Google buys Skybox

Satellite startup Skybox was acquired by the search giant for $500 million, removing one competitor from the nascent field of scrappy Earth-imaging startups. Where satellite imagery giants like Digital Globe typically employ a few very expensive satellites—each essentially the lone representative from their generation of technology—small companies like Skybox have been using a constellation approach, where multiple smaller satellites provide high spatial and temporal resolution at lower cost.

I’m sure Skybox will get a boost from this acquisition, allowing their planned 24-satellite constellation to be in place by 2018, as planned. But it’s also sad to see a promising company get snapped up, its products likely unavailable to the public (outside of Google Maps). At least we still have Planet Labs. For now.

Wilder, less predictable course to host U.S. Open

Next week, North Carolina’s Pinehurst No. 2 will host the U.S. Open, the time the course has welcomed a major championship since its renovation in 2010, which replaced acres of manicured rough with native vegetation. 

Bill Pennington, reporting for the New York Times:

By the end of the restoration, about 700 of Pinehurst No. 2’s 1,100 sprinkler heads had been eliminated, which has cut water use in half, saving about 40 million gallons a year.

Mike Davis, the United States Golf Association’s executive director, said the environmental impact of the restoration could have a lasting effect in golf.

“At the U.S.G.A., we would say the biggest threat to the game, long term, is water,” Davis said. “That is a great story of what Pinehurst has done because they’ve said that we don’t have to irrigate 150 acres anymore. We can get drier, firmer fairways, and we hope that this can be done other places, too.”

The revamped course looks gorgeous. Far more visually appealing—and probably much more technically challenging, which as course designer Bill Coore points out, could make for better TV viewing.

What are people doing with their enormous new houses?

Emily Badger, writing at Wonkblog:

What, then, do we want all of this room for? What’s particularly striking in the Census Bureau’s historic data on new housing characteristics is the growth of what would be luxuries for many households: fourth bedrooms, third bathrooms, three-car garages. Notably, demand for all three dipped during the recession in parallel to the trend line above.

Really, we just want more of everything. 

It seems unlikely at this point, though, that the housing crash fundamentally altered the long-term trajectory of the ever-expanding American home.

Same as it ever was.

U of Michigan building fake city for automated cars

Sarah Zhang, writing for Gizmodo:

The Mobility Transformation Facility will open this fall in Southeast Michigan, right in the heart of the auto industry. It’ll simulate both a four-lane highway and a city intersection—two very different environments with very different dangers. Just recently, Google announced that after driving its autonomous cars for thousands of miles through suburban Mountain View, it’s shifted to focus on teaching its autonomous car to drive in cities.

With a university behind it, I’m guessing this one will get built, unlike another proposed fake city that was also intended as a testbed for new technologies.

Web Urbanist: “A moment of silence”

Web Urbanist:

Skeptics of improbably green skyscraper concepts might want to take a moment of silence to appreciate the successful construction of these two beautiful buildings now nearly completion.

Bosco Verticale’s completion does little to undermine my arguments against it. I wasn’t doubting that it could be done, but whether it should. And I still think don’t think it should.

Designing cities for people with autism

Shaunacy Ferro, reporting for Fast Co. Design:

An inclusive city, Decker says, would connect networks of services. So (affordable) housing would be close to the workplace, which of course would be easier to implement if the city also had good (well, terrific) access to public transportation. Parks–respite from overwhelming sensory stimulation–are also vital. 

(Via Steve Silberman.)

Self-driving cars and the suburbs

Yours truly, back in March:

Self-driving cars are one of the biggest threats to the future of cities, and widespread adoption could single-handedly undermine one of Baum-Snow’s most compelling arguments—commute times, which he says will be a driving force behind increasing urban densities. As incomes have risen for many city dwellers—those in the top 50 percent, at least—the value of their commute time has also risen. Given Marchetti’s constant, which says that commute times tend to hover around 30 minutes each way, snarled traffic will force the wealthy out of the suburbs and back to cities. In a sense, we’ve already started to see that.

But self-driving cars could reverse that trend. As people’s commutes are freed up for other tasks, including work, they’ll stretch their daily trips, once again allowing them to live where they want.

Google’s Next Phase in Driverless Cars

John Markoff, reporting for the New York Times:

The company has begun building a fleet of 100 experimental electric-powered vehicles that will dispense with all the standard controls found in modern automobiles. The two-seat vehicle looks a bit like the ultracompact Fiat 500 or the Mercedes-Benz Smart car if you take out the steering wheel, gas pedal, brake and gear shift. The only things the driver controls is a red “e-stop” button for panic stops and a separate start button.

The car would be summoned with a smartphone application. It would pick up a passenger and automatically drive to a destination selected on a smartphone app without any human intervention.

Yours truly, writing about self-driving cars last summer:

Schedule it for your daily commute—perhaps with a price break for carpooling—and request one on-demand for more unpredictable needs. If wait times are short enough, it’ll be an attractive proposition.

What language (besides English) is spoken in your state?

Ben Blatt explains how he created his maps of non-English languages spoken at home. The obvious map—the most popular non-English language—isn’t surprising—Spanish dominates. But once you go beyond that, the maps reveal each state’s social and historical peculiarities.

Does French safety net impede entrepreneurship?

Laetitia Vitaud:

The French Social Security is an amazing cushion against risk. You can risk your job and create a business without losing your coverage or you can do it while unemployed because you receive unemployment benefits. No accident or disease can make you bankrupt if you’re on your own. Obama’s Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act (dubbed “Obamacare”) aims precisely at creating such an environment and spurring the economy by removing one of the obstacles to business creation and self-employment. In people’s minds there’s nothing more American than creating a business and yet, before Obamacare, health care was a gigantic obstacle to business creation, especially for the middle-aged or those unlucky to have a “pre-existing condition” like diabetes—and they are numerous: one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050 if the current trend continues.

What if Facebook hadn’t been started for want of health insurance?

(Via Christopher Mims.)

Making Sustainable Beer

In other booze-related news, here’s Andy Wales, head of sustainable development at brewer SABMiller, writing for Nature Climate Change about the environmental impacts of his company’s supply chain:

On its own, increased efficiency in the use of natural resources within our operations will not be enough to ensure that they are available over time. We need to go beyond efficiency measures if we want to meet our target of using just 3.5 litres of water to make 1 litre of beer by 2015, which will represent a 25% improvement with respect to 2008 water usage levels.


Adam Rogers has a new blog at Wired about the science of booze, and it’s sure to be a good one.

China wants to build a rail link to the U.S.

Jonathan Kaiman, reporting for the Guardian:

The project – nicknamed the “China-Russia-Canada-America” line – would run for 13,000km, about 3,000km further than the Trans-Siberian Railway. The entire trip would take two days, with the train travelling at an average of 350km/h (220mph).

The reported plans leave ample room for skepticism. No other Chinese railway experts have come out in support of the proposed project. Whether the government has consulted Russia, the US or Canada is also unclear. The Bering Strait tunnel alone would require an unprecedented feat of engineering – it would be the world’s longest undersea tunnel – four times the length of the Channel Tunnel.

Eastern and Western cultural differences may come down to rice and wheat


For all we know about ourselves as a species—our bodies, our thoughts, and our behaviors—there are many things we don’t know—the specifics of our origin, how civilization arose, and how the many cultures of the world developed. Among the most perplexing question is how Eastern and Western cultures became so different. Eastern people are typically characterized as interdependent and holistically thinking, while Western people are generally thought to prize independence and analytical thought.

Sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have offered a number of theories to explain the dichotomy. The latest theory suggests the question hinges on rice and wheat. People who historically grew rice will probably be more interdependent, they say, and people who grew wheat should tend toward the opposite. The psychologists who came up with the hypothesis found a great place to test it—China.

Though rice is often considered China’s staple grain—and at over 200 million tons per year, they do produce a lot of it—the country also grows a fair amount of wheat, some 120 million tons. Most of that production occurs in the north, while rice is dominant in the south. In the middle, there’s a transition zone.

Thomas Talhelm, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia, noticed this gradient and used it to test his hypothesis. Along with co-authors from the U.S. and China, he compared cultural tendencies for six different regions in China with economic, public health, and agricultural data to see if interdependence was intertwined with rice.

Being a successful rice farmer, they argue, is highly dependent on your community. Flooding rice paddies requires extensive irrigation networks, which don’t tend to be individual enterprises. Planting and harvesting, too, require cooperation to make the most of it. Those demands could have led to a holistically thinking, interdependent culture, they argue. Wheat, on the other hand, doesn’t need much more water than rain can provide, and planting and harvesting isn’t as involved, so it’s easier to make a go of it on your own.

To characterize the six regions’ cultures, Talhelm and his colleagues asked people a series of questions and had them perform a number of activities. The psychologists also drew on other information, including divorce rates, GDP, and number of patents awarded. They then attempted to explain any variations in those numbers by comparing them with rice and wheat cultivation. They also tested another hypothesis while they were at it—pathogens.

But wait, where’s this pathogen question coming from? It turns out pathogen prevalence is another theory that can convincingly explain the differences between interdependent and independent cultures. People who live in places with high disease burdens—think warm, wet places—tend to be less trusting of strangers, for obvious reasons: A stranger could carry a disease you’re not immune to. But people you know? They have probably gone through the same illnesses as you, so you’re less likely to be exposed to something new. You can trust them more. Yet in regions where there are fewer diseases, it may pay to interact with strangers. It might lead to more lucrative business deals or useful new ideas.

Talhelm and his colleagues found strong evidence in favor of the rice vs. wheat hypothesis. But while rice and wheat could explain a good amount of the differences, it doesn’t explain them all. Perhaps the pathogen theory can explain most of the rest.

In the future, the question may be moot, though. Since most of us aren’t farmers anymore, and fewer of us have to worry about diseases, we may grow more similar over time. Still, these ghosts may linger. Interdependence has held on in other wealthy, non-agrarian societies like Japan for decades. Cultural differences, it seems, may be stubbornly persistent.


Talhelm, T. X. Zhang, S. Oishi, C. Shimin, D. Duan, X. Lan, S. Kitayama. 2014. “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.” Science 344(9): 603-607. DOI: 10.1126/science.1246850

Photo by Ronald Tagra

Related posts:

Which reads faster, Chinese or English?

Southern regions nurtured languages

The birthplace of English?

We’re already experiencing the effects of climate change

The U.S. National Climate Assessment is out today, and it makes the IPCC reports look tame by comparison. Expect heavier rains, drier droughts, warmer winters, and hotter heat waves, says its authors (who, in addition to numerous scientists, include representatives from two oil companies). Oh, and the East Coast is really in trouble due to the double threat of rising seas and subsiding land.

This bit from Justin Gillis’s report for the New York Times stood out:

Historically, the United States — with its large cars, large houses and high per capita consumption of energy — was responsible for more emissions than any other country. Lately, China has become the largest emitter over all, though its emissions per person are still far below those of the United States.

Sounds familiar.

Mastermind of the mall wanted to save cities

Jimmy Stamp, writing for Smithsonian about James Rouse:

Though some attribute the shopping mall to the decline of the American downtown, Rouse’s ambition was actually to give the placeless suburbs a civic anchor. He continued to develop malls and marketplaces, but the next step seemed obvious to the visionary developer. James Rouse rolled up his sleeves and built a city.

He believed that we demanded too little of ourselves and our cities. He believed that the city could be better, that we could be better. Rouse believed that cities are just too big and their impossible scale alienates us from one another, fostering an apathy and loneliness. In Rouse’s view, we’re at our best in smaller communities where there is a sense of responsibility to one’s city and to one’s neighbor. He imagined a beautiful, self-sustaining American City–a new America, really–that fostered economic, racial, and cultural harmony. 

(Via Adam Rogers.)

A map of where climate change will make nights uncomfortably hot

If there’s one thing you should get used to with climate change—apart from the heat waves, droughts, and intense storms—it’s hot, uncomfortable nights. Worldwide, there will be somewhere around two weeks of higher nighttime low temperatures. In some places, winter nights may be unseasonable warm, or in others summer nights could grow more sweltering and sleepless.

But it’s not just our comfort that’s at stake. Plants are uniquely sensitive to nighttime low temperatures. If they’re too high, plant respiration rates tend to increase. (Yes, plants respire just like us. Unlike us, they’re able to grow without eating because, during a typical day, the rate of photosynthesis greatly outpaces the rate of respiration, meaning they’re making more food than they are consuming.) When respiration rates rise in plants, they consume more of the carbohydrates they made through photosynthesis during the day. With less energy available, they might grow more slowly or put less energy into producing seeds. It happens that many staple crops, like rice and corn, are seeds, so warm nights are one way climate change could slash crop harvests.

Not only will more people be going to bed sweating, they’ll be doing so on empty stomachs.


Historical climate: Climate Research Unit (Mitchell et al, 2003). Projected changes: Climate Systems Analysis Group, University of Cape Town 2009, calculated from Meehl et al, 2007. Available from the World Bank.

Related posts:

Where children go hungry in the world

Spare or share? Farm practices and the future of biodiversity

Farming, circa 2050


Jobs added after the recession are most at risk from automation

Nikhil Sonnad put together a nice interactive based on a working paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne from the University of Oxford. Overall, there’s a decreasing relationship between median wage and likelihood of the position being automated. In other words, the people who can least afford to be unemployed are the most at risk.

More troubling, though, are some of the job categories threatened by automation: food preparation and servers, waiters, retail salespeople, and cashiers. Those same categories are the ones where the economy is adding the most jobs, according to Annie Lowry, reporting for the New York Times:

The National Employment Law Project study found especially strong growth in restaurants and food services, administrative and waste services and retail trades. Those industries — which often pay wages at the federal minimum — accounted for about 40 percent of the increase in private sector employment over the past four years.

That’s not good news. Back in September 2013, when Frey and Osborne wrote their working paper, they said 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being automated. Given the tenor of the recovery, I can’t see that decreasing. Which means that, in the next decade or two, we could be facing another employment crisis.

We’re Not Ready to Deal with Oil Spills in the Arctic

Yours truly, writing at NOVA Next:

Despite the amount of effort sunk into exploration, little has been done to prepare for oil spills, according to a new report by the National Research Council. Much of what we know about oil spills comes from dealing with the disasters in warmer oceans, like the Gulf of Mexico. These regions not only have different thermodynamic properties from the Arctic—which helps disperse thick oil—but they also are surrounded by more infrastructure—the ports, ships, and supplies required to clean up the mess.

Google reinforces geopolitical bubbles

Brian Ries, writing at Mashable:

Russian users of Google Maps, who use the service through, will see that Crimea is wholly a territory of Mother Russia. That black line is a border — the same style that marks all 1,426.07 miles from the Black Sea in the south to Belarus in the north.

Americans who visit the region on Google Maps through will see the disputed border — where it seems the two countries are still working things out.

But what for Ukrainians, who lost Crimea following Russia’s annexation last month? Nothing to see here. Users on will hardly notice a nearly invisible grey dotted line that etches its way between Crimea and mainland Ukraine.