If you think China is urbanizing quickly now…

Chris Buckley, reporting for the New York Times about changes to China’s household registration policy, which has held restricted growth in many cities:

The government document released on Wednesday brought together commitments, some already announced, to steadily and selectively lift some of these barriers. Some cities have already made such changes, including formally erasing the division between urban and rural registration for local residents. But experts have said such changes do not mean much unless welfare, housing and other policies are also changed to overcome persistent inequalities.

In small cities with urban populations of up to one million, people with steady jobs and housing who meet requirements for welfare payments will be allowed to register as local residents. Similar rules will apply to larger cities, with stricter limits.

But the proposals say that for the biggest cities, with urban populations of five million or more, the number of newcomers must be stringently controlled, and a points system will be used to ration household registration opportunities.

So it’s not an out-and-out rewriting of hukou, but it’s almost certain to make cities more attractive to a broader swath of the population.

Genetically Engineering Almost Anything

Yours truly and Eleanor Nelsen, reporting for NOVA Next:

With gene drives—so named because they drive a gene through a population—researchers just have to slip a new gene into a drive system and let nature take care of the rest. Subsequent generations of whatever species we choose to modify—frogs, weeds, mosquitoes—will have more and more individuals with that gene until, eventually, it’s everywhere.

Cas9-based gene drives could be one of the most powerful technologies ever discovered by humankind. “This is one of the most exciting confluences of different theoretical approaches in science I’ve ever seen,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. “It merges population genetics, genetic engineering, molecular genetics, into an unbelievably powerful tool.”

Our ability to genetically modify organisms has largely been restricted to those under our close care—crops, for example. But this could bring genetic engineering to nearly anything, and gene drives could make it relatively simple to push a trait throughout a population without having to engineer millions or billions of individuals. (This all presumes the species being modified has a relatively short generation time. Insects and weeds are prime candidates.)

The first candidate being considered are malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but the real potential here will be engineering entire ecosystems. I think this could be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the century.

“Big, expensive, controversial—and indispensable”

James Fallows, making the case for California’s high-speed rail project:

Plus, infrastructure! Of the right kind. You can think of big transport investments that didn’t pay off, especially if you start by thinking of Robert Moses. You can more easily think of ones that defined countries, eras, economies. For your old-world types, you have the Silk Road or the Via Appia. For the Japanese, the ancient Tōkaidō, or “Eastern Sea Way,” immortalized by Hiroshige, and the modern Shinkansen that covers much the same route. We Americans have the Erie Canal …

.. and the “National Road,” the transcontinental railroads, the early U.S. expansion of an air-travel infrastructure, the Interstate Highways, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, the international effects of the Panama Canal, plus others. History’s record suggests that big investments of this sort are more often a good than a bad idea.

In disappearing Mexican jungle, it’s tribes vs. biologists

Joshua Partlow, reporting for the Washington Post:

Land struggles have a storied history in Mexico. They were at the heart of the country’s biggest political upheavals, dating to its decade-long revolution at the turn of the 20th century. During the 1994 Zapatista uprising here in Chiapas, the masked Mayan farmers who seized towns across the state demanded respect, an alternative to NAFTA-era global capitalism and the right to live by their own rules on their own land. The latest jungle conflict is a test for the Mexican government — one that is being replicated in other vanishing ecosystems across the country — over whether it is committed to conserving its protected areas or will let the pressures of development prevail.

The business of longform journalism on the web

Lauren Hazard Owen, writing for Gigaom:

Does Byliner’s failure mean that longform journalism on the web is doomed? Or are Byliner’s problems specific to Byliner?

Owen tiptoes around those questions, not explicitly answering either of them. But she does hint a bit, suggesting that Byliner had its own set of problems that haven’t affected its main competition, the Atavist. (The Atavist has managed to stay afloat selling access to their slick platform and likely plowing some of that money back into the longform journalism that gave it its name.)

But the larger question—is longform doomed on the web—I think the answer is, no. The rising popularity of longform articles on the web proves that there’s demand.

That’s not to say you can just start a longform site and expect to succeed. As someone who runs a site that focuses on longform science journalism, I can tell you it’s not an easy task. Keeping a site moving at internet speed still requires some quick hits, though I firmly believe that if you want to stay relevant, you have to deliver original, substantive content. If you’re going to be content-only, you have to find the right balance. But if you’re like Byliner and focus almost exclusively on longform articles, you should probably have a few other irons in the fire to keep the whole operation going.

Will cities of the future be built of wood?

Courtney Humphries, reporting for the Boston Globe:

On this scale, the construction industry is set up to work in concrete and steel, and doesn’t change course easily. Architects are unaccustomed to envisioning their designs in timber. They also face building codes shaped by wood’s long record as a flammable material. In that sense, its advocates are fighting history in their effort to bring it back.

The buildings they envision have been dubbed “plyscrapers.” Their halting arrival into the mainstream of architecture represents a test case for whether the goal of sustainability can motivate a reversal of both long-term construction norms and the laws that have grown around them. And in the long run, they also may offer the prospect of putting the look and feel of cities through a whole new transformation.

Is there such thing as an Islamic city?

Cairo at dusk

Cairo. Tehran. Karachi. What sets these cities apart in the world isn’t their arid climate or their massive populations. Rather, they’re all cities where Islam is the dominant religion. But are they Islamic cities? In other words, have the beliefs, rituals, and laws of Islam shaped cities in the Middle East and around the world?

The idea of an Islamic city was introduced by the French following Napoleon’s unsuccessful forays into Northern Africa and the Middle East. The French, thus exposed to Islamic cultures, grew a bit obsessed. But like many colonizers and would-be colonizers, they didn’t always get things right.¹

One of the developments of this decades-long fixation was the idea of an Islamic city. While the concept was probably bouncing around French salons for a while, William Marçais put it into words in 1928. He believed there are certain essential elements in any Islamic city. First and foremost is the mosque. Nearby there has to be a bazaar. There must also be a public bath where worshipers can prepare. William’s brother, George, elaborated some years later. Along with the bazaar, he added that booksellers must also sit next to the mosque. Farther out come the textile merchants, jewelers, hatters, furniture makers, and blacksmiths. It was all very elaborate and, in a way, a bit too orderly for reality.

The Marçais’ contemporaries wrote extensively about Islamic cities, but as sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod points out, many of them simply parroted the others without additional research of their own. And so the idea was perpetuated for several more years.

Toward the end of the 20th century, people started to earnestly question the idea of an Islamic city. Abu-Lughod and others, including Ahmad Bilal, argued that the forces that shape cities are never as simplistic as “Islam” or “Christianity.” Geography, climate, technology, society, and laws all play a role. Religion can, too—indeed it does on a smaller scale in Middle Eastern cities, influencing the design of homes and buildings—but it doesn’t enforce a strict blueprint.

Indeed, many of today’s Islamic cities are not shaped primarily by Islam, but by rapid urbanization. Cairo exploded from 2.3 million people in 1950 to over 10 million today (nearly 20 million if you count the metro area). The same thing happened in Tehran, which grew from around 1 million in 1950 to nearly 8 million today.

Oil wealth shapes others. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, ever-taller skyscrapers, massive malls, and expanding highways define their cities—and their populations, since construction is mostly done by huge pools of foreign laborers, many of whom come from nations with large Muslim populations like Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Though they’re seldom awarded citizenship, they still bring their own unique urban experiences with them.

So can we say there is such a thing as an Islamic city? Grudgingly yes, but mostly no. There are cities that have been influenced by Islam, just as European cities were shaped by Christianity. But for the most part, cities in the Middle East and elsewhere with large Muslim populations have evolved just the same as cities have elsewhere—by adapting to their environment and their people.

  1. That is, perhaps, an understatement.

Photo by Frank Schulenburg


Abu-Lughod J.L. (1987). The Islamic city – Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 19 (02) 155-176. DOI: 10.1017/s0020743800031822

Ahmad B. (1995). Urbanization and urban development in the Muslim World: From the Islamic City Model to megacities, GeoJournal, 37 (1) 113-123. DOI: 10.1007/bf00814892

Bonine M.E. (2009). Middle East and North Africa, International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, 82-88. DOI: 10.1016/b978-008044910-4.00298-4

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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.