As frequent readers of this newsletter know, DFC HQ is located deep in the country. As such, our team has had their workday interrupted by fishers, porcupines, cows, donkeys, and any number of gorgeous local and migrating birds.
One bird I’d love to see is the magnificent barn owl, which is regrettably endangered. We’re just barely in its habitat range, and I would die happy if I spotted one! My birding appetite is only whetted by some fascinating tech news just out of Penn State. Researchers there have studied the barn owl’s prodigious sense of hearing and turned around a cool new invention: a circuit that mimics the way a barn owl triangulates the location of its prey. This circuit could revolutionize wayfinding technology — all thanks to the greatest designer of all, Mother Nature.
“The ability to use sound to locate relies on the distance between the ears. In barn owls, that distance is quite small, but the brain’s circuitry has adapted to be able to discriminate this small difference. If the owl is facing the sound source, then both ears receive the sound simultaneously. If the sound is off to the right, the right ear registers the sound slightly before the left.
However, locating objects by sound is not that simple. The speed of sound is faster than the owl’s nerves can function so after the owl brain converts the sound to an electrical pulse, the pulse is slowed down. Then the brain’s circuitry uses a lattice of nerves of different lengths with inputs from two ends, to determine which length is where the two signals coincide or arrive at the same time. This provides the direction.”
The team has created a complicated proof-of-concept circuit, involving split gate transistors and a time-delay mechanism. This translates the barn owl’s brain into electronic terms, that can be applied anywhere there’s power to run it. Check out the Penn State press release for a fabulously detailed explanation here.
Evolution is an incredibly efficient design process, and the creators have acknowledged the time and energy saved by piggy-backing their invention off an already tried-and-true natural blueprint. We owe so much to our natural world — and remixing it may be the sincerest form of flattery!
I’ve long been fascinated by cryptids: It would be so cool to see a Sasquatch sashay across my backyard, pat Jill on the head, and keep going into the trees! Unfortunately, as a scientist, I must temper my enthusiasm with evidence. Which is why I loved digging into this tale of an international team of researchers, who unleashed science on the waters of Loch Ness.
For centuries, humans have been trying to figure out what — if any — large, snakelike mystery animal purportedly lives in Loch Ness. Guesses have ranged from a plesiosaur, to, um, a wooden and plastic head attached to a toy submarine. But scientists have now banded together to test the environmental DNA of the loch. Environmental DNA refers to, in short, the genetic traces of animals that exist in a habitat due to waste excretion, or shed skin, scales, or hair, that can be collected, assembled into a profile, and identified. From Popular Mechanics:
“‘There is a very significant amount of eel DNA,’ lead researcher Neil Gemmell, a geneticist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said in a press release […] After he and his fellow scientists from the U.K., Denmark, the U.S., Australia, and France analyzed around 500 million sequences from 250 water samples, they couldn’t find any traces of shark, catfish, or sturgeon DNA—or, crucially, long-dead, Jurassic-era dinos.
‘We can’t find any evidence of a creature that’s remotely related to that in our environmental-DNA sequence data,’ Gemmell said.”
But they did find DNA pointing to the presence of lots and lots of eels… Potentially GIANT EELS. Which could have been the source for the original myth, if spotted by folks without the biology know-how to correctly identify them. According to the Popular Mechanics report, divers in Loch Ness have surfaced with tales of spotting eels up to 13 feet long since at least the 1930s. I will swallow my disappointment that Nessie is still a myth — because it’s actually cooler that nature has cooked up an amazing real behemoth!
At the DFC ranch, we are endlessly fascinated by reports of animal intelligence — not least because we share our workspace with two remarkably smart canine co-workers (link: pic of Samson and Jill). So when I read news of an unusual kind of intelligence showing up in a representative of a really unusual species, I was just about as thrilled as he seems to be!
Snowball the Eleanora Cockatoo has long delighted the viral video viewers by bopping along to human bangers like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Backstreet’s Back”. Tufts neuroscientist Ani Patel, while watching one of these early videos, immediately became interested in where this behaviour came from — was it spontaneous, and what did it mean for our understanding of bird intelligence?
In a recent paper in Current Biology, Patel and team recount how they filmed the bird dancing to his favourite songs, then analyzed each frame and categorized the distinct moves Snowball exhibited. They found fourteen of them, with clear favourites being the “Vogue” and the “Headbang with Lifted Foot”. Snowball’s complex choreography pointed the team towards a theory of cognitive flexibility that, in short, might mean birds respond to music and choose dance moves much as humans do.
“In the paper, Patel and his team list the five traits they believe are required for an animal to be able to spontaneously dance to music: vocal learning; the ability to imitate; a propensity to form long-term social bonds; the ability to learn a complex sequence of movement; and an attentiveness to communicative movements. Humans and parrots share all five. […]
‘If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity,’ said Patel, ‘because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.’”
Absent these standard animal motivations, Snowball’s sole drive to dance seems to be… because it’s fun! As a science buff, I’m eager to dig further into what this means for birds and humans. But, as someone who also loves to bust a move, it almost doesn’t matter — like Kevin Bacon, Snowball’s fate is to dance, no matter what the science says.
Recently, a pair of researchers stumbled onto a fascinating proof of women in the medieval workforce. Anita Radini of the University of York was seeking to unlock the mysteries of diets via starch particles preserved in dental tartar, and Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute was after the DNA of ancient oral bacteria. But, as they both looked at the teeth embedded in the skull of a German nun dead for a thousand years, they saw something unexpected. Something… blue??
The blue was a pigment, suspended in the mystery sister’s dental plaque. After few calls to fellow experts and some further laboratory work, Radini and Warinner determined it to be ultramarine, a super-rare and expensive pigment made from the ground-up semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, and used in the illumination of religious manuscripts. It turns out that task of illumination was not just entrusted to the stereotypical monks — because of the evidence of ultramarine in her dental plaque, the former occupant of the mystery skull was determined to be a scribe. And, considering how pricy ultramarine was, she must have been good.
“[Fellow expert and historian Allison] Beach even came across a letter dated to the year 1168, in which a bookkeeper of a men’s monastery commissions sister ‘N’ to produce a deluxe manuscript using luxury materials such as parchment, leather, and silk. The monastery where sister ‘N’ lived is only 40 miles from Dalheim, where the teeth with lapis lazuli were found. Beach also identified a book using lapis lazuli that was written by a female scribe in Germany around AD 1200. The pigment would have traveled nearly 4,000 miles from Afghanistan to Europe via the Silk Road. All the evidence suggests that female scribes were indeed making books that used lapis lazuli pigment in the same area and around the same time this woman was alive.”
Before this proof was found, some folks were throwing up hilarious roadblocks to this medieval artisan getting her due, going so far as to postulate the lapis lazuli got in her teeth because she was tasked with cleaning up the monks’ workroom. As a woman in business, I can’t help but roll my eyes at this — plus ça change, am I right? But I also salute this ancestor who blazed her own, brilliant blue path through her industry. (And the science that brought her work to light!)
While learning all about the subculture of Soviet car fans back in May, I was reminded of my own personal favourite totalitarian bucket of bolts, the Trabant. I first encountered the Trabant (or, affectionately, the “Trabi”) on a trip to Germany, where I turned down an Ostalgie -soaked tour of the former East Berlin via the iconic — and I use the term loosely — “car.” (I now deeply regret this.) The Trabi was ubiquitous in East Germany; it was produced by VEB Sachsenring, with little to no variation, from 1957 to 1990. It was notoriously, Communistically, awful: it had no fuel gauge, no signal lights, and its two-stroke engine topped out at barely 100 KPH. But, like the folks who homebrew Lada and Volga mods, the Trabi has a surprising number of modern fans.
“Ronny Heim, 44, got his first Trabi in 1996 in exchange for a box of beer. ‘Trabis weren’t worth anything [after the Wall fell],’ he says. ‘[Because] everyone wanted a “Western car.”’ That same year he served in the Bundeswehr, or unified armed forces of Germany, and brought his Trabi with him to the country’s northwest. ‘Half the team wanted to take the Trabi for a round in the barracks,’ he says, ‘They’d never experienced anything like it before.’
[…] Another thing Trabi collectors can’t get enough of: the strong community that’s devoted to the cars. In May 2019, the International Trabant Meeting celebrated its 25th anniversary […] They swapped stories, sipped beers, and participated in Trabi-related events like seeing who can toss a Trabi engine the furthest. Today there are Trabi clubs throughout Germany, greater Europe, and even in the United States.”
Zaniness aside, there’s a lesson in here — about pursuing what you love, even if (or perhaps because) it’s otherwise “obsolete.” I admire certainty of taste: in business, as well as in the hobby world, conforming for the sake of it while denying the lessons of the past is no way to operate. The far-reaching fandom for a fondly remembered, albeit cruddy, car shows this in the real world!
Smartphones — the little computers in our pockets — are sapping our willpower. Or, they’re keeping us more connected than ever. Or, they’re hurting kids by distracting their parents. Or, all of the above. We can’t deny smartphones have changed everything. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see the unique, portable power of this technology harnessed for good.
Farmers in Colombia, Benin, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, and China, are testing a new app on their personal smartphones to cross-check possible pests or blights in banana crops. Our banana-du-jour is the Cavendish; because they’re seedless, Cavendishes are propagated by transplanting, making each individual banana a clone of the others. This lack of genetic diversity spelled doom for the previous popular banana, the Gros Michel when Panama disease came for it in the mid-20th century, and now the Cavendish threatens to go the way of the dodo as well.
Enter the Tumaini app. (The name means “hope” in Swahili.) The app aims to help farmers quickly identify the pest or disease present, raise the alarm in case of an epidemic, and upload individual chunks of data to a large database for big-picture monitoring. And it does all this through AI. From ScienceDaily:
“To build it, researchers uploaded 20,000 images that depicted various visible banana disease and pest symptoms. With this information, the app scans photos of parts of the fruit, bunch, or plant to determine the nature of the disease or pest. It then provides the steps necessary to address the specific disease. […]
Existing crop disease detection models focus primarily on leaf symptoms and can only accurately function when pictures contain detached leaves on a plain background. The novelty in this app is that it can detect symptoms on any part of the crop, and is trained to be capable of reading images of lower quality, inclusive of background noise, like other plants or leaves, to maximize accuracy.”
The future of the cultivated banana rests on this matrix of individual farmers looking out for themselves and each other, via the very tool humans everywhere use to do exactly that — the smartphone. The developers are looking forward to expanding the app to cover many different kinds of crops and pests. Good thing, too, as we move into an age of agricultural instability, we’re going to need all the help we can get.
Now, I love travelling, but I haaate flying — and it has almost everything to do with the seats. With the wealth gap getting away from us, I understand I will never be one of the chosen few worthy enough of those first-class pods. My wishes are humble: it’d be great to not have to duke it out with my neighbour over an armrest; and, just once, I’d love to be served my tomato juice in a real, live glass!
I can still only dream of the latter, but the FAA has just approved a potential solution for the former: a new seat design for short-haul flights, that also promises to speed boarding and give a bit more room for the unlucky middle-seater.
Called the S1, the new triple-seat configuration will be trialled on real-life planes starting in 2020. In the S1 setup, the middle seat is a few inches lower and further back than the aisle and window seats. This allows the person in the middle seat to use the backs of the armrests, while their neighbours’ elbows occupy the fronts. It also gives everyone involved more legroom, without reducing the plane’s capacity. The seemingly tiny redesign packs a big punch:
“‘We have discovered that what looks like a small stagger actually makes a huge difference. The trick is to actually sit in the seat. In fact, our main sales tool is to ship seats to airlines so they can sit in them,’ says Molon Labe founder Hank Scott. ‘I have watched this several times — airline executives see the seat, nod their head and then say they get it. Then we ask them to actually sit down, next to a big fella like our head sales guy Thomas [6-foot-6, 250 pounds]. Within a few seconds, they [really] get it — they stop being an airline executive and switch into passenger modes.’”
To me, the coolest part of it is the optional “side-slip” add-on, where the aisle seat slides over the sunken middle seat, giving boarding or exiting passengers a whole seat-width of extra room. (Is there anyone out there who wouldn’t appreciate not getting conked by someone’s duffel?!) On behalf of Economy-dwellers everywhere, I hope this trial goes well — and we all see this seating innovation on our next vacations!
After consulting my doctor, I’ve recently started upping the “good” fats to my diet. (I love half an avocado on toasted sourdough!) Nuts are great source of monounsaturated fats, so I’ve been indulging in a few nuggets of my favourite — macadamia nuts. Little did I know, that what I thought was simply a healthy snack, was actually a wonder of modern agriculture!
Hawai’i is the centre of macadamia nut production, growing a whopping 70% of all macadamias eaten on the planet. Back in May, researchers reverse-engineered the genome of a sample of Hawaiian trees and compared them with trees still grown in the macadamia’s natural habitat of Queensland, Australia. The Hawaiian trees had a very narrow set of genetic markers, which indicated that the majority of the world’s macadamia nuts are descended from a single tree or stand of trees in Queensland.
“‘A small collection of seeds were taken to Hawai’i at the end of the 19th century and historical records suggest that there was maybe six trees grown from that sample of nuts that were taken by Robert Jordan and planted in his brothers’ backyard in the suburbs of Honolulu in 1896,’ [horticulturist and study author Craig] Hardner told ABC News.”
From this small sample grew the entire Hawaiian macadamia population! But such focus comes with a price: Like many other food crops, macadamia nuts are propagated by grafting. The limited genetic diversity of the Hawaiian macadamias is a result of this process — effectively, the trees are all clones of the original Queensland “parent.” This also means that, like other monoculture crops, the majority of macadamia trees could be wiped out by a badly-timed blight or disease.
Thankfully, despite a small natural range, the Queensland macadamia trees exhibit a greater range of genetic diversity and should stand fast in the face of a blight if we humans don’t catch it in time. I take this as an object lesson in the limits of human interference in nature. And in responsible snacking!
A team of researchers from — where else? — the University of Glasgow has invented an “artificial tongue,” that can differentiate between different kinds of whisky, and could potentially be used to put a halt to the dangerous counterfeit alcohol trade.
Looking nothing like an actual tongue — thank god — the artificial tongue is made up of two different kinds of metal nano-sensors, that mimic human tastebuds.
“Using subatomic slices of gold and aluminum to test the tipples, the research team created tastebuds 500 times smaller than a human’s, which were then able to successfully identify differences between drinks with greater than 99% accuracy. The tongue even had enough taste to tell the difference between a Glenfiddich 12-year-old whisky and a bottle of the 18-year-old variety.
[Lead study author Alasdair] Clark added that while whisky was the primary tasting subject for the experiment, the technology could also be used for food safety screenings and quality controls.”
We at DFC are big fans of what we call “Scotch O’Clock,” that pre-dinner hour on Fridays where we indulge in a favourite peaty potent potable and plain salty potato chips. (Don’t knock it, the combo works!) So we’re not going to replace our tongues with artificial ones anytime soon. But this invention could do wonders for whisky (and whiskey), as well as the health of consumers everywhere. I’ll drink to that!
Researchers from the Technical University of Munich have united new technology with one of the oldest art forms, all to improve human wellbeing. They have developed an experimental dermal implant pigment that turns colour when it detects changes in metabolic substances. The pigment can be incorporated traditional tattoo ink — which means a permanent monitor of a long-term condition could someday be worn comfortably (and stylishly!) by a patient, and deliver readings in real-time.
The researchers identified and adapted three chemical sensors that change colour in response to body changes into tattoo inks that they injected into pigskin. The first sensor was a simple pH indicator that changed from yellow to blue as the test “body”’s pH rose. The second was a blood glucose detector that went from yellow to dark green. The third involved albumin (a protein in the blood which, when low, might point out kidney trouble), which also went from yellow to green as levels fell.
From MedicalXPress, via BoingBoing:
“The authors claim that such sensor tattoos could allow permanent monitoring of patients using a simple, low-cost technique. With the development of suitable colorimetric sensors, the technique could also extend to recording electrolyte and pathogen concentrations or the level of dehydration of a patient. Further studies will explore whether tattoo artwork can be applied in a diagnostic setting.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing to someday have a custom tat that can subtly tell you to adjust your insulin, or slug back some electrolytes? Technology is swiftly taking advice to “listen to your body” to a whole new level. Plus, it represents a return of sorts of the art of tattooing to one of its original purposes: healing!