Thursday, March 16, 2017

Friday Thinking 17 March 2017

Hello all – Friday Thinking is a humble curation of my foraging in the digital environment. My purpose is to pick interesting pieces, based on my own curiosity (and the curiosity of the many interesting people I follow), about developments in some key domains (work, organization, social-economy, intelligence, domestication of DNA, energy, etc.)  that suggest we are in the midst of a change in the conditions of change - a phase-transition. That tomorrow will be radically unlike yesterday.

Many thanks to those who enjoy this.
In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.
Jobs are dying - work is just beginning.

“Be careful what you ‘insta-google-tweet-face’”
Woody Harrelson - Triple 9


Dogs Use Deception to Get Treats, Study Shows

The electricity industry is in the midst of a transformation, as technology and innovation disrupt traditional models from generation to beyond the meter.

Three trends in particular are converging. First, electrification is taking place across large sectors of the economy such as transportation and residential heating. Second, decentralization of resources has increased, spurred by the sharp decrease in costs as well as by public support for distributed energy resources (DERs) like distributed generation, distributed storage, energy efficiency and demand response. Third, digitalization of the system is mounting, both before the meter with smart metering and digital network infrastructure, and beyond the meter with the advent of the Internet of Things and a surge of power-consuming connected devices.

Together, these trends at the “edge” of the electricity grid pave the way for an energy system where traditional boundaries among producers, distributors and consumers are blurred – and the complexity of system governance intensifies.

What’s the payoff? This smarter, more decentralized yet more connected electricity system has the potential to increase reliability, security, environmental sustainability and asset utilization, and create new opportunities for services and business.

4 ways to unleash the electricity grid of the future

People expect AI to be human-like. I've been stressing the fact that there are different types of thinking and the chief benefit of AI is that it does not think like humans. As an example: Birds flap their wings to fly, but to make humans fly, we had to invent a different type of flying—one that did not occur in nature. And so, similarly, through AI, we’re going to invent many new types of thinking that don't exist biologically and that are not like human thinking. Therefore, this intelligence does not replace human thinking, but augments it.

Every company these days is basically in the data business and they're going to need AI to civilize and digest big data and make sense out of it—big data without AI is a big headache.

The breakthrough that has not yet happened that will completely rearrange the current landscape of AI is using an extremely small dataset to train AI systems. Right now, AI requires very large training data sets to learn. And we have proof in the human toddler that we can actually have learning with very small data sets. Somebody in the future will figure out how to do that well. That will be a really huge shift, and it will be very liberating in many ways.
I think another one in the future is unsupervised learning, where the machine learns largely on its own. We're only just beginning to deal with that.

Besides those, there’s a real need for symbolic reasoning and alternative routes to intelligence that I believe are going to be necessary to make more robust AI tools. We've been exploring how far you can go with deep learning and some people think we can go all the way. That may be so, but I think deep learning is just one mechanism that needs to be used with others, much in the way that a gear or a pendulum is just one mechanism that makes a clock work.

What is the best way to prepare people for the types of jobs that may emerge as AI becomes more pervasive in our lives?
There's no silver bullet. But it's also important to remember that this is not a technical issue. We know how to retrain people en mass. We do it with the U.S. military all the time. This is a political issue. Are we collectively willing to invest the time and money in this? The market cannot do it alone. It needs government, too.

And we should start teaching it in our schools—the essential techno-literary skills of learning how to learn, learning how to relearn, and becoming a lifelong learner.

Kevin Kelly: “Through AI, we’re going to invent many new types of thinking.”

This is a longish read from Nature online about the way collective memory is shaped and transforms. Well worth the read.

How Facebook, fake news and friends are warping your memory

Research on collective recall takes on new importance in a post-fact world.
Strange things have been happening in the news lately. Already this year, members of US President Donald Trump's administration have alluded to a 'Bowling Green massacre' and terror attacks in Sweden and Atlanta, Georgia, that never happened.
The misinformation was swiftly corrected, but some historical myths have proved difficult to erase. Since at least 2010, for example, an online community has shared the apparently unshakeable recollection of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s, despite the fact that he lived until 2013, leaving prison in 1990 and going on to serve as South Africa's first black president.

Memory is notoriously fallible, but some experts worry that a new phenomenon is emerging. “Memories are shared among groups in novel ways through sites such as Facebook and Instagram, blurring the line between individual and collective memories,” says psychologist Daniel Schacter, who studies memory at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The development of Internet-based misinformation, such as recently well-publicized fake news sites, has the potential to distort individual and collective memories in disturbing ways.”

Collective memories form the basis of history, and people's understanding of history shapes how they think about the future. The fictitious terrorist attacks, for example, were cited to justify a travel ban on the citizens of seven “countries of concern”. Although history has frequently been interpreted for political ends, psychologists are now investigating the fundamental processes by which collective memories form, to understand what makes them vulnerable to distortion. They show that social networks powerfully shape memory, and that people need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection — even if it is wrong. Not all the findings are gloomy, however. Research is pointing to ways of dislodging false memories or preventing them from forming in the first place.

To combat the influence of fake news, says Micah Edelson, a memory researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, “it's important to understand not only the creation of these sites, but also how people respond to them”.

Talking about memory and experience this is a great 20 min TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman - well worth the view.

The riddle of experience vs. memory

Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman reveals how our "experiencing selves" and our "remembering selves" perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy — and our own self-awareness.

This is another article outlining the growing number of players (including Microsoft vs IBM) and versions of emerging Blockchain approaches to problems of accounting and tracking transactions and inventory. Worth the read.
“We believe with 100 percent certainty that it’s going to matter,” Mark Russinovich, the head of Microsoft’s blockchain efforts, said of the technology. “It’s a question of where’s its going to matter and how it’s going to matter.”

Blockchain: A Better Way to Track Pork Chops, Bonds, Bad Peanut Butter?

Frank Yiannas has spent years looking in vain for a better way to track lettuce, steaks and snack cakes from farm and factory to the shelves of Walmart, where he is the vice president for food safety. When the company dealt with salmonella outbreaks, it often took weeks to trace where the bad ingredients came from.

Then, last year, IBM executives flew to Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas to propose a solution: the blockchain.
As Mr. Yiannas studied their pitch, he said, “I became increasingly convinced that maybe we were onto the holy grail.”

The blockchain — the buzzy, bewildering technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin — is starting to be applied to real-world problems like tracking pork chops, shipping containers and footwear with a speed and security not currently possible. The IBM-Walmart partnership is one of the biggest practical tests to date.
Last month, the government of Dubai said it was working with IBM to trace the goods flowing through its ports.

Yet success is far from assured.
Rival Microsoft said this past week that it was working with JPMorgan Chase and several other corporate giants on a system that competes against IBM’s, based on the virtual currency network known as Ethereum. Many banks are concerned that IBM could push them into a version of the blockchain that would lock them into IBM’s software.

Here’s an interesting signal of the emergence some of the advertising shown in Minority Report. Right now seems only directed to likely rich ‘targets’ but soon it may be everyone. There’s short illustrative video.

Moscow Billboard Targets Ads Based on the Car You’re Driving

The rise of digital billboards spawns the idea of targeted highway ads, with tests in the U.S. planned for this summer.
Last November if you were driving a BMW x5 or a Volvo XC60 on the highway ringing Moscow, you might have noticed a digital billboard on the side of the road flash an ad just as you approached, one for a new SUV from Jaguar.

If it was evening, you saw an ad with a dark background, helping the car stand out. In bad weather, you saw it maneuvering in the snow.
Targeted advertising is familiar to anyone browsing the Internet. A startup called Synaps Labs has brought it to the physical world by combining high-speed cameras set up a distance ahead of the billboard (about 180 meters) to capture images of cars. Its machine-learning system can recognize in those images the make and model of the cars an advertiser wants to target. A bidding system then selects the appropriate advertising to put on the billboard as that car passes.

Marketing a car on a roadside billboard might seem a logical fit. But how broad could this kind of advertising be? There is a lot an advertiser can tell about you from the car you drive, says Synaps. Indeed, recent research from a group of university researchers and led by Stanford found that—using machine vision and deep learning—analyzing the make, model, and year of vehicles visible in Google Street View could accurately estimate income, race, and education level of a neighborhood’s residents, and even whether a city is likely to vote Democrat or Republican.

Now here’s another signal of not just the quantified self - but of verifiable performances.

High-Tech Condom Ring Coming Out To Measure Boink Performance

“Users will have the option to share their recent data with friends, or, indeed the world,” the manufacturer promises.
For the full “Terminator” bionic man effect comes a brave-new-world condom ring to measure almost everything guys have wanted to know about their sexual performance.

The i.Con bills itself as the “World’s First Smart Condom.” (“Welcome to the future of wearable technology in the bedroom,” notes manufacturer British Condoms.)
In fact, the device is a ring that men can wear with a condom during sex to track a number of pertinent facts. It’s not actually available yet, but the company is taking “early bird” registrations around the world for the product, which will sell for about $75 once it’s released sometime in 2017.

The i.Con tracks speed, “average thrust velocity,” duration, skin temperature, girth, calories burned (no joke) and frequency of sessions. Most importantly for many, no doubt, will be how a wearer stacks up to the average and “best” performers — though a sexual partner will likely have an insight or two about that. Statistics are tracked via an i.Con app.

While not ready for prime time this is a big breakthrough for the future of the electric vehicle and many other energy storage uses.

Lithium-Ion Battery Inventor Introduces New Technology for Fast-Charging, Noncombustible Batteries

A team of engineers led by 94-year-old John Goodenough, professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, has developed the first all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for handheld mobile devices, electric cars and stationary energy storage.

Goodenough’s latest breakthrough, completed with Cockrell School senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, is a low-cost all-solid-state battery that is noncombustible and has a long cycle life (battery life) with a high volumetric energy density and fast rates of charge and discharge. The engineers describe their new technology in a recent paper published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

The researchers demonstrated that their new battery cells have at least three times as much energy density as today’s lithium-ion batteries. A battery cell’s energy density gives an electric vehicle its driving range, so a higher energy density means that a car can drive more miles between charges. The UT Austin battery formulation also allows for a greater number of charging and discharging cycles, which equates to longer-lasting batteries, as well as a faster rate of recharge (minutes rather than hours).

And another breakthrough in energy storage battery.
“So essentially, what you have is a battery made with some of the cheapest and most abundant materials you can find on Earth. And it actually has good performance,” said Dai. “Who would have thought you could take graphite, aluminum, urea, and actually make a battery that can cycle for a pretty long time?”

Stanford engineers create a low-cost battery for storing renewable energy

A new low-cost, high-performance battery could provide an inexpensive storage solution for solar power, which is abundant during the day but must be stored for use at night.  
A battery made with urea, commonly found in fertilizers and mammal urine, could provide a low-cost way of storing energy produced through solar power or other forms of renewable energy for consumption during off hours.

Developed by Stanford chemistry Professor Hongjie Dai and doctoral candidate Michael Angell, the battery is nonflammable and contains electrodes made from abundant aluminum and graphite. Its electrolyte’s main ingredient, urea, is already industrially produced by the ton for plant fertilizers.

Energy geo-politics continues an accelerating shift toward renewables.

UK carbon emissions drop to lowest level since 19th century, study finds

Ditching dirty coal benefiting environment as gas and renewables increase their share in electricity generation
The UK’s carbon dioxide emissions have fallen to their lowest level since the 19th century as coal use continues to plummet, analysis suggests.

Emissions of the major greenhouse gas fell almost 6% year-on-year in 2016, after the use of coal for electricity more than halved to record lows, according to the Carbon Brief website, which reports on climate science and energy policy.

The assessment suggests carbon emissions in 2016 were about 381m tonnes, putting the UK’s carbon pollution at its lowest level – apart from during coal mining disputes in the 1920s – since 1894.
Carbon emissions in 2016 are about 36% below the reference year of 1990, against which legal targets to cut climate pollution are measured.

Emissions of carbon dioxide from coal fell 50% in 2016 as use of the fossil fuel dropped by 52%, contributing to an overall drop in carbon output of 5.8% last year compared with 2015, Carbon Brief said.
The assessment reveals that coal use has fallen by 74% in just a decade.

Even if the current energy incumbents work to delay the advent of renewable - near-zero marginal cost energy - the trajectory is inevitable.
"Ten years ago, we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind-penetration level would be extremely challenging, and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability," SPP Vice President of Operations Bruce Rew said in a statement.

Wind power provides half of the electricity on US grid for first time ever

'Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent wind penetration. It's not even our ceiling,' electricity
Wind briefly powered more than 50 percent of electric demand on Sunday, the 14-state Southwest Power Pool (SPP) said, for the first time on any North American power grid.
SPP coordinates the flow of electricity on the high voltage power lines from Montana and North Dakota to New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.

Wind power in the SPP region has grown significantly to over 16,000 MW currently from less than 400 megawatts in the early 2000s and is expected to continue growing. One megawatt can power about 1,000 homes.

Here’s a sign of a transformation of energy geopolitics for Canada.

Shell Is Abandoning Canada’s Oilsands

Shell says it’s focused on becoming a “company of the future,” and that future apparently doesn’t include the Alberta oilsands.
The petroleum giant plans to sell its 60 percent holding in Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP) to Canadian Natural Resources Limited, one of its partners. The sale will also include its assets at the Peace River Complex and a number of other undeveloped oilsands leases. In another deal, both Shell and CNR will purchase petroleum producer, Marathon Oil Canada, which owns a 20 percent stake in the AOSP.

That means Shell is looking at mostly getting out of Alberta, with a consideration of $7.25 billion.
The AOSP includes a section of the north half of Alberta that has been criticized as some of the dirtiest, and least sustainable, oil extraction in the world. When oil prices dropped in 2014 and never recovered, the maintenance of such an expensive oil extraction venture in unfriendly economic climates become the focus of much discussion.

Here’s a great new moment in the emergence of large scale 3D printing. There are two short videos - well worth the view.

This house was 3D-printed in just 24 hours

As we start to 3D-print everything -- including houses, of all things -- it's pretty impressive that a company built one in just 24 hours.

Located in Russia, this 400-square-foot home (37 square meters) was built in just a day, The main components of the house, including the walls, partitions and building envelope were printed solely with a concrete mixture.

Fixtures like windows and furnishings were later added on, and a shiny coat of paint added to the exterior of the house.
The total construction cost of the house? $10,134.

Imagine if automated systems had ‘mirror neurons’? We might not be able to provide such systems with such neuron but by creating mind-system interfaces it might seem like they have them.
“Imagine being able to instantaneously tell a robot to do a certain action, without needing to type a command, push a button or even say a word,” says CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. “A streamlined approach like that would improve our abilities to supervise factory robots, driverless cars, and other technologies we haven’t even invented yet.”
“As you watch the robot, all you have to do is mentally agree or disagree with what it is doing,” says Rus. “You don’t have to train yourself to think in a certain way — the machine adapts to you, and not the other way around.”

Brain-controlled robots

CSAIL system enables people to correct robot mistakes using brain signals.
For robots to do what we want, they need to understand us. Too often, this means having to meet them halfway: teaching them the intricacies of human language, for example, or giving them explicit commands for very specific tasks.

But what if we could develop robots that were a more natural extension of us and that could actually do whatever we are thinking?

A team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Boston University is working on this problem, creating a feedback system that lets people correct robot mistakes instantly with nothing more than their brains.

This is a short article on a concept of a self-flying passage drone. The animation is worth the view.

Airbus reveals a modular, self-piloting flying car concept

Airbus has been talking about its Vahana flying autonomous vehicle project for a while now, but at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, it’s showing off a concept design created in partnership with Italdesign. The demonstration vehicle offers modular functionality, meaning it an operate both on the ground and in the air, and Airbus thinks it’s one potential answer to the growing problem of urban traffic congestion.

As you can see, it’s suitably sci-fi in its design sensibilities, but it’s designed with practicality in mind. The concept vehicle is intended to work with others to form a network that can be summoned on demand, with passengers hailing a ride form an app on their mobile device. The capsule-based design can connect to either ground or air conveyance modules, letting customers specific their preferred method of transit. It’s also designed to be used in concert with other, existing transportation methods for maximum efficiency.

The domestication of DNA and an integration with nanotechnology progresses - this is an interesting breakthrough.
A molecular robot is an artificial molecular system that is built by integrating molecular machines. The researchers believe that realization of such a system could lead to a significant breakthrough - a bio-inspired robot designed on a molecular basis.

Shape-shifting molecular robots respond to DNA signals

A research group at Tohoku University and Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has developed a molecular robot consisting of biomolecules, such as DNA and protein. The molecular robot was developed by integrating molecular machines into an artificial cell membrane. It can start and stop its shape-changing function in response to a specific DNA signal.

This is the first time that a molecular robotic system has been able to recognize signals and control its shape-changing function. What this means is that molecular robots could, in the near future, function in a way similar to living organisms.

Using sophisticated biomolecules such as DNA and proteins, living organisms perform important functions. For example, white blood cells can chase bacteria by sensing chemical signals and migrating toward the target. In the field of chemistry and synthetic biology, elemental technologies for making various molecular machines, such as sensors, processors and actuators, are created using biomolecules.

The molecular robot developed by the research group is extremely small - about one millionth of a meter - similar in size to human cells. It consists of a molecular actuator, composed of protein, and a molecular clutch, composed of DNA (Fig. 1 A). The shape of the robot's body (artificial cell membrane) can be changed by the actuator, while the transmission of the force generated by the actuator can be controlled by the molecular clutch (bottom of Fig. 1 A).

This is a fascinating piece on a very small and important life form. As we learn to domesticate DNA the complexity of life seems to increase. The 5 min video is worth the view.

Meet the obscure microbe that influences climate, ocean ecosystems, and perhaps even evolution

Chisholm has found hidden complexity within Prochlorococcus, a cyanobacterium that is the smallest, most abundant photosynthesizing cell in the ocean—responsible for 5% of global photosynthesis, by some estimates. Its many different versions, or ecotypes, thrive from the sunlit sea surface to a depth of 200 meters, where light is minimal. Collectively the "species" boasts an estimated 80,000 genes—four times what humans have, and plenty to deal with whatever the world's oceans throw at it. "It's a beautiful little life machine and like a superorganism," Chisholm says. "It's got a story to tell us."

And tell it Chisholm has, to anyone and in any way possible. Her work on the microbe has led to a meeting with a U.S. president, a debate with the Dalai Lama, and co-authorship of science-themed children's books. She even once tried to get the hip-hop star GZA to incorporate the bacterium's mouthful of a name into a rap song for an album he was considering on oceans. "She's really driven to sell Prochlorococcus," says Allison Coe, Chisholm's longtime lab manager. "She wants everyone else to be as passionate and to consider it as amazing as she thinks it is."

The microbe's long climb to recognition mirrors Chisholm's own. Early in her career, as the lone woman, and lone biologist, in the civil engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, she had to overcome both scientific and cultural hurdles, adopting the latest techniques to reveal Prochlorococcus's secrets while working with other female faculty to get MIT to address gender discrimination. Her quiet persistence inspired others. Chisholm, who in recent years has been awarded the National Medal of Science and named as one of MIT's 13 Institute Professors, sent "an important message for future academicians," says Heidi Sosik, a biological oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. "You don't have to be a blustery, high-profile white guy to make it."

Here’s some good news regarding some of those antibiotic resistant bacteria.
“Pentamidine can breathe life into drugs we don’t usually use for Gram-negative infections because they wouldn’t have been able to cross the exterior membrane,” comments Robert Hancock, a University of British Columbia microbiologist who characterized Gram-negative pathogens early in his career and now focuses on battling antibiotic resistance. “And another exciting thing is that pentamidine is already a drug,” he adds. So there’s a possibility it could be fast-tracked by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration because it’s already been proven safe in humans.

Dual therapy first weakens, then kills antibiotic-resistant pathogens

The drug pentamidine disrupts the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria, allowing antibiotics inside to finish the job
Among the most nefarious human pathogens are bacteria with two sets of membranes protecting their innards. The doubled armor can prevent antibiotics from penetrating these so-called Gram-negative bacteria, and it can help them develop resistance to antibiotics. Now a team led by Eric Brown at McMaster University has found a way to weaken the outer membrane of Gram-negative microbes so that previously unusable drugs can penetrate and kill the pathogens—including several multidrug resistant strains (Nat. Microbiol. 2017, DOI: 10.1038/nmicrobiol.2017.28).

In late February, the World Health Organization published a list of our planet’s most problematic bacterial pathogens: The top three are multidrug-resistant Gram-negative microbes from the Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas, and Enterobacteriaceae families. They can cause life-threatening pneumonia or systemic infections, and patients are increasingly acquiring them in hospitals. As a last resort, doctors can treat infected patients by prescribing antibiotics that are toxic to nerve and kidney cells. But bacteria are even developing resistance to these suboptimal drugs, threatening “to cause a serious breach in our last line of defense against multidrug resistant Gram-negative pathogens,” Brown explains.

The beginning of science was initiated by amateurs and even today amateurs contribute significantly to the advance of sciences. Do It Yourself science has many dimensions.

This Lab-in-a-Box Could Make Gene Therapy Less Elitist

Genetic repairs are curing patients—but only at a few elite centers.
Jennifer Adair carried out her first gene therapy experiment several years ago. A cancer treatment, it involved collecting blood from a patient, and then adding to these cells a new strand of DNA—a gene—that would protect them from a powerful chemotherapy. The altered cells were then reinfused into their veins.

The study, involving 11 patients, proved fairly successful. But Adair, who runs a gene-therapy lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, says it took three sleepless scientists around 96 hours just to process a single person’s cells in a multimillion-dollar clean room. “I said, ‘Wow, we really need to simplify this,’ ” Adair recalls.

Gene therapy is moving quickly from experiment to medical reality. But with potential treatments for cancer and rare diseases now showing promise, scientists are worried that the technology is so complex that patients will not benefit as quickly as they should because of a shortage of trained technicians and suitable facilities. For the most successful gene therapies, those that require modifying blood cells outside the body, the procedures are offered only by a dozen or so research centers, all in major cities like New York, Seattle, Milan, and Paris.

In October, Adair demonstrated a new technology she thinks could democratize access to gene therapy. Tweaking a cell-processing device sold by German instrument maker Miltenyi, she mostly automated the process of preparing blood cells with a gene therapy for HIV that her center is also testing. Cells dripped in one end came out the other 30 hours later with little oversight needed. She even added wheels. Adair calls the mobile lab “gene therapy in a box.”

For all of us who seriously wonder or despair about how organizations can get ‘there’ from ‘here’ - Here’s one possibility.

MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award Nomination Form

We are now accepting nominations for the first-ever MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award, which carries a $250,000 cash prize, no strings attached.
This award will go to a person or group engaged in what we believe is an extraordinary example of disobedience for the benefit of society.

What does this mean? Societies and institutions lean toward order and away from chaos. While necessary for functioning, structure can also stifle creativity, flexibility, and productive change–and ultimately, society's health and sustainability. This is true from academia, to corporations, governments, the sciences, and our local communities.

With this award, we honor work that impacts society in positive ways, and is consistent with a set of key principles. These principles include non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. This disobedience is not limited to specific disciplines; examples include scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate.

Deadline for submissions is May 1, 2017. Award recipient will be announced live on July 21, 2017.

For Fun & Interest
The key insight for me is the idea of how alcohol consumption was so widespread (as a safer alternative to drinking water) and how coffee as a drug helped change consciousness. :) And of course made water safer because of boiling.

How Alcohol and Caffeine Helped Create Civilization

No two drugs have arguably defined human civilization the way alcohol and caffeine have.

Nature created both to kill creatures much smaller than us — plants evolved caffeine to poison insect predators, and yeasts produce ethanol to destroy competing microbes.

True to its toxic origins, alcohol kills 3.3 million people each year, causing 5.9% of all deaths and 25% of deaths among people aged 20 to 39. Alcohol also causes liver disease, many cancers, and other devastating health and social problems.

On the other hand, research suggests that alcohol may have helped create civilization itself. Alcohol consumption could have given early homo sapiens a survival edge. Before we could properly purify water or prepare food, the risk of ingesting hazardous microbes was so great that the antiseptic qualities of alcohol made it safer to consume than non-alcoholic alternatives — despite alcohol’s own risks.

And caffein is good for you.

Caffeine Boosts Enzyme That Could Protect Against Dementia

Researchers have discovered 24 compounds, including caffeine, that have the potential to boost NMNAT2, an enzyme shown to help protect against dementia.
A study by Indiana University researchers has identified 24 compounds — including caffeine — with the potential to boost an enzyme in the brain shown to protect against dementia.

The protective effect of the enzyme, called NMNAT2, was discovered last year through research conducted at IU Bloomington. The new study appears today in the journal Scientific Reports.

“This work could help advance efforts to develop drugs that increase levels of this enzyme in the brain, creating a chemical ‘blockade’ against the debilitating effects of neurodegenerative disorders,” said Hui-Chen Lu, who led the study. Lu is a Gill Professor in the Linda and Jack Gill Center for Biomolecular Science and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, a part of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences.

Previously, Lu and colleagues found that NMNAT2 plays two roles in the brain: a protective function to guard neurons from stress and a “chaperone function” to combat misfolded proteins called tau, which accumulate in the brain as “plaques” due to aging. The study was the first to reveal the “chaperone function” in the enzyme.

Well for anyone who’s owned a dog this seems like a candidate for an Ignoble Award. However, just in case you’ve never owned a dog before and are contemplating have a dog companion in your life - you can now be prepared.

Dogs Use Deception to Get Treats, Study Shows

When a human partner withheld tasty snacks, the dogs got sneaky
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that dogs, in addition to looking adorable in sweaters, possess fairly sophisticated cognitive abilities. They recognize emotion, for example, and respond negatively to antisocial behavior between humans. Man’s best friend can also get pretty tricksy when it comes to scoring snacks. As Brian Owens reports for New Scientist, a recent study found that dogs are capable of using deceptive tactics to get their favorite treats.

The study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, was led by Marianne Heberlein of the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Experimental Studies at the University of Z├╝rich. Heberlein told Owens that the idea for the study was born when she observed her pet pooches engaging in deceptive behavior; one sometimes pretends to see something interesting outside, prompting the other to give up his sleeping spot.

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