"5 COOL THINGS" - weekly emails

5 Cool Things  😎
5 Cool Things:
Hi, this is Greg Powell. I hope you'll enjoy one or more of these interesting topics from the world of business and beyond. Dan Powell, my son and collaborator, has researched the articles and written the summaries, so this is not a boilerplate message. We'd like to give you a weekly break to learn about something cool or, better yet, 5 Cool Things.

Zillow, Other Tech Firms Are in an ‘Arms Race’ To Buy Up American Homes (Vice)

The iBuyer industry is becoming “almost frenzied”, and it’s changing the way that homes are sold in the US. Companies like Zillow Offers and Opendoor are making cash offers to homebuyers in exchange for a small fee to “flip” the houses on the open market after minor repairs, pocketing the difference. The big question is whether such aggressive market-making is helpful or harmful to the overall home market, as these companies continue to gobble up housing stock. “…if this was a widespread practice in some neighborhoods, it may create some concerns about a lot of the housing stock being owned by investors from outside of the community as opposed to households and residents.” Is the iBuying gold rush an impediment to the traditional real estate market, or a necessary 21st-century evolution? Read more…

‘Ten Years Ago This Was Science Fiction’: The Rise of Weedkilling Robots (The Guardian)

“For microseconds you watch these reddish color bursts. You see the weed, it lights up as the laser hits, and it’s just gone.” Much of modern agriculture was made possible by the development of chemical weedkillers. Today, with growing environmental concerns over the use of such substances, companies like Carbon Robotics are developing machines that can identify and remove weeds themselves, a potential game-changer that could drastically reduce or eliminate the use of weedkillers in industrial farming. In addition, such machines operate largely autonomously, reducing the need for laborers in a dangerous industry. There are still barriers to widespread introduction — the machines are expensive and in some areas are forced to run on diesel fuel, which creates its own environmental impact. However, there is a lot of promise for robots in agriculture, an industry that has become a focus in the fight against climate change. Read more…

Researchers “Translate” Bat Talk. Turns Out, They Argue—A Lot (Smithsonian Magazine)

Egyptian fruit bats are a mammalian species that live their lives in crowded colonies, and their complex social lives demand a level of communication that goes beyond the typical vocalizations that exist in the animal world. Dropping microphones into the roost of 22 fruit bats for over two months, researchers analyzed the creatures’ vocalizations with a machine learning algorithm to identify patterns of associated behavior. To their surprise, “…the bats make slightly different versions of the calls when speaking to different individuals within the group, similar to a human using a different tone of voice when talking to different people.” These kinds of personalized vocalizations are only known to occur in a handful of species, like humans and dolphins. The next phase of research will attempt to determine how much of the ability is learned versus intuitive, as well as what role communication plays outside of the roost. Read more…

Why People Who Brush Still Get Cavities (FiveThirtyEight)

Interestingly, ancient mouths seemed healthier than modern ones. With the rise of agriculture came more stable food supplies, but at the cost of smaller mouths and increased incidence of cavities, even when brushing and flossing is taken into account. Why is this? It might be due to the rise of a particular kind of oral bacteria found in the mouths of those who are more prone to cavities, say scientists, as they shift their thinking on oral hygiene to a model that takes into account the microbiomes that exist inside our mouths. All kinds of solutions have been proposed, including one dentist’s bizarre plan to hire a team of women to kiss cavity-prone test subjects as a sort of “saliva transplant” (“The plan never made it past an institutional review board”). In the end, the best advice dentists can give right now is the same they always have — brush twice a day, floss, and limit sugar intake. That’s because good oral hygiene is also a way to control the kinds of bacteria in your mouth. Read more…

Why We Need Plutonium Power for Space Missions (The Planetary Society)

Plutonium-238 is an incredibly rare substance that’s very useful for creating huge amounts of energy. During the Cold War, special laboratories were set up to refine Plutonium-238, which is very rarely found in nature, for use in nuclear weapons. In 1988, policymakers closed all but one of these facilities as global tensions wound down. However, there are non-military applications for the unique energy potential of Plutonium-238, chiefly its ability to power spacecraft during long-range missions to other planets and beyond, where solar panels aren’t enough. NASA has secured additional labs to produce the substance in the necessary quantities — for now. Due to the relatively short half-life of Plutonium-238 — just 88.7 years — efforts to synthesize the material must be maintained in order for spacecraft, like the famous Voyager probes, to continue to explore our universe. Read more…

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See you next week!
            - Greg
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