Author: Allison Guy

Food Technology

Slurpee Machines Add a New Flavor: Mashed Potato

Convenience store chain 7/11 is serving up the latest in a line of futuristic near-foods: Instant mashed potatoes from a Slurpee-style spigot. The machine dispenses a stream of instant potato paste, along with a squirt of gravy. The machine, currently available only in Korea, will soon make its way to the United States. In a time of organic, heritage potatoes and biodynamic growing methods, we’re glad that 7/11 continues to innovate in the world of easily digestible food-like substances.

Via Buzzfeed.

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Biocustomization

Genetically Engineered “Arctic” Apple Will Never Turn Brown

Canada-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits is pitching a genetically engineered apple that does not turn brown when bruised or exposed to air. This new technology, available in both Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious, introduces a synthetic gene that drastically cuts down on the enzyme responsible for browning.

As with the introduction of snack-sized baby carrots, Okanagon Specialty Fruits president Neal Carter is positive that his Arctic apples will remove consumers’ issues with eating an entire fruit at once. According to Carter, “If you had a bowl of apples at a meeting, people wouldn’t take an apple out of the bowl. But if you had a plate of apple slices, everyone would take a slice.” Carter hopes his fruit will reverse declining rates of apple consumption, and will help to curtail the number of apples tossed for minor browning.

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Boomeranged Metaphors

Turn Your Laptop into a Retro Typewriter

Miss the soothing clacking of typewriter keys? Long for satisfying clang of a carriage return? Noisy Typer, a piece of freeware for your Mac, adds the nostalgic noises of a typewriter to emails, word documents, and chats. Equipped with six different noises, Noisy Typer will help you to relive those Mad Men days, or ensure that everyone in the library hates you by the time you hit ‘send’.

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Anthropomorphobia

Robots Invade Stores to Steal Our Jobs

There’s a new threat to the world’s unemployed. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a robot that helps to organize shop inventories, making that trip to the store simpler for shoppers, cheaper for bosses, and harder on workers. AndyVision, as our newest retail overlord is called, is programmed to roll through the aisles, checking to see if products are low or out of stock, and if its puny human coworkers have incorrectly shelved an item. Human employees get the bot’s updates on iPads, and are sent scurrying to restock the shelves. Customers short on time can access AndyVision’s map to more quickly locate their canned goods and hunting supplies for the impending robot apocalypse.

With a Kinect sensor, learning algorithms and floor plans, AndyVision is well-equipped to make his takeover of minimum-wage jobs even more effective. The robot currently only works at Carnegie Mellon’s campus store, but customers can expect to see these automated workers in other local stores sometime in 2013. AndyVision might look cute and inoffensive, but remember: In the United States alone, 5 million fewer workers are needed now to produce more goods than they did in 2006, all thanks to automation. Robots are coming to make our cameras, our sushi, and in a sure sign of the singularity end-times, our Starbucks.

Via Smithsonian Magazine.

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Boomeranged Metaphors

A Second Life for Rescued Plastic Pens

Artist Willis Elkins “rescues” plastic detritus from the sea. His most recent venture, the Jamaica Bay Pen Project, retrieves sun-baked, useless pens from the shores of New York’s Jamaica Bay and reinvigorates them with fresh ink cartridges. Once consigned to the sea, Elkins gives these pens a second chance at a useful life. This project joins the New York City Lighter Log, Elkins’ previous effort to catalogue and preserve the various species of plastic lighters found on the city’s shores.

Elkins’ project is a reversal of our standard disregard for plastic junk. Instead of seeing it as disposable, the artist treats each object as a unique specimen worthy of preservation. According to Elkins, “[land]scapes that were once virgin territories of human exploration: staggering mountains, vast oceans, even the depths of space are now all being rediscovered and examined not for containing profound examples of what is natural, but what is not.” From landfill mines to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world is now overflowing with unnatural resources ready to be exploited.

Via Treehugger.

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Anthropomorphobia

Neither Warfare nor Dumplings Are Innate to Human Nature

In Ngogo, Gombe and elsewhere in Africa, bands of male chimpanzees regularly make organized raids on neighboring troops and batter their enemies to death. These grim, warring chimps have been held up as a compelling argument for the role of violence in humanity’s evolutionary past. The premeditated violence of male chimp society forms the basis of naturalist E.O. Wilson’s argument that warfare, just like social grooming and opposable thumbs, is a trait that humans and chimps have inherited from our common ancestor. War, in his view, is an innate and unavoidable aspect of human nature.

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Fake-nature

Dyeing Salmon Pink for Farms and Profit

Wild salmon gets its robust pink color from a diet rich in red-hued krill. Farmed salmon are fed on fish meal, chicken byproducts, soybeans, wheat and a long list of other monochrome food. The result is a fish that’s the same plain gray as tilapia or cod. To make up for this color deficit, salmon farmers feed their fish doses of the carotenoid pigments canthaxanthin and astaxanthin.With the help of the SalmoFan’s color swatches, the farmers can decide when their product is blush enough for market. Consumers prefer a deeper shade, with 66% choosing color No. 33.

As with “orange” cheddar, these pigments do not affect taste, nor are they particularly “unnatural”. They are the same chemicals found in krill, shrimp, cyanobacteria and, yes, wild salmon. Instead, the coloration persuades (or tricks) customers into thinking that their chain store’s coho is fresher, healthier and wilder than it really is.

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Augmented-Bodies

Thirsty? With a Cyborg Bladder, You’ll Never Need to Drink

Some desert animals, like the kangaroo rat, get through their lives without needing to drink even a drop of water. Now, a Japanese design company aims to make humans just as efficient. Faced with a fictional, future scenario of global apocalypse, Takram was tasked with the challenge of creating a water bottle for the end-times. The designers quickly realized that the best approach was not a bottle at all, but a set of artificial organs that retain and recycle the water already present in the body. Their Hydrolemic System is the cyborg’s answer to surviving global warming, nuclear explosions and Death Valley.

Humans are leaky. We sweat, pee, and breathe out all our hard-earned water. The Hydrolemic System uses several devices to minimize this loss. Two nasal inserts harvest exhaled moisture. A generator implanted in the jugular, in combination with a neck collar, transforms body heat into electricity and reduces the need for sweating. Even better are the urine concentrator and the rectal fecal dehydrator, both intended to make every bathroom trip a dry-as-dust affair. The system works in concert with “rubedo candies”, small pills that contain a day’s nutrients and 32 mL of water – less than a thimble-full.

Via Fast Co.Exist

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Biomimicry

Replacing Synapses with a Single Switch

Neural synapses in the human brain are extraordinarily complex structures. Responsible for relaying information between neurons, chemical synapses govern the release of over 100 different kinds of neurotransmitters, while electrical synapses deliver information via electricity for rapid-fire reflexes.

Now, researchers in Japan have invented a simplified synapse in the form of a “solid-state electrochemical nanodevice” that functions as a switch. The gap between these two synthetic synapses is bridged by a tiny copper wire, which changes in conductivity over time. Though at first it may seem a bit esoteric, this new device actually mimics what goes on in the construction of sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. The scientists behind this synapse are hopeful that it will lead to more life-like artificial minds, as well as treatments for the human brain.

It’s interesting that this nanodevice may in some ways have improved upon a biological synapse. Evolution tends to lead to local maxima – it reaches the best design given existing structures, but it can’t invent entirely new solutions out of nothing. The “blind spot” is a classic example: Because the optic nerve connects through the retina, there is a blank region in our field of vision where the nerve cells have crowded out the sensory cells. The brain has evolved very clever ways to deal with this deficit, but evolution hasn’t actually been able to completely solve the problem.* Maybe science may soon find more “intelligent designs” that cut some of the evolutionary clutter. As always, we welcome our hyper-efficient cyborg overlords.

*Except in squid and octopi.

Via Io9. Image via Systemic Kids.

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Boomeranged Metaphors

New Museum Preserves “Extinct” Noises

Growing up, I had a cockatiel that could mimic the bleeping cacophony of a dial-up connection with dead accuracy. I never stopped to think that my bird (still alive) preserves a valuable trace of our pre-broadband heritage. Just like Boa Sr, Thud the cockatiel could be the last “speaker” of an otherwise forgotten set of sounds.

Stepping into the void of noise is Brendan Chilcutt’s Museum of Endangered Sounds. This online repository preserves defunct sounds as diverse as a Nokia ring tone, a fax machine and the preloaded game that came with Encarta encyclopedia. Rich in memory and resonance to members of a certain generation, these noises are a mere curiosity to younger people. “Curiosity” might even be a strong term. Without any cultural connections, the majority of these sounds have no intrinsic interest.

The museum skews towards technologies created within the last 20 years. It would be great if the museum were expanded to more distant sounds. Did Dr. Taylor’s Manipulator vibrate with a particularly pleasing tone? Did the Antikythera Mechanism rattle in a familiar way to its users? And we’re left to wonder if the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass made any noise at all.

Via Discover Magazine.

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Food Technology

Where Have All the Cucumbers Gone?

This stunning graphic, courtesy of Nature & More, shows the astonishing drop in food crop diversity from 1903 to 1983. Lettuces available from commercial seed houses now represent just 7% of their former glory, while cabbage hovers at just 5%. All a reminder that the modern supermarket’s cornucopia of boxes and bags is a false diversity of choice.

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Economology

Growing Fruit into Its Own “Juice Box”

Brazilian ad agency AGE Isobar spent two years experimenting in order to grow fruits into the shape of Camp’s juice boxes. Immature limes, guavas and passionfruit were packed inside of plastic molds. As they grew, they took on the form of a box and the logo of the brand.

The stunt ostensibly goes to show that Camp’s fruit juice is all-natural. Though it’s only a marketing gimmick, we can still hope for the days that food produces its own packaging – or be content knowing that bananas already do.

Story and images via Design Taxi.

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Anthropocene

Plastic Junk Helps Ocean Animals (Sometimes)

While the Pacific garbage patch is often characterized as a dense, Texas-sized island of plastic, in reality it’s an area of 2,736 square km scattered with tiny, floating bits of plastic. Popular conception holds that the worst effect of this junk is that it strangles animals, or accumulates in their stomachs, leading to slow, painful deaths either way.

In reality, it’s much harder to suss out plastic’s impact on oceanic organisms. Fish and birds do eat plastic, and in large quantities. Bottle shards and cigarette lighters were found in the bellies of dead albatross chicks. However, it may be that for most animals, nurdles more or less harmlessly pass through their digestive systems. Scientists just don’t know. On the flip side of the plastic coin are ocean-faring creatures that are clearly thriving thanks to this novel material.

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Food Technology

Glass Gem Corn Looks Like Jewelry

Most corn has been selectively bred over the centuries to be a single color: yellow, white or blue. Glass gem corn, a varietal grown by Greg Schoen, harkens back to the days when each kernel of corn was a different color. This variation is due to the fact that, rather than being identical, all the kernels are genetically distinct siblings.

The glass gem echoes the jewel caterpillar, another organism than by dint of its otherworldly beauty recently went from natural phenomena to internet phenomena. Even though we live in a time where computer graphics make every chimeric beast and landscape visible, we’re still just as – or even more –interested in natural freaks as our ancestors who once flocked to fairs and sideshows.

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Calm-technology

To Generate Electricity, Just Tap on this Virus

Is your friend impatiently tapping on her phone, or is she just charging the battery? Researchers at the Berkeley Lab have produced the first virus-powered generator that runs off taps. The device takes advantage of a special characteristic of certain viruses, piezoelectricity, that converts movement into electrical energy. By tapping on a small electrode coated in harmless viruses, the scientists were able to produce enough energy to power a liquid-crystal display. The viruses, which self-assemble into a thin, organized film, may also pave the way for simplified electronics manufacturing.

This technology could potentially generate electricity from any object that’s subject to motion or vibration: Doors in apartment buildings, busy sidewalks and roads, even the soles of shoes. There’s stranger, next natural applications to consider as well. What about tiny surveillance devices that run on pigeons’ flapping wings? Or streetlights powered by leaves as they shake in the wind? Whatever the outcome, this piezoelectric generator represents a step away from mechanistic thought, and towards a more ecological approach to design.

Via Berkeley Lab.

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Guided Growth

Amsterdam’s Canals by Bacterial Light

Italian architect Carlo Morsiani would like to take Amsterdam’s canals from dark, dank and filled with old bikes, to brilliant, blue, and presumably still filled with old bikes. Morsiani recently proposed adding bioluminescent members of Photobacterium to the city’s waterways. With the canals stocked with motion-sensitive bacteria, any passing boats or accidental swimmers would leave a hazy blue trail in their wake.

The idea is not entirely untenable – bioluminescent organisms congregate in such density in Vieques, Puerto Rico, that the bay has become a tourist attraction. Since these tropical organisms produce only weak light, Morsiani has a lot of genetic modification to work out before these bacteria can adjust to life in Europe. Add glowing canals to buildings coated with Photobacterium and transgenic streetlight trees, and we might never have to change a lightbulb again.

Story via The Pop-Up City.

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Biomimicry

Bacteria Inspire Magnetic Hard Drive

Certain types of bacteria can navigate using magnetic nanoparticles as tiny compasses. Researchers at the University of Leeds have extracted the protein that controls this process and applied it to computing. Typical hard drives use use “granular computing”, while this new method relies on bit-pattern media, where each miniscule magnetic square on a surface can store one bit.

The team is close to recreating the data density of modern hard drives, and hope eventually to be able to store one terabyte of date per square inch – more advanced than any existing hard drive. According to Sarah Stanilan, who lead the research, “We’re using and abusing nature because it’s had billions of years to do all of its experiments through evolution, so there is almost no point in us starting from scratch.”

Photo via Downhilldom. Story via New Scientist.

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Augmented-Bodies

Regrowing Bones with Silk

Time to add another superpower to insect silk, which already includes bulletproof skin and implantable microelectronics. Recent research indicates that silk may be an ideal candidate for creating strong, flexible scaffolding for re-growing bones. Scientists used a chemical process to break silk strands down into nano-scale fibers that were used to reinforce a silk protein scaffold. By mimicking the natural roughness and stiffness of bone, this biodegradable structure helps to encourage vigorous bone growth. While certain biomaterials are at the center of research into bone regeneration, few of these existing materials can match silk’s toughness, especially in load-bearing grafts.

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Food Technology

First “Farm”aceuticals Grown in Carrots

The United States Food and Drug Administration recently approved Elelyso, the first drug to be grown in genetically modified plant cells. Produced in carrot cells, this drug helps to treat the symptoms of Gaucher disease, a genetic disorder that causes bruising, anemia and low blood platelets.

Israeli scientists were able to insert a gene that codes for a human enzyme into carrot cells, causing the cells to produce the same protein that Gaucher patients lack. This new method should help prevent drug shortages that have affected Gaucher sufferers in the past, as well as being cheaper and less prone to infection than animal cells. Soon mothers may be telling their children to eat carrots, not just for better eyesight, but for better health across the board.

Story via Nature. Photo via Flickr user Loose Ends

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Anthropocene

Is Life on Earth Suicidal?

At Next Nature, we often argue that “our image of nature as static, balanced and harmonious is naive and up for reconsideration.” Paleontologist Peter J. Ward happens to agree. In a challenge to the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that all life functions as nurturing, super-organismal “mother”, Ward argues that life on earth has a death wish that would do Freud proud.

Ward claims that, contrary to popular images of cataclysmic asteroids and volcanoes, most mass extinctions on earth were set in motion by microbes.  2.4 billion years ago, microscopic cyanobacteria emerged newly equipped with photosynthesis and triggered the Great Oxygenation Event. While great for aerobic organisms, it was fatal news for anaerobic life, which had up until then had free reign over the planet. The sudden release of oxygen is also likely what set off the Huronian Glaciation, a deadly “snowball earth” that kept the planet locked in ice for 300 million years.

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