-like bite until relatively recently, with our top and bottom incisors aligned along their edges. With the invention of the fork around 250 years ago, our teeth abruptly switched to the overbite that is common to nearly every human today.
Not real, but a far more creative way to deal with unsightly public works than tree-shaped antennas.
When moss photosynthesize, they release nutritious fats, carbs and proteins into their roots to feed colonies of helpful, symbiotic bacteria. In the process of breaking down these compounds, the bacteria release electrons. In other words, the create electricity. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have figured out how to harness these minute electrical charges into an emerging technology called biophotovoltiacs (BPV).
Created by Alex Driver, Carlos Peralta, Paolo Bombelli, the prototype Moss Table produces enough electricity to power a small lamp. According to Peralta, the Moss Table “suggests a world in which self-sustaining organic-synthetic hybrid objects surround us, and supply us with our daily needs in a clean and environmentally friendly manner.” Small devices could be powered by houseplants or backyard gardens, while larger arrays of plants might hold promise as a new renewable source of energy, especially in remote or impoverished communities.
Think the moon looks lonely up there? In a decade or so, NASA may add a tiny playmate to keep the moon company. Last April, researchers from the Keck Institute for Space Studies presented a proposal to “capture” an asteroid and drag it into the moon’s orbit. The moon’s new mini-moon would provide NASA astronauts with a laboratory for studying the feasibility of mining asteroids for metals, using their oxygen, hydrogen and carbon to refuel spacecraft, and for figuring out ways to prevent a Cretaceous-style extinction event. Compared to the moon, the 500 ton, 20-foot asteroid would not be very big, but would be a feat of engineering to astonish the world.
Via Discover Magazine.
While Next Nature is hard at work normalizing the idea of eating lab-grown meat, a group of British design students are working to bring insect-eating into the mainstream. Though worm and insect protein is vastly more efficient and eco-friendly than vertebrate protein, most Westerners dismiss it as unclean and unappetizing. In their video, the group maps out an eight-year plan to bring bugs from a gourmet curiosity to a familiar brand – one that customers might even prefer over pork or chicken. The amount of research the group put into making palatable, marketable bug food is remarkable: from molecular-level ingredient paring to designing a network of urban insect farms, it seems they’ve left no log unturned in the quest for gastro-grubs. For a detailed break-down of the project, visit here.
Thanks to Stephen Perry for the heads-up.