- Website: http://www.allisonguy.com
- Next Nature Researcher
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.
A 23-year-old in China was recently puzzled why his online avatars were being killed off at disproportionate rates. After asking around, the young man eventually discovered that his own father was behind the virtual murders. It turns out that the father was concerned that his unemployed son had become addicted to gaming, and reasoned that hiring an online hitman would be as terminal a solution as a real-life assassin. The only problem? Virtual avatars usually have a pesky supply of extra lives.
With rising energy costs and our growing arsenal of iPads, smart phones, and wearable monitors, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to power our devices. Perpetua Power, an Oregon-based startup, has invented a chip that can turn heat into energy – specifically the heat from your own body. When placed against your skin, the one square-inch TEGwear thermoelectric generator outputs up to three volts. One generator is enough to power headphones or a pedometer; a battery of them sewn into your favorite jumpsuit might even provide enough power for a phone. Maybe the TEGwear chip will be the intermediate step between old-and-tired fossil fuels and our fat-powered Energy Belt.
Image and story via Fast Company.
Designer Robbie Tilton’s keyboard replaces the impersonal metal of a keyboard with lush imitation moss and wooden keys. Though it’s a good example of fake nature, Tilton’s keyboard is about more than just plastic replacements for the real thing. According to Tilton, “Tech products are often built in a clean, glass, pristine style. They’re not touchable. Tactilely, they are not that interesting.” The keyboard reintroduces some of the tactility of old nature into our unresponsive, button-filled environment.
Thanks to Daniel R. Witte for the heads-up.
Birds use whatever they can get their beaks on to build nests, including cigarette butts. Surprising new research from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México shows that instead of giving baby birds a bad case of smoker’s cough, the cigarettes in their nests might actually be helping them. The more used-up filters a nest had, the fewer nest-dwelling parasites called it home.
Since nicotine is a natural pesticide, it’s likely that trace remains of the chemical in the butts are keeping away the creepy-crawlies. The researchers still don’t know if the birds are using butts because they’re good insulators, or if they’re somehow aware of their anti-parasite properties. Birds in more wild environments have been known to line their nests with strong-smelling, bug-repelling herbs, so it’s possible they’re instinctively attracted to that special cigarette stink.
If you’ve turned to plastic Christmas trees because the real ones leave piles of needles behind, science is working to bring live conifers back into your holidays. A $1.3 million project in the US is trying to find which individual trees hold onto their needles most tenaciously. A team headed by plant pathologist Gary Chastagner is subjecting thousands of branch samples to a “rub test” and then meticulously counting the number of needles that fall off. By comparing shedding versus non-shedding pines, the team hopes to find the piece of RNA responsible for needle loss – and to develop an easy field test for identifying that trees that lack the offending nucleotide.
Genetic testing aside, the story of the commercial Christmas tree in the US is an interesting one. A tradition introduced by German immigrants, Christmas trees were mostly gathered from wild or semi-wild conditions until the 1970s. Unfortunately, harvesting all the young conifers from a forest has the side effect of letting understory shrubs and weeds to go wild. Competing for light against these quick-growing plants, pine tree saplings grew tall and spindly – a shape that’s not particularly festive. Christmas tree farms sprung up to provide the perfectly conical trees that no longer existed in the wild. Hypernature at its most festive.
No, those aren’t plastic trinkets or beads from a craft store. They’re diatoms, a group of single-celled algae, and unlike almost all of our current technologies, they can rapidly and reliably synthesize nanoscale structures. Diatoms produce incredibly complex silica shells that are riddled with a regular pattern of pores. As can be seen above, diatoms come in an incredible variety of shapes – around 100,000 species in all. Strong, easy and quick-growing, and virtually unlimited, diatoms are drawing the attention of scientists who are interested in nanotechnology.
As with many nanotechnologies, research into the use of diatoms is in its infancy. These microscopic algae have been studied for their ability of synthesize novel electrical devices, including new ways to detect pollution. A chemical process that converts their silica shells into silicon creates ready-made nano electronics. Since biologically active molecules attach to the pores in their shells, they may eventually function as a “lab on a chip” for detecting antibodies, traces of diseases, and other chemicals in the body. Diatoms also show promise in the fields of optics. Solar energy cells with diatom-based coatings capture three times more electrons that standard coatings. Genetic manipulation might refine the diatom’s natural precision engineering to create bespoke parts for nanosensors and nanoscale machines from diatoms. Further proof that guided growth is the future of manufacturing.