Oof, this list got long again.
We never hear about the local Nepalis who set records. Note the margin by which the man broke the previous record!
Global Warming goals
A very good, easy-to-read article on global warming goals (how realistic they are, what the numbers are). What should we be focusing on? It turns out, for example, that cement production is a major threat. (BTW, I recently discovered when reading a technical article on cement that modern companies add plastic to cement to make it flow better – that’s a fact I hadn’t heard before. I assume that means that all new buildings will be releasing plastic as they erode or are knocked down. Ugh!)
Biochar is carbon-rich material that is created by burning wood (and other vegetation) at high temperatures in low-oxygen conditions. It seems to have a lot of benefits as a fertilizer and for keeping soil moist, because the xylem and phloem channels in the wood make nice houses for bacteria and they also soak up water. It lasts hundreds of years in the soil before breaking down totally, so it is also seen as a potential way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere (i.e., growing plants pull the CO2 out of the air, and then burning it and putting the biochar into the soil traps the carbon for a long time). But it hasn’t been well enough tested yet to be sure that using it on a large scale would be a good idea.
This is a very nice list of plants newly-discovered by scientists from Kew; each one has a little story (told in one or two lines) about the discovery, and they give you a good sense of what diversity means and why it matters. I have a soft spot for these roving botanists. One of our best friends in Cameroon was a British botanist who would show up unannounced in our camp when the palms were flowering. We were way out, 20 km from the end of a logging road and you had to cross two large, fast, scary rivers on shaky liana bridges to get to us. He spent his days out in the forest collecting huge palm fronds, fruits and flowers, pressing and drying them over our smoky kitchen fire, and sharing his wonder about the diversity of the forest with us. Then he would disappear again as suddenly as he had arrived, off to some other African tropical country where some rare palm genus was flowering. He lived rougher than almost anyone I knew—he just hitched (or bought) local rides everywhere he went, ate whatever the locals ate, had no possessions other than his plants. He stayed out for months at a time, then would go back to Cambridge University for a while to dry out. I lost track of him, unfortunately.
Internet companies and regulation
No need to read this article; it’s just a warning that AirBnB includes some pretty nasty scams. It is also an example of how huge internet companies aren’t on your side. Without going into the grody details, the Lesson is: If you ever have the opportunity to vote on whether government should regulate an internet-based company, please vote in favor of regulation (if you doubt that conclusion, then go ahead and read the article).
Ancient DNA from chewing gum (made by heating birch bark) shows that little pockets of hunter-gatherers were coexisting with agriculturalists in Europe. The artist’s drawing brings the person to life.
The oldest forest ever discovered was in upstate NY, and it was very weird by our standards. “A walker would have encountered clusters of Cladoxylopsid, a 10m-tall leafless tree with a swollen base, short branches resembling sticks of celery and shallow, ribbon-like roots. The fossils also revealed a tree called Archaeopteris, something like a pine, but instead of needles the branches and trunk were adorned with fern-like fronds, giving it an almost hairy appearance.” And there were no land vertebrates or birds, just millipede-like creatures. This was WAY back, before vertebrates made it to land!
Is music universal?
Over the last 30 years or so, anthropologists have compiled databases that document the characteristics of thousands of different cultures around the world. From a layman’s point of view, it’s hard to appreciate how truly diverse these cultures are. The databases allow anthropologists to ask questions like “What aspects of human cultures are fundamental to our species, i.e., part of our biological makeup, as opposed to just representing choices that were shaped by environment or history?” For example, they have asked, “Is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ a universal value in all cultures?” (unfortunately, I think the answer is ‘No’). But music does appear to have some universal properties, for example, "healing songs tend to use fewer notes, and more closely spaced, than love songs” in all cultures; in other words, music seems to have biological roots.
The global food system
An epidemic of African swine fever in China exposes the fragility of the global food system. The statistics in this article are incredible: the epidemic has caused a one-fifth reduction in China's pork production, which is equal to the entire pork production of the US; half of all pork products arriving in Australia are contaminated; pork prices in China have more than doubled; overall meat prices in world commodity markets have risen 20 percent, which is fueling the destruction of the Amazon; the UN official says "We don't think there's enough pork in the world to offset China's shortfall." This is certainly a story about governmental failure: it appears that local farmers have simply butchered and sold their infected pigs instead of burying them as instructed. But to me, the really shocking thing is that the event appears to demonstrate the limits of our global food production system. Very scary!
A really good article on one of the key ideas in ecology, discovered by Bob Paine. It’s very nicely introduced by posing the question “Why is the [terrestrial] world green?,” i.e., why haven’t herbivores simply multiplied until the world can barely sustain their numbers, and every new leaf is instantly eaten by a starving herbivore? The interesting answer is that predators higher up the food chain keep the herbivores in check. Although it’s not mentioned in the article, I think that question is an intellectual puzzle that could be used to make farmers more aware of the problem with pesticides, which kill predators all the way up the food chain in addition to the targeted herbivores (neonicotinoids are a poster child for this problem).
New research finds strange waves of sudden changes in the blood proteins around ages 34, 60 and 80. Why? No-one knows.
Video games continue to evolve rapidly, and the newest technology is called “ray tracing,” which is just what it sounds like: computers trace light rays entering the “eye” (i.e., the position of the viewer) in a scene to figure out where each light ray came from, what objects in the scene would have blocked it or changed its color or direction. The shocking thing is that it can be done in high definition in real time and the results are extremely good, as this video shows. Apparently, the GPU chips needed to do it really fast are still catching up to the software. Still, I think it’s amazing.
Light and pain
Green light seems to help to reduce pain (by that standard, our island should be the most pain-free zone in existence). They didn’t mention having a green background on your computer, but I wonder....
A great story about “just another” asteroid mission. It’s totally astounding that these missions work at all. I love the photos of Bennu’s jumbled surface; as the author said, it was pretty much a worst-case scenario.
Just hanging out.