Tata to build the worlds cheapest house – for US$715

There is absolutely no doubt that the human condition thrives on challenge. Fresh from creating the world’s cheapest car, the US$2500 Tata Nano, Tata Corporation is now intending to create the world’s cheapest house.

The flat-roofed 20 sq meter house will cost $715, can be built in a week and came about from an aim to deliver a viable package for beneficiaries of the Indira Awaas Yojana shelter rehabilitation scheme in Tata’s native India. The scheme provides Rs 40,000 per house for people below the poverty line, scheduled castes and tribes, freed bonded laborers and ex-servicemen.

If Tata can hit its targets, the scheme will bring much greater access to shelter for millions of Indians. India is world’s second most populous nation with 1.21 billion people and it is growing at such a rate that it is expected to pass China by 2030. It has already surpassed China for the number of people who live in poverty (800 million people).

Utility can be inexpensive – no doubt. And kudos to Tata for trying on the project. Not exactly a corporate profit center.

What kind of twigs and bark do you prefer in your herbal tea?

Herbal teas often contain unlisted extra ingredients such as weeds, ferns or bits of tree, according to a study by New York high school students that could help tighten labeling rules.

A third of the herbal teas had things in them that are not on the label,” Mark Stoeckle, of the Rockefeller University who helped oversee the project…

The students collected dozens of teas and herbal teas and found extra ingredients in some including ferns, grass, parsley, other weeds and even traces of an ornamental tree, Taiwanese cheesewood, they said…

The students said that three of 70 tea products tested and 21 of 60 herbal products contained rogue ingredients not on the labels…

Stoeckle said extra ingredients such as camomile or parsley might be added deliberately to provide flavor or color. Or manufacturers may seek to sell full-looking tea bags and so pad them with filler.

“This is something that manufacturers and regulators could use,” Stoeckle said of the DNA technique for tea. Importers, for instance, could double check if a shipment of dried leaves is really tea.

We used to have a fave herbal tea that we called Monty Python tea because – one of the major ingredients was “The Larch”.

Italian politicians invent bogus threats to qualify for protection

The claim…is one of several assertions made by a former parliamentary official in Italy calling himself ‘Spider Truman’. A Facebook page he set up this week to protest against the lavish privileges enjoyed by Italian MPs – the highest paid in Europe – has attracted more than 350,000 followers.

The claims made in the Facebook page and a related blog have fuelled widespread indignation among Italians that their MPs continue to be handsomely rewarded when the rest of the country is being asked to tighten its belt, amid fears that Italy’s huge public debt and static growth render it vulnerable to a Greek-style meltdown.

The Italian parliament last week passed a 48 billion euro austerity package which hit families hard but failed to erode the privileges enjoyed by MPs, who have an average annual salary of 140,000 euros – nearly twice the amount earned by British MPs.

In his blog, called “The Secrets of the Caste“, Spider Truman claims that some of Italy’s 945 MPs and senators falsely report personal items such as laptop computers stolen and then claim for them through a parliamentary insurance scheme.

He also claimed that members of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies had sent themselves bogus death threats so that they could request an escort of armed bodyguards…

Italian MPs’ benefits include generous pensions, free flights and train travel and the use of a sports club on the banks of the River Tiber in Rome, complete with a swimming pool and tennis court.

They are entitled to subsidized haircuts from seven barbers working in the parliamentary hairdressers, as well as discounts on health care and complimentary theatre and cinema tickets.

They are chauffeured around in expensive Alfa Romeos and Maseratis with tinted windows, which are escorted by police motorcycle outriders and cut through traffic by attaching flashing blue lights to their roofs…

The issue has spread to other social networking sites, with some Italians comparing the gulf between the ruling classes and ordinary people to that of pre-revolutionary France.

But, then, Berlusconi has been telling the working class of Italy – “Let ’em eat cake” – for decades. If people are foolish enough to vote in a viagra-fortified fop for his football club, they get what they asked for.

Timema stick insects have survived a million years without sex

A female-only species

Stick insects have lived for one million years without sex, genetic research has revealed.

Scientists in Canada investigated the DNA of Timema stick insects, which live in shrubland around the west coast of the US. They traced the ancient lineages of two species to reveal the insects’ lengthy history of asexual reproduction. The discovery could help researchers understand how life without sex is possible

Certain species of Timema stick insects were known to reproduce asexually, with females producing young in “virgin births” without the need for egg fertilisation by males. The insects instead produce genetic clones of themselves.

Dr Tanja Schwander and her team set out to test how old these species were, and therefore to find out how long they had reproduced in this way. By analysing the DNA of the insects, scientists were able to trace back their lineages to identify when they became a distinct species. The team discovered that five of the asexual stick insects were “ancient”, dating back more than 500,000 years. Two of them were even older.

“All the evidence points to Timema tahoe and Timema genevievae having persisted for over one million years without sex,” Dr Schwander told BBC Nature. “Our research adds to the growing amount of evidence that asexuality does not always result in the rapid extinction of a lineage,” she said…

Asexuality does bring certain benefits, including rapid population growth. But the repeated cloning of genes through generations is thought to have significant negative consequences too. This replication means that species are less able to adapt to new environments through “shuffling and tweaking” of genes.

Dr Schwander said: “Why Timema asexuals have been able to persist for so long despite all the predicted negative consequences of asexuality is the focus of ongoing studies.”

On the other hand, I know couples where it just feels like a million years since they had sex.

McDonalds pledges monster Big Mac rollout for London Olympics

It might not quite have been what Pierre de Coubertin had in mind when he coined the “faster, higher, stronger” motto of the modern Olympics. But the world’s largest fast-food chain is using the Games in London next year as a pretext to break its own records; it has announced plans to open the world’s biggest, and busiest, McDonald’s restaurant on the Stratford site.

Metres from where famous athletes will strain every sinew to win their medals, up to 1,500 people will be able to dine in the biggest McDonald’s yet built. The two-storey, 3,000 sq-metre, diner will be one of four McDonald’s restaurants built in and near the Olympics park in east London. There will be two public eateries, one in the athlete’s village, one in the media centre.

The firm insists there is no discrepancy between the Games’ ideals and its plans to serve 1.75m of its meals during the 29 days of the Olympics and Paralympics…

But its presence is bound to attract protests from those who feel the Games should not be so closely associated with potentially unhealthy food brands.

The London organising committee will say that it relies on its own domestic sponsors, who have raised £700m, and the International Olympic Committee’s 11 backers, to find two-thirds of its £2bn Games budget. The organisers promise a wide range of food available at the Olympics park, including from local suppliers. But it will all have to be unbranded, with only official sponsors afforded the right to have their names on the food they sell.

McDonald’s is expected to use the Games to try to highlight its “corporate social responsibility“. It has been involved in the recruitment of 70,000 Games volunteers and has pledged re-use of the furniture, refrigeration plants and other equipment in its other UK restaurants after the Olympics.

Um, OK. Aside from vegans who would have a tough time convincing muscle-based athletes to give up animal protein, I guess the “local food” crowd will be the focus of opposition.

Though some of the best days I spent living on the cheap in east London relied on animal protein from a dozen different cultures – who offered great street food.