Bioengineering the World’s Tiniest Cows

Let’s start today’s show with a trivia question. What Lou Reed song is most likely to increase milk production in cows? Anyone?

If you guessed “Walk on the Wild Side”, I’m sorry, but that is incorrect. But thank you for playing on today’s episode of Dairy Island Discs. If instead you voted for “Perfect Day”, then congratulations! The song (and, to be fair, other slow-moving songs like it) increased milk production by something like 3%. If it makes you feel any better, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would also have been accepted by the judges.

I came across this tidbit while reading about Perfect Day Foods. Even though the Lou Reed anecdote inspired the name for their company, their actual goal is not to make dairy cows more efficient. It’s to do away with them completely. Perfect Day uses a bioengineered fungus to produce milk protein (casein) in the same way that we currently make alcohol: fermentation. These milk proteins can then be used by other companies, like Betterland, to make high quality cow-free dairy products.

Side-stepping the cow is good if you’re a vegan: no animal is involved. It’s also good if you’re lactose intolerant, since Perfect Day makes milk proteins but not milk sugars. But more generally it’s good if you want to decrease the impact that food production has on the planet. Bioreactor tanks require much less acreage (and fart considerably less) than cows.

When we think about moving away from animal food products, it’s often in terms of plant substitutes. Can you make a soybean patty that looks and tastes like a burger? Can you process oats in such a way that you get something resembling milk? Sort of. But your options are pretty limited. Ultimately there’s only such much you can do. Vegetable matter just isn’t the same as animal matter.

In the last few years this story has changed. You can now “teach” microorganisms to produce the exact same proteins made by animal cells. These aren’t sad look-alikes that taste wrong. These are molecular facsimiles. What is meat? What is milk? The important part is not where it comes from. The important part is what it is. And that is, by and large, a collection of proteins. If you can get the right proteins in place, you have a no-compromise replacement food. If you can do it cheaply and efficiently, you’ll disrupt the global food system.

We’re just seeing the first glimmers of this now, but it will only accelerate. We’ll get better at protein engineering, and the environmental costs of animal food production will become more apparent. In short, animals are an inefficient way to make the proteins we care about. They use too much land, they take too long, and they generate too much waste. Up until now, there was no alternative pathway to create these proteins. You want casein? You need animal milk. But now a door has opened, a lower energy pathway to achieve the same end. The first examples won’t be perfect. Incumbent industries will protest and lobby to protect themselves. Picky or nostalgic eaters will initially be unimpressed. But the change is coming. It’s coming because it’s possible and because it’s necessary.

Can you hear that sound? It’s the sound of a tiny herd of fungal cows coming to a dairy aisle near you. No word yet on how they feel about Lou Reed.

Parameterized Design on Demand

Here’s the scene. You’re at a friend’s house doing a little innocent bookshelf-snooping, when you spot something special. Oh my! It’s Wittgentstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus! At that moment, you realize that you too must have this book. Assuming you don’t want to steal or borrow your friend’s copy, you just need to note the title and author, and you can order it when you get home. But we live in a modern and impatient age. There’s a faster option: Open up your Amazon app, scan the barcode, and order the book instantly. It’ll probably be at your house before you’ve finished tomorrow’s lunch.

So the sequence goes like this: see, scan, order.

This routine is old hat for books. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that everything is going in this direction. Amazon is already using image recognition to help you identify things you might want to order. You can take a picture of your friend’s stapler, his egg timer, or his melon baller, and the Amazon app will do a credible job of helping you buy an exact copy.

What comes next? It seems pretty clear that before too long, everything will come with a unique digital identifier in the same way that every book comes with a unique bar-coded ISBN number. People don’t necessarily want visible bar codes hanging off their staplers and melon ballers, but near field communication and embedded IDs should make that unsightly problem go away.

So now you’re at your friend’s house, and you spot a side table that that would look great in your house. Your phone’s NFC chip reader tells you it’s a Tor side table from Model No. furniture. You can even order one right away, though you won’t get it instantly, since it’s generated on demand. So far, so good. But this is just the book story again, only about a table. But wait! Since it’s parameterized and generated on demand, you get some flexibility. It turns out your friend’s living room is larger than yours. If you want that table, it needs to be smaller. And you would prefer it in mauve. Conveniently, the Tor design, being parameterized, has a configurator that lets you make the necessary changes to its dimensions. You make it a little smaller in width and depth and place the order. The parameterization is built right into the unique model number.

What size table do you want?

The sequence now goes like this: see, scan, tweak design, order.

And in fact, modifying the Tor side table design is a real thing that Model No. furniture does, according to this article: Parametric Design and 3D Printing Deliver Custom, Sustainably Manufactured Furniture. Although, newsflash, this article is a year and a half old, and it appears that Model No. doesn’t do design customization anymore. But still, this is an idea whose time has come.

Drawing on ideas from the software world, it’s not hard to imagine an ecosystem of open-source furniture. Scanning a coffee table might take me to a GitHub-style page where I can find a list of suppliers who can print it, along with a configurator that lets me modify the design. Maybe I want to change the parameterization. Let’s say I want to make it so I can modify the height in addition to the depth and width. I can fork and refactor the configurator, verify the suppliers can still print it, and bam! I’ve added value for all subsequent purchasers of the table. Maybe I’ll even throw in an augmented reality model for simulation in my virtual living room model. This lets me anticipate how the final product will look in my house at every hour of the day.

Once design and manufacturing become amenable to consumer-driven digital inputs, a lot of fun things can happen. Refactorable parameterizers, procedural parameterizers, collaborative decorators, open repositories, renderers, simulators, AR walkthroughs, digital twins. All these things are on the way.

It’s going to get a lot easier to benefit from the good taste of your friends. But you’re never going to read that Wittgenstein book. Trust me.

Grinding Along the Lifeyness Curve

When I hear someone use the phrase “I have no life,” I always wonder what exactly they mean. What makes a life a “life”? They breathe and they eat like everyone else, and yet there is something, let’s call it lifeyness, that they lack. What is it?

I sometimes imagine such a person at the hospital, hooked up to various machines with tubes and wires. The doctor examines his chart and remarks “Hmmm. Temperature, blood pressure, pulse, everything looks good… except, my god, this lifeyness level is in the toilet!

If lifeyness is a score card, then what are the checkboxes to tick? What moves you up and down the lifey ladder? What makes something lifey?

I think that, conventionally, people who make this joke are referring to things like relationships, children, travel, quality time spent with family, hobbies. These are often the kind of things that will sound good at your funeral. She was always there for you. He was kind to dogs.

Now, in contrast, consider the person who has no life. Why do they lack lifeyness? Maybe they have no close relationships. They don’t go on vacations because they never take time off. They only think about one thing. They are no fun. Often this is because they work too hard.

So let’s say low lifeyness levels often correspond to obsessive grinding.

But there is an escape clause in this calculus of conventional lifeyness, in this vernacular karma. If you work obsessively and ignore your family, but you become famous and rich, you can still get a high lifeyness score. Your funeral will be crowded. This is because we always forgive geniuses and billionaires. They maintain robust lifeyness even if they are miserable bastards.

Maybe you disagree. Maybe you think billionaires shouldn’t be in the lifey club. Sorry pal. I don’t make the rules. I just muse about them ironically.

I think this comes down to what Steve Jobs called “denting the universe.” If you succeed in making a noticeable difference, in denting the universe, then you are rewarded with lifeyness despite the fact that you may have labored away in friendless monomania. There’s an old joke that nobody’s last words were ever “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Everybody nods and smiles like this is obvious. But suppose all that time at the office brings you fame and glory. Now who’s laughing?

When viewed through the lifeyness lens, obsessive grinding is a high-risk, high-reward game. Maybe you’ll make it safely through the dental divide and into the glorious lifey uplands. Just remember, most people don’t! If it’s lifeyness you want, it’s a lot easier to be nice to dogs and sing beer-flavored songs with your friends.

The MacGuffinator Startup Warren

Have you heard about my startup incubator? I call it the MacGuffinator. And when I say incubator, I really mean it. We’re not going to do much more than get you out of the maternity ward. But if you’ve ever dreamed of a sweet exit strategy (whether or not you actually have any business experience or even a credible idea for a business), then we can help you find the big venture capital payout you deserve. You don’t need a vision. You don’t need ambition. You just need to pay me $25,000.

The Pez was a lie.

Here’s the secret. To make money, you don’t need an idea. You just need a story. And the story doesn’t really need to be true. Did eBay’s founding really have anything to do with Pez dispensers? No! Did Post-It notes come about because of Art Fry’s choir practice? Please. That’s just candy for the gullible masses. What you need is a story that is memorable and plausible. Plausible to a business journalist, anyway, which let’s be honest, is not a high bar. And get this: the story isn’t even about the idea. It’s about how you got the idea. With this in mind, we’ll give you a random MacGuffin when you arrive. A cat toy. A juice box. An old View-Master. Then our skilled storycrafters will work with you to start tuning your pitch: “I’ll never forget that moment when a bowling ball fell on my girlfriend’s toe, and I realized that everyone needs a …” Nobody will even pay attention to what comes next. They’ll be too busy reaching for their checkbooks!

In addition to a story MacGuffin, you’ll need a nonsense Internet name. For this, we have a bag full of Scrabble tiles. Pull some letters… ZazzPix, Funtasm, NeoSpork, NonSentrix, Lamovator, ZazzPix (did I say that one already?)… and bang! You’re good to go. You’ll get a stack of cheap business cards with a logo designed by LogoTron, our automatic logo generator. Your logo will have some colorful boxes and arrows, because that’s all LogoTron can do at this point. Fortunately, it’s all you need!

NonSentrix. “It’s something about your business needs, probably.”

Now you just need a place to write your business plan and start your journey. This is why each startup gets their own garage and a stack of cocktail napkins (or diner menus or dry-cleaning bills, depending on your preference). As soon as you have an idea for a business plan, quick! note it down on the napkin. Preferably with some arrows and boxes. Even if you don’t have an idea for a business plan, you should probably draw some boxes and arrows. The drawing will come in handy in case you actually do have an idea.

Next we’ll get pictures of you in your garage, one of dozens in the GaragePlex Startup Warren on our central campus. If you imagine yourself to be in software, we’ll get you hunched over a laptop. If hardware, you’ll be holding a smoking soldering iron, looking back over your shoulder at the camera. Please don’t shave on the day of the photo shoot! Our expert photographer will make sure the photo is grainy and poorly framed.

Finally, there’s a graduation ceremony where you are presented with your MacGuffin, a framed picture of your garage, and the original napkin sketch. After that, you really need to move on. There’s not much more we can do for you.

The MacGuffinator: It’s not about helping founders start a company. It’s about helping founders start the mythology of starting a company. The rest is easy.

Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Unseeable New

We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.
– William Gibson

Joseph Banks was the naturalist who came along with Captain James Cook on his voyage of discovery in the HMS Endeavour. When, in 1770, they first sailed into what is now known as Botany Bay, Banks was to write of the natives “Not one was once observd to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance intirely unmovd by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.” The Europeans weren’t actually invisible to the native Australians, but they were so far out of the norm that there was no mental landscape in which they belonged. They could be seen, but they didn’t fit. Being dislocated in mind, they were rejected in place. In this extra-ordinary sense they did not yet exist.

Seeing is not merely physical. You can’t see something that doesn’t fit in your eyebox.

This beauty was called the Mastodon

I recall this story whenever I think about looking at objects across time. We have to remember always that we see the new with old eyes and the old with new eyes. For example, we can’t look at a picture of a steam locomotive and see it as the new thing it once was. For us it is a quaint and ancient object, forever static, black and white. You can’t see it with 19th century eyes, not for what it was then. To some it was smoke and noise to no good purpose. To others it was the equal of a supersonic jet, the most incredible piece of high-tech machinery on the planet. Sleek and novel and speaking of worlds to come.

Some people are better than others at grasping the implications of the new. I recently finished a book, The First Tycoon, about Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was America’s pre-eminent baron of steamships and railroads. He was able to see, with remarkable clarity, the leverage points of the new industrial economy. In Vanderbilt’s time, people had a hard time thinking about corporations as independent from the people who owned and ran them. Stock ownership was new. The amounts of capital and debt in play were unprecedented. The relationship between public good and competition was understood in a very different way. If competition from a new company wiped out the value of an older company, the sympathy was often with the older company, with the loss of that value. Many people decried this unbridled, value-destroying competition. But the new world was upon them and there was no turning it back. Cornelius Vanderbilt had an intuitive grasp of the new thing, and on it he built an empire.

Yep. That’s him.

We see a similar pattern with others who followed. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and still later, Bill Gates. They saw the new thing, and they steered straight for it, making bold bets at every step. Most of the rest of us can’t make out what’s happening, because we don’t have their eyes. We see them stepping onto clouds. We rub our eyes and say, “That can’t be right.” How strange to think, in a few years those same clouds will be our sturdy mountains, obvious to all.

What is emerging now that we can both see and not see? What is obvious but invisible, because it lacks a mental mail slot? Cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens, quantum computing, metaverses? What do we see when Cook’s floating island first swims into our Botany Bay? Maybe it’s an unfocused blob. But we’ll see it soon enough, and when we do, we’ll lose the art and the memory of not seeing it.

Air Conditioning the Winter

I like the slogan Electrify Everything.

The idea is to replace things that make direct use of fossil fuels (like gas-powered cars and natural gas heating) with their electric equivalents. Then you can work to make your electricity as clean as possible. I have an electric car, an electric lawn-mower, an electric induction stove top, and recently we bought two new heat pumps to keep the house warm. The natural gas furnace is still in place in the basement, but I’m hoping we won’t need it. Winter is upon us, so we’ll soon find out.

Those little legs are to keep it above the snow.

I was raking leaves this afternoon. It was a cool day, and I happened stroll past my new heat pump. I felt a gust of icy air coming out of the machine. Now I’m used to air conditioners dumping heat outside on a summer day, but since I have less direct experience with heat pumps, this caught me by surprise. But of course, by moving heat from outside to inside, my heat pump was reversing the summer scenario. It was effectively acting as an air conditioner for the world. On a cold day, it was exporting coldness. Selling ice to Eskimos. Sort of like propping open the door in the summertime, only it’s not summer. It amused me to think that I was air-conditioning the winter.

The last thing I have to electrify at this point is the water heater. Heat pumps are stepping up to that challenge to, so maybe there’s one more heat pump in my future. Then I need to get going with the solar panels.

Happier with Less Stuff: Escaping the Indulgence Trap

The Indulgence Trap is about the efficacy of efficiency. Energy efficiency is good, right? Sure, but consider: which of these statements is true?

  • Energy efficiency decreases energy use.
  • Energy efficiency increase energy use.

Both statements are true!

If I give you a more fuel-efficient engine, then hooray! The money you saved on gasoline can now be spent on a bigger vehicle. Or maybe, since miles are now cheaper, you’ll spend more time commuting so you can live in a bigger house in the outer suburbs. You’ve been given “free” money with which to indulge yourself. The indulgence trap says that you can’t efficient your way out of waste. Every penny you save on efficiency, you then re-invest in more energy use. This is sometimes known as the Jevons paradox. Jevons was the economist who noticed that every time steam engines became more efficient, England needed more, not less, coal. Efficiency drove consumption.

But the Jevons paradox isn’t a true paradox. Sometimes the technology changes to such a degree that you are gratified, your needs are fully satisfied with something that requires less to make. That is, you are truly doing more with less. You don’t need to indulge your way out of your savings. When this happens, the world gets a little better.

I recently read a book called, not coincidentally, More With Less. It’s a hopeful book. In it, author Andrew McAfee catalogues situations in which people are satisfying the same needs with considerably less stuff. He calls this “dematerialization.”

The simplest example of this is your phone. This one device, small enough to fit in your pocket, now performs the work of a seemingly endless list of devices. Phone, pager, camera, scanner, fax machine, radio, personal stereo, alarm clock, audio recorder, video camera, GPS device, calculator, metronome, guitar tuner, synthesizer, seismograph, reference library, and on an on. You don’t need to buy any of those now.

Reading the book made me think about how happy I am when I replace something old and big with something new and small. I love ditching stuff.

I love the fact that my TV now is basically a poster that I tape to the wall. My computer monitor is similarly thin. The last CRT computer monitor I owned was a frighteningly heavy monster. I genuinely worried about getting a hernia every time I moved it. And I’m old enough to remember when people would brag about how big their stereos were. (“Dude, my speakers are THIS tall”). My whole stereo cabinet is gone. No turntable, no cassette deck, no CD player, no tuner. These days I have a few Sonos speakers, and the rest vanishes into software. As these old devices depart, they take with them special dedicated furniture: the television hutch, the stereo cabinet, the speaker stands. These things used to be focal points in the living room. Now they are simply gone.

Another form of simplification comes in the form of electrification. Of course you still need to generate the electricity, but you save by having lightweight electrons travel the last miles to the house. I don’t have to take my electric car to a special station where I fill it with gallons of heavy energy liquid. My heat pump doesn’t require regular deliveries from the fuel oil truck. And one of my personal favorites is the electric lawnmower. Man, I hated dealing with my old stinky, hard-to-start gas mower. And I never liked storing gasoline in my garage. Life is better.

Having read the book, I now try to look at things and regularly ask myself the question: can I get rid of this or replace it with something smaller? Can I indulge myself and still decrease my impact on the world? It’s encouraging how often the answer is yes. Matter isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Mathematical Insight in 4 Easy Steps: Huh, Wow, Duh, Wow

Sometimes I think about mathematics in terms of this sequence: Huh, Wow, Duh, Wow. You can stop at any point, but getting to that last wow is really worth the trip.

First you are oblivious. You are marinating in the Slough of Uncaring as Netflix flickers and the unseen stars wheel overhead. But then you notice an odd fact, or maybe someone brings it to your attention. Huh? you say. What’s going on here? There is something there that glows and sparkles. It draws you in.

Example: Take a number, say 7, and square it: 49. Take the numbers on either side of 7, 6 and 8, and multiply them together and you get 48. That’s one less than the square. Maybe you stop here and carry on with your life. So what. Big deal. But maybe you say: Neat! Are there more examples of this?

Does it work with other numbers? 10 squared is 100, and 9 times 11 is 99. Yes!

How about a huge number? Let’s see. 2558 squared is 6,543,364. 2557 times 2559 is 6,543,363. Sure enough! That’s actually kind of amazing!

This is the first wow, the little wow. If you get off the bus here, you’re still left with a sense of the magic of numbers, the tingling sensation of recognizing beauty. But of course there’s more. There’s always more.

The duh comes when you realize that this observation follows from polynomial multiplication.

(n+1)(n-1) = n2 – 1

Or maybe you realize that you can visualize these products as straightforward geometry. You can see the square that represents 49. Now take one square away and shift the top row to the side. The remaining rectangle is now clearly 6 times 8, or 48.

Well, duh. It’s not magic! I can see the rabbit at the bottom of the hat. It seemed interesting at first, but now I can see that it’s not the least bit interesting. In fact, it’s obvious. It’s inevitable! It would only be interesting if it weren’t true. I don’t know why I bothered to pick up a pencil.

The second wow is subtle and vast. Maybe you see how your observation ties neatly together with some other elements of number theory that you happen to know. Or you might prove something related. Sometimes it’s just the realization that there exist dozens of ways to see how obvious it is. The little wows keep piling up until they overwhelm the duhs. Ultimately, the big wow comes when you realize that you get to live in a world where things like this are possible, where in fact they happen all the time, so long as you keep your eyes open. When you see that the world is stitched together from glowing threads that are both inescapable and miraculous. Obvious and mysterious.

A clever person stuck at Duh can do real damage. They might find terrible pleasure in smiting people with the Duh stick every time they hear a little “Wow.” Armed with the Duh stick and the suffocating net of Well Actually, they can snuff out curiosity and drown delight. There is no school-level mathematical proof or observation that isn’t Duh-obvious to somebody. BUT there is no mathematical proof or observation that isn’t Wow-delightful when approached gently and mindfully. Some days I am amazed that multiplication commutes.

The n2 – 1 example I gave above actually happened to me when I was in high school. I have a vivid memory of surfing rapidly through all four stages of insight. I was lucky to have a good math teacher who could help me past the duh to see one corner of the shining sky.

Never cheat someone out of the wow they deserve. Most wows are little wows, flowers. But every now and then you can help someone navigate through a thicket of duhs to the big wow, a shower of fireworks in the night sky, or the glowing aurora borealis. That’s when your mouth hangs open in wonder. And you think: it’s been there all this time.