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Updated: 3 years 3 months ago


Tue, 03/19/2013 - 06:00

Using Aritificial Intelligence (And A Little Scolding) To Reduce Energy Use

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 09:00

Turn your thermostat down, Dave. A new program in England looks at your energy use and then offers you suggestions on how to reduce it to save money (and emissions).

Houses and other dwellings account for nearly a third of all the energy used in the United Kingdom (in the U.S. it’s a bit lower). That takes a toll on the climate and on people’s wallets. What’s worse is that much of that energy is wasted because residents don’t see an immediate connection between the thermostat, for example, and the utility bill.

Nigel Goddard, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, is trying to solve that problem using cutting-edge techniques from a branch of artificial intelligence called “machine learning.”

In the multi-year IDEAL project, launching in 2013, Goddard and his colleagues will outfit hundreds of British homes with relatively inexpensive sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, and light levels, as well as gas and electricity use, and wirelessly report their readings every minute. Using machine learning techniques, Goddard and his team will be able to analyze that noisy data to infer what people are actually doing--cooking or taking a shower, for example.

Then they’ll use another cutting-edge technology--natural language synthesis--to generate automatic text messages that give people feedback about their energy use. A text message might read, “Last week you spent £10 on hot water for showers, if you reduced your average shower time from 15 minutes to 12 minutes you could save £100 per year.” Over time, they can tweak the kinds of messages they send to make them as effective as possible.

How much energy will people end up saving with this kind of feedback? Goddard expects the results to vary based on a home’s income level, among other factors, but says that “in the best groups I would estimate 20%, possibly a bit more--but its a wild guess.”

The money saved with an energy reduction of 20% could pay for the roughly $800 sensor set within as little as two or three years. And that’s what makes this project so interesting. If it works, it could scale quickly. “It could be offered by utilities or energy service companies, perhaps they install the kit for free and take a percentage of savings,” says Goddard.

I, for one, welcome our new energy-conscious robot overlords.

Rebranding Valentine’s Day Into A Day Of Generosity

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 08:00

Generosity Day--a day to say yes to all requests--has been celebrated on Valentine’s Day since 2008. The day’s founder explains why he started it and what it means.

I never thought I would create a day. And yet, two years ago, with a few friends, I did.


Generosity Day is February 14. If you see, inspire or embrace generosity tag #generosityday.

It all started back in 2008 on a cold December evening like any other. I was in the New York City subway rushing home. A man I’d seen many times on the train was asking for money to help the homeless. He had a warm smile and an open demeanor, and was wearing a hat that said he was a Vietnam vet. Like everyone else on the subway car I looked down, hiding in my iPhone. A monologue ran through my head about how his story couldn’t be true, and how the smartest, best thing I could do was nothing.

This wasn’t an academic question for me. Just two years before I had left the private sector to work at Acumen Fund, a new nonprofit that fights global poverty by investing in businesses that serve the poor. Acumen’s investments had brought safe drinking water to millions in rural India; had helped hundreds of thousands of farmers in Kenya earn more money; had created vibrant, dignified housing for former slum-dwellers in Pakistan; and each of these changes were brought about by businesses, not by charities. In Acumen, I thought I had discovered the perfect antidote to all the limitations and inefficiencies of aid and of the nonprofit sector. I thought that, despite being a nonprofit, it was just because we took a business approach, because we acted like a venture capital fund (yes, taking more risk; yes, focusing on social impact first) that we would crack open big problems of poverty.

That day on the subway I started to hear a voice that I had been ignoring. That day, I felt a pull back to the core of what brought me to social change work in the first place. I felt a connection back to the “why” of my work and started to see a reality that I’d been intentionally ignoring. I started to wonder if part of the “why” of Acumen’s success had to do not just with accountability but also with generosity.

I realized that I knew almost nothing about generosity.

On one level, the decision to dedicate one’s career to trying to improve the lives of people thousands of miles away is grounded in generosity. It is grounded in the realization that we are all connected to each other, and the moment we really see that connection is the moment we have no choice but to act, even though we know in our hearts what a long, hard road it is going to be to make change.
And yet, rushing from the subway to my commuter train back home, I realized that I knew almost nothing about generosity. I’d never worried about it, cultivated it, practiced it, or thought about how regularly I failed to be generous. And suddenly I felt a huge disconnect. Suddenly I realized that I could never make the change I wanted to see in the world using half of my brain and none of my heart.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.

So that moment walking away from that subway car, I decided to make a change. I decided that I needed to jump start my practice of generosity, so I publicly launched a month-long “generosity experiment,” a month of saying “yes” to every request that came my way, whether from a homeless person, a colleague, or someone who’d just served me a coffee. And in that process I awakened something inside of me and got back in touch with what had brought me to this work in the first place. In that month I started a process of transformation.

That brings me back to creating a day. I’d always felt that other people might also want and need to reconnect with generosity, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Then, two years later, just three days before Valentine’s Day, Katya Andreesen, Fast Company's Ellen McGirt and Scott Case and I hatched a plan to create “Generosity Day:” one day for everyone around the world to replicate my generosity experiment, to practice radical generosity.

Generosity Day has no organization behind it. It is owned and spread by the people it has touched, by the lives it has changed.

We decided that Valentine’s Day, just three days away, might be the perfect hook. Valentine’s was a day about love, but that had lost its way. So with just 72 hours and zero budget, we set out to “reboot” Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day: one day for millions of people globally to say “yes,” to engage in small or radical acts of generosity. One day to light a spark. We launched a grassroots social media campaign and couldn’t believe how it caught on. From nothing we reached millions of people, connected them to each other, and gave them permission to give in to their generous impulses. Generosity Day in 2012 was even bigger, and we’re looking forward to 2013 setting a new mark, aiming for one million acts of generosity. Generosity Day has no organization behind it and no budget. It is owned and spread by the people it has touched, by the lives it has changed.

I’ve learned so much since then about generosity. The moment I started thinking about generosity I saw it everywhere: when I stopped and really listened to someone I disagreed with; when I lend a helping hand and boost someone’s confidence; and, yes, each and every time I give time and money.

When I cracked open this door to generosity I also saw for the first time that each and every philanthropist I knew, no matter how tough or rigorous or innovative they were in their giving, was deeply grounded in a practice of generosity. They were using their giving both as an exploration of and as a way to express their own generosity in the world.

I saw that at Acumen, despite all the term sheets and shareholder agreements and milestones for us and for our companies, that we are using investing as a means, not an end in itself. What drove and drives each and every one of our actions is the unwavering commitment to transforming the lives of poor people in the developing world, and we are grounded in a commitment to those ends and the spirit of service it entails. And I saw that in each and every one of our companies – whether an ambulance company in India that’s grown from just nine ambulances in Mumbai to more than 1,000 nationally, and has transformed emergency care in the country; or a cotton ginnery in northern Uganda, that has given hope and a livelihood to more than 35,000 farmers who had spent the previous two decades in refugee camps--everything begins with the hope and the dream of transforming the lives of others, of taking what we hold within ourselves and giving it as a gift. I saw that Acumen’s promise of building business-oriented solutions to the problems of poverty is a promise to show up not just today and tomorrow; it is a promise to show up with real, reliable, meaningful solutions for decades.

And that’s the most generous act of all.

This Brewery Is Powered By Beer

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 07:00

The Alaskan Brewery company is retrofitting its factory to run on leftover malt and barley, so that it’s generating power from its own waste.

The Alaskan Brewing Company just upped the ante for craft breweries who pride themselves on sustainability. It will now power its Juneau facilities with a resource that’s both free and abundant if you’re a brewery: old grain. Malt and barley leftover from the brewing process will now get a second life as fuel for the brewery’s new steam boiler, making the company the world’s first "beer-powered" craft brewery.

“We have the unique honor of brewing craft beer in this stunning and remote place,” co-founder Geoff Larson, explains in a statement. “But in order to grow as a small business here in Alaska and continue having a positive effect on our community, we have to take special efforts to look beyond the traditional to more innovative ways of brewing. Reducing our energy use makes good business sense, and good sense for this beautiful place where we live and play.”

Reducing our energy use makes good business sense. Editor’s Note

Correction: The headline of this post earlier indicated that the brewery was powered entirely by beer waste. Only 70% of the power will come from beer waste.

Most breweries send their spent grain to farms as cattle feed, but there aren’t that many of those in frosty Alaska (only 680 in the entire enormous state, according to the AP). For years, the ABC would ship its spent grain to the continental U.S., but that wasn’t very economically viable and used a lot of energy to dry the grain, moist from the brewing process.

The $1.8 million custom-built boiler will be up and running in a couple weeks and will save the company an estimated $450,000 a year in energy cost, while providing 70% of its power. Cheers to that.

San Francisco’s Bay Bridge Is About To Become The World’s Largest Light Sculpture

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 06:00

The project, called Bay Lights, involves 25,000 LEDs that will flash out a pattern that won’t repeat for two years.

San Francisco’s Bay Bridge is the dollar store version of the famed Golden Gate Bridge: it’s a bridge that transports cars, sure, but it’s less attractive and prone to breaking at inopportune times, like in the middle of earthquakes and occasionally just for no reason. Before the Bay Bridge closes down this summer for final touches on the new, safer eastern span, the bridge is getting gussied up by artist Leo Villareal, who is individually programming 25,000 white LED lights to generate an endless series of sparkling patterns across the structure.

When the $8 million Bay Lights installation flips on in March, Villareal’s laptop-controlled algorithms will be the focal point of the bridge. Each light is controlled individually; no single pattern will repeat for the entire two-year lifespan of the project.

The idea for the Bay Lights, which will be the world’s largest light sculpture upon its completion in March, came from Ben Davis of communications firm Words Pictures Ideas (the firm works with local transit agency Caltrans). Davis wanted to celebrate the bridge’s 75th anniversary back in 2011 with something that would make it shine in comparison to the naturally beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. A friend tipped him off to Villareal’s work with light sculptures--his most famous project is the Multiverse LED light sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington--and Davis was in.

"I got a request from Ben to create a simulation of my dream project on the Bay Bridge," says Villareal. "I created a one-minute animation not really knowing if that would ever happen or not. I do a lot of proposals and simulations of things. It ended up working out, and I thought, 'Wow, maybe they’ll let us do this.'"

The Bay Lights construction process was grueling, Electricians spent months carefully installing the LEDs on vertical suspender cables connected to the 1.8-mile suspension bridge that goes between Treasure Island and San Francisco (the under-construction section of the bridge isn’t part of the display) while attached to harnesses.

A big sticking point for Villareal was not distracting drivers. So the lights will only shine between dusk and midnight, and they won’t be seen by people driving across the bridge--though the lights will be visible to anyone passing under the structure.

And as for that electricity bill? It will cost $11,000 annually, all privately funded (and according to one prediction, will bring in nearly $100 million to the local economy).

While Villareal is constantly working on algorithms, he doesn’t know what the project will look like until it goes live. "A lot of the process is discovery and chance. I may not know in advance what’s going to happen, I may have to wait for the moment until something compelling occurs. I’m selecting moments, refining moments through software, displayed in the end in a random order, a random time," he says. "Having a sense of that discovery and allowing it to reveal itself is one of the most exciting parts of the piece."

Bay Lights goes live on March 5.

The Bro-Tastic Site Raising Tons For Charity (With Girls In Their Underwear)

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 05:00

If you’re not a regular reader of, you might be put off by its mix of Internet weirdness and scantily clad women. But its loyal readers love it, and reward it by throwing money at the needy people TheChive chooses to support.

John and Leo Resig are amazed I don’t know what "horse-masking" is. "You haven’t seen that?" Leo asks in disbelief, over the phone last week.

Clearly, I’m not one of the 8.4 million humans (according to Quantcast) who visited the brothers’ website and its affiliates last month, a network of photo sites dedicated to Shit Bros Like: redheads in bikinis, the aftermath of drinking escapades, animals embarrassing themselves, as well as memes like planking or “horse-masking,”--which Google reveals as a selfie with a mask of a horse that looks like its getting a suppository (nostrils flaring, jaw agape).

You might call it BuzzFeed without the political coverage and with way more near-nudity. In Leo’s words: “We’re always on the cusp of what’s new, relevant, and attractive.” Three times, the brothers created Internet hoaxes compelling enough to convince mainstream news organizations to report them as valid--including the rumor that Donald Trump had left a $10,000-tip at a restaurant in Santa Monica.

That such a blend of content has raked in millions of eyeballs--particularly from men, who contribute 80% of clicks--may not come as a surprise. But more recently, the media company discovered that its community, much like Reddit’s, is willing to come to bat for one another, even when that means opening their wallets.

“We started seeing these charity type requests, where Chivers would reach out in need, asking for small favors, big favors, anything for help,” says Leo. Last May, Leo and John decided to post a heart-strings tugging video about Taylor Morris, a 23-year-old Afghanistan War veteran who lost all four limbs after stepping on an IED.

“The more I looked deeper into the story, the more compelling it was,” John told me. After the explosion, “[Morris] wouldn’t let anybody come get him until they cleared the mine field, so he was more concerned with other people even though he was bleeding to death.” Morris’s medical bills were covered by the military, but he told John he’d always dreamed of a log cabin by a lake. “And I thought, ‘We could probably get enough money for a down payment on something like that.’”

Morris’s story on TheChive was accompanied by a request to donate $30,000 to a foundation set up by his family. Within 36 hours, TheChive’s readers--many of whom are in the military themselves, according to the Resigs--had given $250,000.

Based on this success, the Chive team decided to take their philanthropic platform to the next level, with a dedicated 501(c)3, Chive Charities tasked with championing “orphaned causes in need of public awareness,” and two full-time employees responsible for in-house vetting of readers’ requests for help--hundreds every month.

So far, they’ve posted six. There’s Farrah Soudani, a victim of the Aurora, Colorado, shooting who Chivers gave $155,000. And Zoe Lush, a two-year-old awarded $100,000 to help pay for surgeries required by her rare condition, Brittle Bone disorder.

“All of our charities stories, you’ll notice, have a good touching story, and that’s what we’re trying to do--produce a moving narrative that activates the audience to help others,” John says. The goal is to roll out a new story every six weeks, for now. All of the funds raised by each campaign support that campaign directly (as opposed to the bank account of a larger nonprofit).

Vetting causes to make sure they are true may seem like a remarkable pivot from a couple of “good ol’ boys from Indiana” (in John’s words) who pay the bills, in part, by selling ads against pictures of T & A and viral hoaxes. But John says the methods are the same. “At the core of a hoax, it goes viral, it’s a good story, well told. And so we thought 'Let’s get rid of the hoaxes because our community doesn’t really need that any more, but let’s take the idea of a story-well-told and retrofit it to charity.'"

In a way, it flies in the face of what we’re told about building online communities--that you have to tell the truth and be authentic to get the audience’s trust. Yet the Chive community, described on the charity site as "easily the most generous community on the web today," has given hundreds of thousands to an organization it entrusts to tell the truth and deal honestly with their money, even when the site has taken an Onion-style approach to the truth in the past.

It goes to show that, on the Internet at least, honesty and authenticity aren’t necessarily the same thing, and perhaps, authenticity’s more important. The Resigs haven’t created a hoax in two years--but even when they were into hoaxes, their connection to readers was what was most important. Unlike other media sites and brands that walk-the-walk, TheChive takes seriously the idea of "listening to its audience"--whether it’s responding to which photos get the most likes or a desire to give back. "We listen to feedback, and recognize trends," John explains. "If people are latching on to one thing, we steer the ship that way."

So for now, that means more charity cases, no more hoaxes, and, obviously, no more "horse-masking" pics. According to Leo, "People tell us to knock that shit off after two weeks."

No More Toxic Pesticides, We Can Grow Safe Ones From Mushrooms

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 14:00

Biopesticides grown from fungi, insects, or other plants, are starting to replace chemical pesticides as a less poisonous (for people, that is) way to keep crops insect-free.

Cheap chemical pesticides are expert at wiping out millions of insects with a few hundreds dollars worth of chemicals. Yet as the health and environmental costs of pesticides mounts, and resistance against pesticides is on the rise after decades of chemical warfare in the fields, the equation is looking a little different.

Hence renewed interest in biopesticides. Harnessing the armory nature has given to bacteria, fungi, and even other plants allows researchers to redirect the sophisticated strategies species have evolved over millions of years to protect crops in the field.

An estimated 80% of the treated insects died within one to three weeks.

Fungi, in particular, have proven to be agricultural mercenaries. Applied at the right time, with the right treatment, fungal spores can cut down armies of insects--such as the application of "Green Muscle" over 10,000 hectares in Tanzania in 2009. Trillions of specialized fugal cells called "conidia" from the fungus Metarhizium anisopliae, were sprayed in solution of mineral oil to weaken the locusts devouring crops in East and Southern Africa. An estimated 80% of the treated insects died within one to three weeks. Other animals were unharmed. And the biopesticide (developed through a public-private partnership among governments and aid donors) continued working: the fungus infected new locusts until the population crashed (compared to the repeated applications required by chemical pesticides).

Still, the problem is one of costs. Biopesticides may be cheaper overall, but the cost the farmer sees is the price on the bottle. There, chemicals have an edge: the Green Muscle application cost $17 per hectare compared to $12 for conventional chemicals. Much of the cost was in the production of the fungal spores themselves.

Now researchers have discovered a technique to radically change that equation. A new approach developed by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists brews the biopesticide with "liquid culture fermentation," versus conventional methods using expensive nitrogen source (typically derived from agricultural commodities like milk casein at $6 pound). The fermentation can use less expensive sources such as soybean flour or cottonseed meal at 30 to 50 cents a pound to produce the fungus.

The next step is commercialization. In the case of the Green Muscle, "most of the project’s impact is still to be felt," reports the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. More than 10 years after developing a useful product, the project will likely take another decade or more to become widely adopted. "This is because the eventual level of sales of Green Muscle depends on the correction of the market failure whereby the human and environmental health costs of spraying chemical pesticides are not charged to the purchaser," says the report. Or perhaps just a cheaper product.

Saving Cheetahs By Making Them Friends With Farmers

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 10:00

The Cheetah Conservation Fund works to teach farmers how to live together with the speedy predator, and helps preserve the big cat’s habitat by making a new fuel source for locals from cleared bush. Everybody wins.

What if the fastest animal on earth was extinct? What if it just paced in zoos with no hope of surviving in the wild because there is no habitat? What would advertisers like Epson, Hyundai and (most recently in this year’s Super Bowl) Skechers do without a universal metaphor for speed?  Could we live in a world without cheetahs?

It’s a question we need to ask. The cheetah’s days are numbered. We are down to less than 10,000 cheetahs on the planet. In the early 1900s, there were more than 100,000. The animal cannot outrun its own vulnerability; it needs large expanses of land, expanses which no longer exist. Over 95% of cheetahs live on territories owned by farmers and ranchers. Farmers kill cheetahs because they perceive the cheetah as the top threat to their livestock; some game hunters shoot them for sport. There is one silver lining: the cheetah has been spared from the fur industry because while beautiful, its fur is coarse.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF)--a conservation nonprofit based in Namibia--is trying to stop the cheetahs’ path to extinction using innovative conservation methods that don’t just focus on bleeding heart ideas of saving the cheetah. Instead, it’s finding methods that are good for cheetahs, good for the farmers, good for the communities, and good for the economy.  

The CCF has started has started a model farm program, to teach farmers how to operate in coexistence with predators. It’s also breeding and placing over dogs with farmers, to helps protect their flocks from being eaten by wild animals. Through CCF’s program, the livestock survival rate--from all predators like hyenas, leopards, and jackals---has risen to 80%.

Second, the CCF rehabilitates the cheetah’s habitat. The bush has started to encroach on the open fields on which cheetahs like to hunt. The overgrowth is also a problem for Namibian farmers. So CCF has invented what it calls BushBlok--essentially a Duraflame log made from cleared brush--which it gives to farmers as a clean energy source (the project has received attention from the Clinton Global Initiative). The country has over 100 million tons of bush that needs to be cleared, and CCF hopes a wider roll out of the Bushblok initiative will help that problem, as well as create jobs for locals and more habitat for cheetahs.

By reintroducing the cats into the wild, CCF takes them back to their rightful homes. While CCF does have resident cheetahs who will be cared for their entire adult lives, these cheetahs become education ambassadors for tourists and serve to help study cheetah behavior and genetics.

The CCF’s goal is to rehabilitate the cheetah so that it’s no longer in danger of extinction, though it’s going to need much more awareness and government support before that happens. Which it should, for no other reason than advertisers would have to find something else fast to help them sell their products.

A Site To Help You Make Decisions That You Won’t Regret

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 09:00

SentioSearch gives you advice from the crowd based on the past decisions of people like you, so that you never have to kick yourself the next day.

Humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future, which means we’re also terrible at predicting which decisions will make us happiest over the long term. When Tyson Brazell stumbled upon research showing that people are less satisfied with their lives than they were in 1974, despite the massive technological gains that have occurred in the past four decades, he decided to do something about it.

Brazell quit his job in finance and started SentioSearch, a site designed to help people make decisions based on best practices in psychology. Instead of asking people to predict what will make them happy, SentioSearch asks its users to help figure out what will make other people with similar personality traits happy. "We’re taking this old idea of asking people for advice because we’re bad at predicting the future and applying the most recent psychological research to make sure it’s directly applicable," says Brazell.

We’re taking this old idea of asking people for advic and applying the most recent psychological research.

I signed up for SentioSearch to see what the site’s users had to say about whether I should spring for a new laptop or stick with my old, battery-drained--but still mostly functioning--current model. Upon registering, I rated my responses to a handful of statements (a sample statement: I consider myself a competitive person). Then I asked the crowd: should I buy a new laptop? In three days, the response from my "decision surrogates" came back--88% of people like me chose to buy a new laptop, but in general, they were extremely dissatisfied with the decision.

Now, there are any number of reasons why a person might be dissatisfied with that decision. And it’s hard to say exactly how alike I am to the 20 to 200 people that responded to my question (that’s the representative sample range).

Brazell’s mechanism for figuring out how alike people are consists of two components: psychological (current level of subjective well-being, approach to the world, values) and experience (if you have no experience in a certain category and someone else does, you’ll likely experience things differently). Respondents aren’t allowed to leave comments--so if there happened to be an outlier who had a horrific but compelling experience buying a new MacBook Pro, I wouldn’t be swayed. "We want it to be a clear picture of what’s happening based on numbers and averages," says Brazell.

At the moment, there’s no real incentive structure for people to answer questions. "The idea is you get to track the impact of your experiences," says Brazell. If I decided to buy a new laptop and was happy about it, I’d input that sentiment on SentioSearch, and all the people who responded to my initial question would be notified.

SentioSearch has about 1,000 users; the site launched in beta in mid-January with little fanfare. Brazell, who is bootstrapping the five-person startup, doesn’t ever plan to charge for SentioSearch’s core features. Says Brazell: "Some things we’ve discussed are broadening into other kinds of decision coaching, maybe even in-person rationality courses."

As for my decision? I still haven’t made up my mind. But the Sentio crowd is probably correct: if I buy a new laptop (and I’m inclined to), I’ll probably wish that I had waited.

"Ultimately the story we’ll want to tell is that using the site improves subjective well-being x percent year over year," says Brazell. In order to do that, though, SentioSearch will have to convince people not to make decisions they know are bad.

A New Vaccine For Drinking Could Keep Alcoholics Sober

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 08:00

After getting an injection, the drug makes just one drink give you an instant, horrible hangover.

Imagine this: you’re an alcoholic who has tried everything to quit drinking. No luck. So you go to your doctor, who gives you a vaccine that could change your life. All of a sudden, you’re a new person. Every drink you try to take makes you nauseous, gives you tachycardia--essentially, drinks now give you the equivalent of a horrific hangover. You’re no longer an alcoholic as long as you go in every six months to get a new vaccine.

It sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel, but it’s real. Dr. Juan Asenjo, the director of the Institute for Cell Dynamics and Biotechnology at Universidad de Chile, is working with colleagues on an alcoholism vaccine that makes alcohol intolerable to anyone who receives it.

It sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel, but it’s real.

The vaccine builds on what happens naturally in certain people--about 20% of the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean population--with an alcohol intolerance mutation. Normally, the liver breaks down alcohol into an enzyme that’s transformed into the compound acetaldehyde (responsible for that nasty hangover feeling), which in turn is degraded into another enzyme. The acetaldehyde doesn’t usually have time to build up before it’s broken down. But people with the alcohol intolerance mutation lack the ability to produce that second enzyme; acetaldehyde accumulates, and they feel terrible.

Asenjo and his colleagues have come up with a way to stop the synthesis of that second enzyme via a vaccine, mimicking the mutation that sometimes happens naturally. "People have this mutation all over the world. It’s like how some people can’t drink milk," explains Asenjo.

So far, the vaccine has been tested successfully on alcoholic mice. With one dose of the vaccine, the mice’s drinking habits diminish by 50% for 30 days. Next, researchers in Mumbai, India, will conduct pre-clinical trials on larger numbers of mice. Asenjo believes that phase-one human trials could begin as soon as the end of 2013. "If phase-one trials go okay, it’s up to the pharmaceutical industry really [what happens next]," he says. Pharmaceutical companies haven’t expressed much interest thus far, however.

Asenjo says the vaccine will be very cheap--perhaps why those pharmaceutical companies aren’t too excited--and will need to be administered every six months to a year.

Addressing the physiological part of alcohol addiction is just one piece of the battle. Addictive tendencies could very well manifest in other ways; instead of alcohol, perhaps former addicts will move on to cigarettes. Asenjo admits as much: "Addiction is a psychological disease, a social disease. Obviously this is only the biological part of it." But with the biological piece of the disease taken care of, a big part of the battle is already won.

A Floating School That Won’t Flood

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 07:00

Designed for a flood-prone area of Nigeria, this school would keep students in school even after the heaviest rains.

Makoko is a water-logged settlement in Lagos, home to about 250,000 people living mostly in makeshift structures on stilts. The main mode of transport is canoe, and the area is at constant risk of flooding, according to Kunlé Adeyemi, a Nigerian-born architect who now lives in Holland.

Some city officials want to tear the area down, saying it is unfit for habitation (or because real estate would be more valuable with upscale homes). But Adeyemi wants to keep building--just a little differently. Instead of stilts, he sees floating structures, with better access to power and fresh water, and more sustainable means of waste disposal.

His first project--what he calls a "seed to cultivate a new type of urbanism on water in African cities"--is a floating school. The three-story structure is 108 square feet at its base, and 33 feet high. It sits on a flotation deck made of 256 used plastic drums. And the body is all wood, which is sourced locally. The idea is to keep things relatively cheap: Adeyemi estimates it will cost about $6,250.

The building is designed for about 100 students (aged 4 to 12), and has its own power system based around solar panels on the roof. There is rainwater harvesting capacity, and the school has its own toilet--something unusual for the area.

"Makoko is a settlement that people often drive by. I’ve driven by it myself for many years," Adeyemi says. "But I started to visit and I was inspired, shocked, and motivated by the environment. I asked if there was anything I could do, and they said the school was always flooding, and they needed an extension. So, that’s what we did."

Adeyemi describes the structure, which is nearly finished, as "very stable". And he says the children see nothing strange in taking a boat to class. "It has been exciting for them since we built the first platform. They love it, and are always around it."

More broadly, he sees the design as a way of "addressing issues that are larger and more prevalent in coastal African cities, where there is rapid urbanization and a shortage of housing, and you have energy and waste management issues, and the impact of climate change."

"There are urban strategies for dealing with sea level rises and flooding that are more infrastructure-related. But this is about flood-prone areas within cities that we can use for urbanization," he says.

Aside from Lagos, that could mean much of coastal West Africa--from Nigeria to Senegal. "We hope to be a catalyst and that a lot of other people will adopt similar systems to address climate change and flooding," Adeyemi says.

How To Design Products For People Making $2 A Day

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 06:00

Proximity Designs is a for-profit design company whose goal is to create products cheap enough--and good enough--that they can be bought by poor farmers, instead of just giving them aid.

Editor’s Note

This is the latest profile in Catchafire's Generosity Series, a multimonth celebration and investigation of bold generosity with the goal of understanding its causes, its benefits, and how to inspire more giving. We’ll be interviewing a long list of impressive change makers who have demonstrated their generosity through acts of service, rather than exclusively through deep-pocketed philanthropy.

This month, we’re honoring the most generous designers. We’ve already looked at Social Media Mavens. The series will run through the winter with more profiles of generous Tech Founders, Wall Streeters, Marketing Gurus, and Filmmakers.

Proximity Designs--led by Debbie Aung Din and Jim Taylor--works to reduce poverty and advance the well-being of rural families in Myanmar, where they’ve worked since 2004. They design, produce, and distribute products, like their foot-operated irrigation pump, that are affordable for low-income farmers and help to increase their income and productivity. To date, they’ve sold more than 110,000 items to Burmese farmers, using a model of designing and producing tools that are affordable to those making less than $2 a day.

How did you decide to select a business model in which you treat the poor as customers rather than recipients of charity? And do you believe this to be a faster way out of generational poverty?

Giving things away is hard to do on a large and sustainable scale. Selling products allows us to scale much faster. People who are trying to survive can’t afford to wait for traditional giveaway programs that may or may not find their village. Selling our income-boosting products at prices villagers can pay allows us to invest in and grow a sustainable distribution network that gives rural people access to even more products and services.

When we treat people as customers--not as recipients of charity--they have the ultimate power and choice to decide whether they want to buy what we’re offering. As a social enterprise, we don’t decide what people should get. It’s up to them to decide.

So much of the aid industry is based on patronage relationships. We wanted to have a different kind of relationship with the people we are serving. It’s a more transparent relationship, one of mutual exchange and respect. It is less patronizing to treat people as customers than to treat them as “charity recipients."

If we give things away, we will not really know whether people value what we provide. When we sell our products at a price poor families can afford, we get immediate feedback signals daily from people who have spent their hard-earned money. If we design products that don’t increase incomes or that are not affordable, people will simply not buy them.

People who pay or work for things tend to be more invested in them. If people receive things as outright charity, they will not feel a sense of ownership. For example, foot pumps that were given away have shown a high rate of abandonment. Our foot pumps and other products bought by users are almost never abandoned.

It can be socially divisive to give something away to a few selected households in a village and exclude the other households. Similarly, it’s not fair to select a few villages to get assistance and withhold it from thousands of other villages. When we sell products through the broader market, we make them as accessible as possible nationwide, using private sector channels. Everyone has an opportunity to access our products.

Why was the foot-treadle pump successful? What’s next for Proximity?

We didn’t invent the treadle pump but our product designers have made some pretty impressive design innovations, like replacing plastic molded parts for metal ones, making it super low cost and much easier to install and use.

The foot-operated irrigation pump is successful because it provides small-plot farm families with an extremely affordable solution to their daily problem of drudgery--hauling water to their crops. (It was like going from doing six to eight hours a day of back-breaking work hauling water to two hours instead on a “stairmaster.”) With improved efficiency in daily irrigation, farm families could then spend time expanding their plots, growing more diverse and high-value crops, extending their growing season or spending time marketing their produce and getting better prices--all of these add up to dramatic boosts in household incomes of $200 to $300 per season. The extra income allows them to feed their family, buy school supplies, keep their children in school, and buy inputs for the next crop without going into debt.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.

We’ve created an innovative line of irrigation products including four models of foot-operated treadle pumps, 250-gallon water storage tanks for farms and gravity-fed drip irrigation systems. The irrigation products range from $15 to $50 in price. Since 2004, farm households have purchased over 130,000 irrigation products.

Several years ago we began moving into several other underserved rural markets in Myanmar. We now sell a line of renewable energy products, designed for rural homes. Our newest offering is financial services designed for the millions of smallholder farms in Myanmar.

How did your approach to design help you reach so many people affected by Cyclone Nargis?

We’d never seen the disaster relief industry up close before, but we were on the ground and our customers were in dire need after the cyclone hit. We knew a lot about rural families and about delivery to remote villages. So right away we started with some basic "need finding" as designers would do and asked, “What does the cyclone survivor want?” Survivors were farm families who had lost their harvested crops, rice seeds for the next season, their draft animals, and had no means to replant for the future. We found the following four things were important to survivors:

1. Timeliness of delivery: Many donors and aid agencies paid little attention to farmers’ deadlines and instead operated on their own agency timelines. As a result, few agencies were able to help with farm recovery work and instead focused on shelter, water, and sanitation. We ended up being the group that helped the largest number of farm households to replant in the very first season weeks after the cyclone hit. We delivered fertilizer, tilling equipment, rice seed, and helped 58,000 farm households to replant.

2. Fairness in distribution: Everyone in the village or cluster of villages had been hit by the cyclone so it was foolish to try to do “wealth ranking” of people, as we saw many aid agencies doing in a formulaic way. In fact, villagers complained that this kind of process was divisive and they didn’t want it. In delivering supplies, we went for universal coverage of the village households or the cluster of villages. It was faster and everyone felt it was fair.

3. Transparency: Cyclone survivors needed information and knew what they could expect from us. We distributed “transparency flyers” that contained relevant information on supplies being delivered, included hotline numbers and contact persons to send suggestions, feedback, and complaints.

4. People wanted to be treated with dignity: We designed a process whereby survivors were listed and called up by name to receive their supplies. We made sure no one was left out. These details were very important to survivors.

Can you describe your collaborative process as a husband and wife design team?

This is the first time we’ve worked as a husband and wife team (except for a brief period in post-war Cambodia when we shared the leadership job). Our skills and experiences seem to have converged to form a solid combination for this social enterprise design work in Myanmar.

We both have a background and training in development economics, so we understand the big picture of poverty. Jim has training (an MBA) in management and experience in private sector management with both large companies and technology startups. Being a native of the country, Debbie is able to bridge two cultures. We both are interested in design and especially innovation. We’re not risk-averse and are drawn to work in difficult places. In a startup, you end up doing a bit of everything and we shared leadership roles. As our company has grown we continue to collaborate closely even though our respective responsibilities have evolved to be a bit more specialized. We’re not afraid to disagree, but fundamentally we share the same values and this makes our collaboration work.

When did you realize your career would be focused on giving back?

We’re not designers by training. We’ve come to embrace some of the key design disciplines while facing some really difficult challenges. We haven’t really seen the trajectory of our careers as a period of taking and now giving back. We were both fortunate to have access to good educations and supportive families. We’re motivated to help in situations where the stakes are high and the problems are big--where we know our unique skills can make a positive difference.

Throughout our careers we’ve been compelled to work in challenging situations where our skills could be best put to use; the Mississippi delta, post–Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Indonesia, and now Myanmar for the past nine years.

Who inspires you the most with their generosity?

Debbie and I met in Mississippi. Fresh out of college in the late ‘70s, we each decided to move to Jackson to work with a social entrepreneur named John Perkins. John was a successful businessman who moved back to his native Mississippi. He started social ventures to tackle poverty in America’s poorest state. Our seven years in Mississippi was a shaping experience as 20-year-olds. John taught us something that has become an enduring theme in our lives. He said if you want to understand more clearly the real problems facing poor people, you have to relocate and be close to them, so you can begin to look for real solutions. You need deep knowledge and empathy if you want to be any good at solving complex problems.

The 10 Happiest Cities In The World

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 05:00

What makes these cities’ residents happier than anywhere else?

The U.S. is a pretty unhappy place compared to Europe, Australia, and South America. That’s according to a survey of 10,000 people in 29 countries from market research company GfK Custom Research. Conducted in 2009, the Anholt-GfK Roper City Brands Index, claims that San Francisco is the only U.S. city to crack the list of the 10 happiest cities in the world. Who else came out on top, and why?

Rio de Janeiro is at the top of the list for its many outdoor and cultural attractions, shopping centers (is that really a measure of happiness?), performances, and general amusement. Sydney comes in second for many of the same reasons, and Barcelona rounds out the top three--mainly because of its extensive shopping. Rio and Barcelona seem like traditional choices, but Sydney makes it because of its general Australia-ness, according to Simon Anholt, who conducted the survey. "It’s where everybody would like to go," he told Forbes. "Everybody thinks they know Australia because they’ve seen Crocodile Dundee. There’s this image of this nation of people who basically sit around having barbecues."

Amsterdam, Melbourne, and Brazil come in next. You’ll notice that Amsterdam seems to be there because of one reason: its "coffee shops," which are not coffee shops, but rather marijuana dispensaries.

Oddly enough, San Francisco also makes it onto the list largely because of its shopping centers. I can’t speak to this entire list, but as a resident, that’s probably the last thing I’d mention as a reason for the city’s overall happiness. Traditional picks--Rome, Paris, and Buenos Aires--follow close behind.

The Anholt-GfK Roper City Brands Index is based on perception--that is, the world’s population perceives Rio as the happiest city. But there are objective factors we can take into account when looking at happy cities and countries. Last year, Columbia University’s Earth Institute released the first World Happiness Report, looking at happiness in the world and the science behind it. Some of the findings: Rich people are happier than poor people, but social supports and personal freedom matter; there’s a positive correlation between happiness and self-employment in the American and European data (but not in South America); mental health is the biggest contributor to happiness in all countries; and a lack of perceived equality cuts down on happiness.

Judge for yourself whether the cities on this list meet those criteria (or how much shopping they have). And if you want to zoom out a little and check out the world’s happiest countries, we’ve got a story on that too.

[All Images: Shutterstock]

Brazil Is Attempting To Count Every Tree In The Amazon

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 14:30

The National Forest Inventory is a project to find out exactly what’s in the Amazon so we can better protect it.

Counting the trees in the Amazon may seem an impossible task. But Brazil has embarked on one of the world’s most extensive forest surveys turning the Amazon’s trillions of trees into data points that will ultimately help conserve them.

Home to about 60 percent of the Amazon’s rainforest, Brazil plans to gain "a broad panorama of the quality and the conditions in the forest cover" through its new National Forest Inventory, said Brazilian Forestry Minister Antonio Carlos Hummel according to the AFP. "We are going to come to know the rainforest from within."

We are going to come to know the rainforest from within.

The massive tree census is scheduled to take place over the next four years. Teams sent across Brazil’s 3,288,000 square miles, encompassing about half of the world’s remaining tropical forest, will sample about 20,000 points at 20-kilometer intervals. Researchers will log the number, height, diameter, and species of trees, along with soil types, biomass carbon stocks, and even local people’s interactions with the forest at each site. Once completed, it will the most comprehensive national inventory in Brazil since 1983.

Brazil, once one of the world’s largest deforesters, is now among conservation’s greatest turnaround stories. Last year, Brazil reported the lowest level of deforestation in decades: 1,797 square miles of Amazon. That’s almost 80 percent lower than in 2004, reports Mongabay.

And the government plans to go lower still. The country has publicly committed to reducing deforestation by 80 percent below 2004 levels by 2020. It’s well on its way: the environment ministry said deforestation was down 76.27 percent compared to its baseline, well ahead of schedule.

The Inventory should help those gains stick. Just as the U.S. Census helps formulate social and economic policy, Brazil plans to shape its policies and planning around the forest data, says Minister of Environment Izabella Teixeira. "Brazilian society does not have enough information about the country’s forests," said Teixeira in a USAID statement, a partner in the initiative along with the U.S. Forest Service. "This will be able to convince decision makers from different sectors to provide permanent resources for forests."

Cities Are Making The Entire Planet Hotter

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 12:00

The collection of people, buildings, and cars that create a city put out a lot of heat--and while they use energy more efficiently, they’re still contributing to the rising temperature of the planet.

Anyone who lives 1,000 miles away from a major city probably thinks they’re immune to all the side effects--positive and negative--of city life. They’re wrong. A study published in Nature Climate Change recently found that waste heat from cars, buildings, and other heat sources in cities across the Northern Hemisphere trigger high winter temperatures, even in remote areas.

You’ve probably heard of the urban heat island effect--a phenomenon that occurs when retained heat is re-radiated by buildings and pavements. This is different. The study, which comes from researchers at University of California, San Diego; Florida State University; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, looks at heat emitted directly from cars and other sources.

PhysOrg explains how the scientists conducted their research:

[The authors] analyzed the energy consumption--from heating buildings to powering vehicles--that generates waste heat release. The world’s total energy consumption in 2006 was equivalent to a constant-use rate of 16 terawatts (one terawatt, or TW, equals 1 trillion watts). Of that, an average rate of 6.7 TW was consumed in 86 metropolitan areas in the Northern Hemisphere. Using a computer model of the atmosphere, the authors found that the influence of this waste heat can widen the jet stream.

That means waste heat from urban energy consumption can spread far and wide. So if humanity wants to curb the disturbing recent patterns of winter warming--and all the cascading problems throughout the year that occur because of it--we need to focus on urban energy consumption. Slowing energy consumption won’t make a big dent in global climate change (an average worldwide temperature increase of 0.02 degrees F is from waste heat), but it will make a difference regionally.

Apple Hints At A New Way To Connect People Through Cash

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 10:00

A new patent filing conjures up the idea that we could all be a little more generous any time we have our phones with us.

Apps like Square and Venmo have turned smartphones into an extension of the wallet, so it may come as no surprise that Apple wants to inject itself into the mobile payment industry that depends on its hardware and software--a segment tha has for years been touted as the next big thing.

Just last week, the world’s most valuable company filed a patent application that describes an interesting twist on the mobile payment concept: The unnamed technology is described as an “ad-hoc cash-dispensing network” that would let nearby strangers borrow cash from one another. Say you need two dollars for bus fare. Hit up this program (presumably an app?) with your request, and it would facilitate a meetup with a willing stranger near you. The lender gives you the two dollars, and the app takes the same amount from your bank account and puts it in his. The patent filing describes applying service fees to the cash requester, which could be split between the lender and the service itself.

The ad-hoc cash-dispensing network would let nearby strangers borrow cash from one another.

While the idea seems to be just that for now, it presents an interesting twist on the mobile payment scheme. Despite the possibility that someday physical cash will become obsolete, for now, there’s been no way for smartphones to address the divide between the reality of digital and physical money. You could have thousands available on your PayPal account, but still miss the bus because you don’t have six quarters on hand. Or you can’t buy a soda because your local bodega only takes cash--and maybe Apple’s fee could just undercut ATM’s enough to make it worth it.

This isn’t the first patent application for a mobile payment technology that Apple has filed. Past ones include variations on price scanners and person-to-person payment systems for the iPhone.

A National Network Of Seed Sharing Promotes Better Food

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 09:00

The organization Eating In Public is setting up seed sharing kiosks across the country to encourage biodiversity and a renewed interest in bettering our food system.

The practice of sharing seeds is as old as farming itself. Only until the contemporary era of industrialized, monoculture agriculture did it become the norm for farmers and gardeners to buy seeds from a biotech company like Monsanto, instead of saving their own or trading with neighbors.

Hawaiian guerrilla gardening organization Eating in Public is attempting to revive the tradition, with a new initiative that wants to put seed sharing back into the public eye, by distributing pop-up seed sharing stations in communities around North America.

It’s a simple idea, really. Libraries, community centers, coffee shops, galleries, or anywhere where people pass through agree to host stations. Eating in Public will provide them for free (or they have for building your own). The stations come with some pencils, a stapler, recycled envelopes, and a rubber stamp and pad so seed-sharers can label their offerings, as well as 50 packs of seeds to get people started. Anybody who feels like it can grab seeds or leave some behind.

Check out this amazing photo essay of beautiful extreme close-ups of seeds.

So far, spots in San Diego and Fairfield, California; Queens, New York; London, Ontario; and Vancouver have agreed to host. The only requirement: that adoptive organizations agree to keep the stamp pad inked, the pencils sharpened, and the stapler restocked.

In the 10 years since its founding, Eating in Public has dug gardens on public land, created a network of “anarchist” recyling bins, and founded “free stores.” “Our ideas are not original,” they write on their website. “We want to show that the commons can still exist right in the middle of the capitalist/state regime. And we can take care of each other while we take care of ourselves.”

A 3-D Visualization Of The World’s Carbon Emissions As Plumes Of Smoke

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 08:00

Emissions Globe is an interactive graphic that visualizes how countries’ emissions have grown by showing you not just numbers, but actual pollution.

Carbon emissions are growing around the world, but not at an equal pace in all places. That’s intuitive enough, but the Emissions Globe, created by interactive media designer Robbie Tilton, highlights the disparities in emissions across the globe from 2006 to 2010 with a beautiful 3-D visualization.

Instead of charts and graphs (though those are available, too) the graphic lets you actually see the plumes of carbon emanating from different countries, giving the amount of carbon a more visceral feel than simply a line in a bar chart.

Here, we can see the world’s emissions as they looked in 2006.

And here, in 2010:

You can spin the globe, letting you see more of the southern hemisphere (here’s a hint: many fewer emissions down there). If only the data went back further, so you could see the true growth of emissions over the last century.

These 3-D Portraits Were Created Using Only A Person’s DNA

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 07:00

Stranger Visions is an art project which tries to determine what we look like based on a single strand of hair.

How much information about ourselves do we leave behind in public, as we shed saliva, hair, and sweat throughout the day? It’s a question that drives the artwork of Heather Dewey-Hagborg, whose project Stranger Visions reconstructs the faces of the anonymous as 3-D printed sculptures, using genetic detritus found in chewing gum, cigarette butts, and wads of hair around New York City.

"I started fixating on this idea of hair and what can I know about someone from a hair," explains Dewey-Hagborg, a Brooklyn-based information artist. Her faces were determined based on looking at just three traits--gender, eye color, and maternal ethnicity--an admittedly simplified look (but still more advanced than police forensics labs which use a kit to determine hair and eye color from a sample). Plugging that information into software she wrote herself, she could spin up different 3-D versions of a face--eventually settling on the ones she finds most interesting aesthetically--and bring them to life with a 3-D printer.

The resulting busts may bear, at most, a "family resemblance" to the original person, Dewey-Hagborg says. “Part of that is that I need to do more experiments," to incorporate more traits. "Part of that is that it’s just impossible."

While DNA analysis may be popularly understood as a straightforward process, thanks to simplistic representations on forensic lab TV mysteries where a single hair is as compelling evidence as a smoking gun, Dewey-Hagborg soon found out that "there’s a whole lot more subjectivity than we’re kind of lead to believe." Even something as simple as determining eye color based on DNA can prove harder than you’d imagine. "There’s an 80% chance that this person has brown eyes and 20% chance that they have green eyes," she explains. "You have to make that call."

Subjectivity doesn’t enter into the equation just at the level of DNA analysis but during machine learning as well. "In order to generate a face, you need to teach a computer what a face is," Dewey-Hagborg explains. But how do you tell a computer what something as complicated as a human’s gender or race looks like? By feeding it images of humans with those characteristics, a process which involves human input-- the encoding of cultural biases and the simplification of complexity. Databases of faces often come from "college students in some particular region in the world," says Dewey-Hagborg, which clearly could skew toward a less diverse-swath of humanity. But in Dewey-Hagborg’s software, the only way to determine what mouths and lips look like is based on ethnic prototypes linked to maternal ancestry.

Dewey-Hagborg calls the process "problematic," and she says she hopes her work provokes more of a discussion around subjectivity in both DNA analysis and computer modeling of faces. "It does involve, essentially, creating a stereotype, and generating faces based on those stereotyped ideas, so that’s something I’m hoping to question with this work."

Soon, she hopes to expand the project to include more traits, including freckling and predisposition to obesity.

Hilarious Super Bowl Farmers Ad Parody Mocks Factory Farms

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 06:00

The new version, "God Made A Factory Farm," pokes holes in the myths of the hardworking American farmer with a perfectly accurate explanation of how agribusiness controls American food.

The farmer-themed Dodge Ram commercial that aired during the Super Bowl has, improbably, stirred up a great deal of emotion around the country about who is American and what the essence of the American economy is. There has already been one parody ad which noted that while almost every face in the original ad was white, the vast majority of farm workers today are Latino. But sometimes it takes a satirist to really get to the heart of an issue, and that’s what Nick Wiger at Funny or Die has done with "God Made A Factory Farmer":

This new version hilariously gets at what was really wrong with the ad, as inspiring as it was: American agriculture as we imagine it doesn’t really exist. Except for the very small percentage of nice farmers who bring your kale to the farmer’s market, the vast majority of food produced in this country is grown by just a few giant companies, who have set up sweetheart deals with the government to protect their industry, at the expense of both small farmers and the health of Americans.

Here’s the full text of the Funny or Die video, which offers a pretty insightful indictment of the current state of American agriculture:

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said I need a caretaker. So God made a farmer.

And back when America was founded, 90% of the population were farmers. But now it’s less than 1%. So God made a factory farm.

And then God wanted to maximize yield, so he made pesticides and herbicides. And he made genetically modified seeds that are resistant to those chemicals. And God let Monsanto patent those seeds.

And God said: "Sometimes agribusiness grows crops that no one needs, but they still want to get paid." So God made farm subsidies.

And then God noticed, "Hmmm, there sure is a massive corn surplus out there." And so God made high fructose corn syrup. And then God said: "Well, now we’ve got to do something with all this corn syrup." So God made Mountain Dew. And Cookie Crisps. And Gushers.

And then God said: "Ok, now it just seems like Americans aren’t willing to do farm labor anymore." So God made Mexicans.

And God said: "Granted, the American agricultural industry has evolved into a manufacturing giant that’s more like Walmart than a mom-and-pop store. And it’s backed by powerful interest groups that spend hundreds of millions lobbying Congress. But despite all that, the word 'farmer’ still evokes salt of the earth, American Gothic imagery. And, from a marketing standpoint, that would be a helpful thing to associate with an automaker that nearly went bankrupt due to mismanagement.

So God made this commercial.

If anything, Paul Harvey’s speech should be looked at as an ideal to try to return to: hardworking owners of small farms bringing us locally grown food as part of our communities.


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