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Posts Tagged ‘engineering

“Most things are never meant”*…

A coastal engineer collects a concentrated sample of algae and bacteria on Lake Erie in Toledo, Ohio

Protein-packed diets add excess nitrogen to the environment through urine, rivaling pollution from agricultural fertilizers…

In the U.S., people eat more protein than they need to. And though it might not be bad for human health, this excess does pose a problem for the country’s waterways. The nation’s wastewater is laden with the leftovers from protein digestion: nitrogen compounds that can feed toxic algal blooms and pollute the air and drinking water. This source of nitrogen pollution even rivals that from fertilizers washed off of fields growing food crops, new research suggests.

When we overconsume protein—whether it comes from lentils, supplements or steak—our body breaks the excess down into urea, a nitrogen-containing compound that exits the body via urine and ultimately ends up in sewage… the majority of nitrogen pollution present in wastewater—some 67 to 100 percent—is a by-product of what people consume…

Once it enters the environment, the nitrogen in urea can trigger a spectrum of ecological impacts known as the “nitrogen cascade.” Under certain chemical conditions, and in the presence of particular microbes, urea can break down to form gases of oxidized nitrogen. These gases reach the atmosphere, where nitrous oxide (N2O) can contribute to warming via the greenhouse effect and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can cause acid rain. Other times, algae and cyanobacteria, photosynthetic bacteria also called blue-green algae, feed on urea directly. The nitrogen helps them grow much faster than they would normally, clogging vital water supplies with blooms that can produce toxins that are harmful to humans, other animals and plants. And when the algae eventually die, the problem is not over. Microorganisms that feast on dead algae use up oxygen in the water, leading to “dead zones,” where many aquatic species simply cannot survive, in rivers, lakes and oceans. Blooms from Puget Sound to Tampa, Fla., have caused large fish die-offs…

If it’s not one thing, it’s another: “Eating Too Much Protein Makes Pee a Problem Pollutant in the U.S.,” from Sasha Warren (@space_for_sasha) in @sciam.

* Philip Larkin, “Going, Going” (in High Windows)


As we deliberate on our diets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that Theophilus Van Kannel received a patent for the revolving door, a design that came to characterize the entrances of (then-proliferating) skyscrapers and that earned him induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But lest we think him “all work,” his other notable invention was the popular (at least in the early 20th century) amusement park ride “Witching Waves.”

Theophilus Van Kannel’s patent drawing for a revolving door, 1888 [source]
Theophilus Van Kannel [source]

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

Employees at the BMIT data centre in SmartCity Malta, 22 June 2017.

Hot, strenuous and unsung. As Steven Gonzalez Monserrate explains, there is nothing soft and fluffy about the caretaking work that enables our digital lives…

The ‘cloud’ is not an intangible monolith. It’s a messy, swelling tangle of data centres, fibre optic cables, cellular towers and networked devices that spans the globe. From the tropical megalopolis of Singapore to the remote Atacama Desert, or the glacial extremes of Antarctica, the material infrastructure of the cloud is becoming ubiquitous and expanding as more users come online and the digital divide closes. Much has been written about the ecological impact of the cloud’s ongoing expansion: its titanic electricity requirements, the staggering water footprint required to cool its equipment, the metric tonnes of electronic waste it proliferates, and the noise pollution emitted by the diesel generators, churning servers and cooling systems required to keep data centres – the heart of the cloud – operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But less has been written about those who work inside the machinery of the cloud. Though often forgotten, this community of technicians, engineers and executives is integral to the functioning of our increasingly digitised society. They are the caretakers of the digital, the wardens of our data, and the unsung heroes working tirelessly to sustain an ever-expanding array of digital objects, including our emails, cat videos, maps, non-fungible tokens, metaverse avatars, digital twins and more. The idea of digital caretakers might conjure science fiction images of empty, towering warehouses stacked with racks of automated machines. But these workers are very much flesh and blood. The silicon milieu they’re part of is as human as it is mechanical. From their vantage, the cloud is not merely an infrastructure they maintain, but a way of life, an identity, a culture of stewardship – replete with its own norms, rituals and language…

Explore that fascinating culture: “The people of the cloud,” from @cloudAnthro in @aeonmag.

Apposite: “The Maintenance Race,” from Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand)

* Kurt Vonnegut


As we contemplate continuity, we might spare a thought for Richard Arkwright; he died on this date in 1792. An inventor and entrepreneur, he was a leader in the early stage of the Industrial Revolution. Arkwright was the driving force behind the development of the spinning frame, known as the water frame after it was adapted to use water power; he patented a rotary carding engine to convert raw cotton to ‘cotton lap’ prior to spinning; and he was the first to develop factories housing both mechanized carding and spinning operations, combining power, machinery, semi-skilled labor and the (then-new to England) raw material of cotton to create mass-produced yarn. Indeed, His organizational skills earned him the honorific title “father of the modern industrial factory system.”


“Almost everybody today believes that nothing in economic history has ever moved as fast as, or had a greater impact than, the Information Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution moved at least as fast in the same time span, and had probably an equal impact if not a greater one.”*…

Actors pretend to be in the Industrial Revolution as part of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012

Dylan Matthews talks with Jared Rubin and Mark Koyama, the authors of an ambitious new economic history…

You can crudely tell the story of our species in three stages. In the first, which lasted for the vast majority of our time on Earth, from the emergence of Homo sapiens over 300,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago, humans lived largely nomadic lifestyles, subsisting through hunting and foraging for food. In the second, lasting from about 10,000 BC to around 1750 AD, humans adopted agriculture, allowing for a more secure supply of food and leading to the establishment of towns, cities, even empires.

The third period, in which we all live, is characterized by an unprecedented phenomenon: sustained economic growth. Quality of life went from improving very gradually if at all for the vast majority of human history to improving very, very quickly. In the United Kingdom, whose Industrial Revolution kicked off this transformation, GDP per capita grew about 40 percent between 1700 and 1800. It more than doubled between 1800 and 1900. And between 1900 and 2000, it grew more than fourfold.

What today we’d characterize as extreme poverty was until a few centuries ago the condition of almost every human on Earth. In 1820, some 94 percent of humans lived on less than $2 a day. Over the next two centuries, extreme poverty fell dramatically; in 2018, the World Bank estimated that 8.6 percent of people lived on less than $1.90 a day. And the gains were not solely economic. Before 1800, average lifespans didn’t exceed 40 years anywhere in the world. Today, the average human life expectancy is more like 73. Deaths in childhood have plunged, and adult heights have surged as malnutrition decreased.

The big question is what drove this transformation. Historians, economists, and anthropologists have proposed a long list of explanations for why human life suddenly changed starting in 18th-century England, from geographic effects to forms of government to intellectual property rules to fluctuations in average wages.

For a long time, there was no one book that could explain, compare, and evaluate these theories for non-experts. That’s changed: How the World Became Rich, by Chapman University’s Jared Rubin and George Mason University’s Mark Koyama, provides a comprehensive look at what, exactly, changed when sustained economic growth began, what factors help explain its beginning, and which theories do the best job of making sense of the new stage of life that humans have been experiencing for a couple brief centuries…

Two economic historians explain what made the Industrial Revolution, and modern life, possible: “About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?,” from @dylanmatt @jaredcrubin @MarkKoyama in @voxdotcom.

* Peter Drucker


As we contemplate change and its causes, we might spare a thought for Charles Francis Jenkins; he died on this date in 1934. An engineer and inventor, he is rightly remembered for his contributions to film and television: he invented a film projector and sold the rights to Thomas Edison, who marketed it as the Vitascope, the projector that Edison used in paid, public screenings in vaudeville theaters; and he opened the first television broadcasting station in the U.S. (W3XK in Washington, D.C.).

But Jenkins also pioneered in other areas. He was the first to move an automobile engine from under the seat to the front of the car; he invented the automotive self starter (replacing the crank) and an improved altimeter for aviation; and he created the cone-shaped drinking cup.


“Information was found to be everywhere”*…

A newly-proposed experiment could confirm the fifth state of matter in the universe—and change physics as we know it…

Physicist Dr. Melvin Vopson has already published research suggesting that information has mass and that all elementary particles, the smallest known building blocks of the universe, store information about themselves, similar to the way humans have DNA.

Now, he has designed an experiment—which if proved correct—means he will have discovered that information is the fifth form of matter, alongside solid, liquid, gas and plasma…

Dr. Vopson said: “This would be a eureka moment because it would change physics as we know it and expand our understanding of the universe. But it wouldn’t conflict with any of the existing laws of physics. It doesn’t contradict quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, thermodynamics or classical mechanics. All it does is complement physics with something new and incredibly exciting.”

Dr. Vopson’s previous research suggests that information is the fundamental building block of the universe and has physical mass. He even claims that information could be the elusive dark matter that makes up almost a third of the universe…

Is information is a key element of everything in the universe? “New experiment could confirm the fifth state of matter in the universe.”

* James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood


As we go deep, we might send thoroughly-modeled birthday greetings to Stanislaw Ulam; he was born on this date in 1909. A mathematician and nuclear physicist, he originated the Teller–Ulam design of thermonuclear weapons, discovered the concept of the cellular automaton, and suggested nuclear pulse propulsion.

But his most impactful contribution may have been his creation of the the Monte Carlo method of computation. While playing solitaire during his recovery from surgery, Ulam had thought about playing hundreds of games to estimate statistically the probability of a successful outcome. With ENIAC in mind, he realized that the availability of computers made such statistical methods very practical, and in 1949, he and Nicholas Metropolis published the first unclassified paper on the Monte Carlo method… which is now widely used in virtually every scientific field, in engineering and computer science, finance and business, and the law.


“For himself (and only for a short time) a man may postpone enlightenment in what he ought to know, but to renounce it for posterity is to injure and trample on the rights of mankind”*…

A (small) part of the mechanism of The Clock of the Long Now [source]

The 10,000-year clock is neither a ‘frightening’ ‘distraction,’ as its critics scorn, nor the ‘admirable objective’ its fans claim. It’s something else — a monument to long-term thinking that can unlock a deeper and more thoughtful spirit of interpretive patience. Vincent Ialenti considers The Clock of the Long Now

… Stonehenge was not (to our knowledge) created with the intent of drawing people to think about the far future. However, like the clock, it can also relay a few relatively coherent messages across time. Its monolithic slabs were designed to align with the summer solstice’s sunrise and the winter solstice’s sunset. The clock was likewise designed to synchronize each day at solar noon.

As a result, the architectures of both can exhibit, for future societies, evidence of deliberate human-astronomical calibration. These features could, when encountered by successive generations, foster an ongoing awareness of humanity’s enduring attunement to the heavens. This could serve as a transgenerational reminder that, in the deeper time horizons of the universe, all of us humans are, ultimately, contemporaries — living and dying by the same star.

Long Now’s atmosphere of unhinged creativity and unapologetic eco-pragmatism provided a near-constant drip of bold, stimulating, outside-the-box ideas. There is, to my knowledge, no better setting for pondering the planetary challenges of climate adaptation, nuclear weapons risk and sociopolitical division we will all need to face in the years ahead.

If [Clock designer Danny] Hillis’ clock is a monument to this, then surely it stands for something important. Yet to appreciate why, one must first commit to approaching all timebound commentaries on the clock — including this one — with a patient, non-tempocentric, interpretive ambivalence. Five thousand years from now, after all, it may well be captivating millions, just as Stonehenge does today. What’s certain is that neither its designers nor its critics will live to find out.

The Long Now Foundation (@longnow) and its monumental incitement to take the long view: “Keeping Time Into The Great Beyond,” from @vincent_ialenti in @NoemaMag.

* Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?


As we resolve to be good ancestors, we might spare a thought for another long-term thinker, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; he died on this date in 1955.  A Jesuit theologian, philosopher, geologist, and paleontologist, he conceived the idea of the Omega Point (a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving) and developed Vladimir Vernadsky‘s concept of noosphere.  Teilhard took part in the discovery of Peking Man, and wrote on the reconciliation of faith and evolutionary theory.  His thinking on both these fronts was censored during his lifetime by the Catholic Church (in particular for its implications for “original sin”); but in 2009, they lifted their ban.


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