A stone only humans could make

Rachel Nuwer, reporting for the New York Times:

The substance, called plastiglomerate, is a fusion of natural and manufactured materials. Melted plastic binds together sand, shells, pebbles, basalt, coral and wood, or seeps into the cavities of larger rocks to form a rock-plastic hybrid. The resulting materials, researchers report in the journal GSA Today, will probably be long-lived and could even become permanent markers in the planet’s geologic record.

Some bad advice for Uber

Karan Girotra and Serguei Netessine, both INSEAD professors, writing for the Harvard Business Review about Uber and self-driving cars:

The technology is definitely impressive, and some have called for Uber to invest in this trendy new area. While the experience of a self-driving car feels futuristic and magical, they don’t make business sense in an era of decreasing real wages for semi-skilled labor (like drivers). 

That’s a fairly short-sighted view. Given the current rate of improvement in self-driving cars, physical drivers will be unnecessary before long. If Uber were to ignore, it would be that at their own peril. (Aside: Did the “semi-skilled labor” remark come off as flippant to anyone else?)

(Via Christopher Mims.)

From Hawaii to Réunion

Emma Marris, reporting for Nature News:

In what is probably the farthest single dispersal event ever recorded, researchers have shown using genetic analysis that an acacia tree endemic to Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean is directly descended from a common Hawaiian tree known as the koa. In fact, these two trees on small specks of land on opposite sides of the globe turn out to be the same species.

The event is remarkable not just for the sheer distance covered — some 18,000 kilometres, almost the farthest apart that any two points on land can be — but that it occurred between two small islands. 

WildLeaks, like WikiLeaks but for catching poachers

Damian Carrington, reporting for the Guardian:

A three-month trial period has yielded 24 serious tip-offs, spanning the world including:

• elephant poaching in Africa and illicit ivory trading in Hong Kong;

• killing of Sumatran tigers, of which there are just 400 left in the wild;

• illegal lion and leopard hunting in South Africa;

• chimpanzee trafficking in Liberia;

• illegal fishing activities in Alaska, including alleged mafia involvement;

• importing of illegal African wildlife products into the US;

• illegal logging in Mexico, Malawi and Siberia.

Skybox as spycraft

Christopher Mims, writing at his new gig at the Wall Street Journal:

Skybox can determine how much oil is being pumped out of the ground in Saudi Arabia by imaging oil-storage tanks from above. The company can peg the likely price of grain months in advance by measuring the health of every square yard of cropland on Earth. One city has used Skybox’s data to determine who built illegal backyard pools and mightalso use it to identify water-restriction violators during a drought.

It’s competitive intelligence as spy craft. And it’s compelling enough that a Skybox employee once told a reporter for Wired that the company might someday simply become an unreasonably profitable hedge fund.

Skybox or Skynet?

Marcus Wohlsen, reporting for Wired:

In a statement, Google has said that, in the short term, it plans to use Skybox’s satellites to keep Google Maps up to date. And, in the future, the company says, it could use them to help spread internet access to remote areas, something that will help improve the reach of its existing services. But imagine all the other things Google could do turns its artificial intelligence expertise onto a constant stream of images beamed down from above.

One Skybox insider told Samuels that satellite images alone could be used to estimate any country’s major economic indicators. Take, for example, this Skybox case study of Saudi oil reserves measured from space. Now consider the insights that could come from marrying that visual data with Google’s Knowledge Graph, leveraging all the company’s algorithmic might. Google could learn all kinds of new things about the world.

But it could also learn all kinds of new things about you. Skybox can take photos from 500 miles up with a sub-one-meter resolution of the ground below. That isn’t likely to sit well with privacy activists who already don’t trust Google. What does the right to be forgotten mean when Google can always see you anyway?

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.