TTI/Vanguard: Slow news day?

Many thanks to the collection of speakers who made The Game Has Changed: 2020 virtual conference inspiring and thought-provoking for all who joined us. Highlights, videos, and presentations for all four installments are available in the TTI/Vanguard archive. Next up is a virtual field trip to the New Jersey Institute of Technology on October 27; look here for the agenda and to register. And before we know it, it will be time for the four Tuesdays of the virtual [next] conference (agenda; registration). A variety of virtual field trips are in the works for early 2021—stay tuned for details.

The biggest news of the day, President and First Lady Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnoses, have spurred the Washington Post to assess the development from a technology viewpoint, in part citing a “nuclear information bomb” exploding on social media, according to former FBI special agent Clint Watts. (upcoming NJIT field trip talk by Cody Buntain and Julie Ancis, Oct 2020; Renee DiResta, San Francisco, Dec 2019; Jonathan Taplin, Boston, Apr 2017)

We wish the United States President, First Lady and all of those impacted a speedy recovery.

Meanwhile, fires continue to blaze in California and other western states. In this case, technology promises to be a help, not a hindrance, with CalFire and the state’s largest utilities adopting the GIS-enabled fire-forecasting system being rolled out by startup Technosylva. Fire behavior planners are encouraged by early results. (Masumi Yamada, Paris, Jul 2011)

Speaking of burning—in this case both bridges and joints—when Mogli Holmes (San Diego, Feb 2015) discussed the future of cannabis that his startup Phylos Bioscience would facilitate, he said that the firm would conduct cannabis-related research and provide a range of testing services for growers, breeders, distributors, researchers, and interested others. He did not say that Phylos would use the genetic data it had amassed voluntarily from growers and breeders to launch a breeding business of its own, and he did not suggest aspirations to be acquired by one of the giants of Big Ag. Times have changed, and he is now engaged in both. The hardworking farmers on whom he built his business are anything but pleased.

Realization of Dennis Whyte’s (San Francisco, Dec 2015) vision of a demonstration of controlled fusion is on the near-term horizon, with his startup, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, ready to commence construction of the soon-as-possible affordable, robust compact fusion (SPARC) tokamak reactor that attendees learned about first hand during the Apr 2017 field trip to the MIT Plasma Science Fusion Center. In contrast to ITER’s 2035 timeline for completion, the CFS team anticipates its SPARC reactor will be ready to test in three or four years.

Another week, another bit of promising news about battery technology. This time, with an eye toward increased safety, researchers from Collège de France and Hong Kong Polytechnic University have integrated optical sensors into a battery to enable it to self-monitor its chemical and thermal state.

Even as COVID-19 cases continue their march upward, as we just heard about from Dominic Suciu (virtual conference, Sep 2020; Seattle, Mar 2020), and even as many U.S. institutions of higher education are closing campus due to severe outbreaks, some large universities are managing the disease with aplomb. Case in point is Cornell, which welcomed students back to campus in Ithaca, NY, with considerable precautions in place; after all, students had self-reported their intention to move into their pre-leased apartments, regardless. If they were going to bring the virus with them, Cornell wanted to know. With arrival testing followed by twice-weekly 24-hour-turnaround testing of every student (whether on campus or off), mandatory acceptance and adherence to a strict behavioral compact, thorough tracking and tracing, and tight coordination with the local health department and hospital, an early spike due to two instances of disregarding rules has been tamped down, and fall in Ithaca is not only “gorges,” but also healthier than this TTI/Vanguard team member and Ithaca resident had anticipated.

It has been a struggle for musicians to collaborate during the pandemic; Zoom and Skype just don’t provide the synchronicity required. Enter JackTrip: free, open-source software created at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Sub-25-ms latency makes it possible to “jam again in real-time, just as if we were right in the same room,” says developer and cellist Chris Chafe. (Philip Sheppard, Paris, Jul 2011; Todd Machover, Barcelona, Jul 2007)

In the latest example of biomimetics, Harvard researchers are looking to the glassy skeletons of marine sponges for architectural inspiration, specifically the diagonally reinforced square lattice-like skeletal structure of Euplectilla aspergillum—colloquially known as Venus’s flower basket—that features a particularly high strength-to-weight ratio. Diagonal reinforcements have long been used architecturally, but this sponge uses a novel “paired parallel crossed-diagonal structure” that enhances structural strength by 20% with no added weight. (Julia Greer, San Francisco, Dec 2015; Ellen Prager, Miami, Dec 2011)

Hungry? Hungry for plastic? This two-enzyme cocktail is. A collaboration between researchers at the University of Portsmouth and NREL have isolated a second enzyme from the same plastic bottle-eating bacterium that utilizes PETase to break down polyethylene terephthalate into its monomeric building blocks. While simply adding MHETase—which cleaves mono-(2-hydroxyethyl)terephthalic acid—to PETase doubles the speed of PET breakdown, going a step further to engineer a connection between the two enzymes increases activity sixfold over PETase alone. (Heidi Kujawa, San Francisco, Dec 2016)

Frans de Waal (Atlanta, Feb 2014) shared stories and videos about the prosocial behavior of chimps and monkeys. Well, African grey parrots at a British wildlife park are coordinating, too, but not in a way most would consider entirely prosocial. Being egged on by visitors when vocalizing swear words they had picked up led them to preferentially curse like a sailor. The five parrots spewed different expletives in different British accents, but “all were unprintably coarse,” according to the NY Times. Moreover, when one parrot swears, another laughs, compounding the reinforcement they receive from visitors.

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.—Will Rogers