June 28, 2004

Better All The Time #15

With so much pain, suffering, and uncertainty in the world, how could anyone claim that things are getting better? Well, one could start by considering the following...

Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Smarter All the Time
  2. SpaceShip Won!
  3. Really Getting Away from it All
  4. That's Why They Travel in Schools
  5. iMac or Popeye Mac?
  6. Save the Whales (& the Pandas & the Cheetahs & the Black-footed Ferrets)
  7. What About Blob?
    Update: Iraq

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Quote of the Day

Saying that extending old people's lives is not so important as extending young people's lives may be justified today, when older people have less potential life to live (in terms of both quantity and quality) than younger people, but when that difference is seen to be removable (by curing aging), one would have to argue that older people matter less because they have a longer past, even though their potential future is no different from that of younger people. That's ageism in its starkest form, and we've learned to put aside such foolish things as ageism in the rest of society; it's time to do it in the biomedical realm too.

-- Aubrey de Grey


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Item 1
Here Comes the Intelligent Internet

Kurzweil AI provides an enticing summary of a Futurist column in Government Computer News:

Information and communication technologies are rapidly converging to create a new transformative global communication system.

The "intelligent Internet" should allow people everywhere to converse naturally and comfortably with life-sized, virtual people while shopping, working, learning, and conducting most social relationships.

The good news:

The linked column discusses how small, but significant, developments have put us on a trajectory leading to a very different kind of online experience from what we're used to. Amtrack, for example, has replaced its annoying push-button menus on its customer service line with speech recognition and a virtual assistant. But that sort of thing is only the beginning. Here are a few of the major developments the column predicts are coming soon:

* Reliable speech recognition should be common by 2010.

* IBM has a Super Human Speech Recognition Program to greatly improve accuracy, and in the next decade Microsoft's program is expected to reduce the error rate of speech recognition, matching human capabilities.

* General Motors OnStar driver assistance system relies primarily on voice commands, with live staff for backup; the number of subscribers has grown from 200,000 to 2 million and is expected to increase by 1 million per year. The Lexus DVD Navigation System responds to over 100 commands and guides the driver with voice and visual directions.

* Smart computers will be learning and adapting within a decade.

* The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing a hypersmart computer that can maintain itself, assess its performance, make adaptive changes, and respond to different situations.

* The Department of Energy is creating an intelligent computer that can infer intent, remember prior experiences, analyze problems, and make decisions.

* BCC Corporation estimates total AI sales to grow from $12 billion in 2002 to $21 billion in 2007.

The downside:

Artificial intelligence has been hyped and re-hyped so thoroughly over the past three decades that its emergence as a real factor in everyday business (and other) interactions may go more or less unnoticed.

On the other hand...

Maybe the lack of fanfare is a good thing. These incremental changes each seem useful, but we hardly notice where they are leading us — namely, to a computing environment with which we can interact more or less in the same way that we interact with other people. We might well reach the Symbiotic Age, a major step on our journey to the technological singularity, without even realizing it.


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Item 2
The Dawn of the Private Space Age

Melvill on the flight: "It was a mind-blowing experience...and everything worked just as he [Rutan] said it would."

Rutan: "It's hard for me to talk right now...several times tears came to our eyes...I am absolutely delighted..."

The good news:

The headline in the index at the top of the page is only a little ahead of itself. SpaceShipOne hasn't actually "won" anything yet (the X-Prize looms large on the horizon), although pilot Mike Melvill has earned the right to be called an astronaut. The maiden space voyage of Burt Rutan's brainchild is an extremely exciting development. The future of the private development and settlement of space has never looked brighter.

Here's the whole story of the flight as viewed from Speculist Headquarters in Colorado:

Saw the Launch
Now Past 50K
We Have Separation
Over the Top
Mission Accomplished
Wheels Down
Civilian Pilots
Weightless M&Ms
Good Summaries

Also, see the definitive slide show here.

The downside:

There is no downside, here; although there is some concern about a few technical problems that SpaceShipOne encountered along the way.


We're eager to see what Burt Rutan, Paul Allen, and Mike Melvill do next.


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Item 3
The Future of Travel: Aquatic to Cosmic Destinations

Future travelers will be putting down their luggage in far-flung places, underwater, in the air and around the planet. They'll get amazing views from bizarre living quarters that build on "outrageously successful" billion-dollar projects on Earth, and they'll take adventures that have long been the province of science fiction.

The good news:

Some pretty exciting vacations lie ahead. When we're not "cosmoplaning" to the excellent hiking trails of Turkmenistan or elegant resorts in Qatar, apparently we'll be "zorbing" — follow the link; we're not telling — skydiving, contemplating our navels, or frolicking with Polar bears.

And yes, the final frontier is definitely shaping up as a future vacation destination.


Eventually being able to take vacations in space will involve overcoming a couple of little difficulties:

The obstacle is not technology...The Catch-22 is that a space hotel won't be affordable until there is a mass market for space tourism Ö and there won't be a mass market until it's affordable. You can't have a successful hotel if you don't have the means of getting people there."


Burt Rutan and company are working hard on perfecting the means of getting there. Plus, there's more than one way to get the space tourism business going.


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Item 4
Fish Consumption Tied to Better Cognitive Development In Babies

Julie Daniels, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, has found in a population of English children that consumption of fish by mothers during pregnancy is positively correlated with cognitive development after controlling for educational levels of the mothers and some other factors.

The largest effect was seen in a test of the childrenís understanding of words at age 15 months. Children whose mothers ate fish at least once a week scored 7 percent higher than those whose mothers never ate fish.

The good news:

Eating fish is certainly easier than strapping headphones onto an expectant mother's abdomen and piping Mozart into the womb. Plus, it offers a number of health benefits in its own right.

The downside:

There are health risks associated with eating too much of certain kinds of fish:

Women should definitely avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration...Those fish are higher on the food chain and have greater accumulation of pollutants.

The FDA publishes a handy guide for tracking mercury levels in fish. It looks like the trick is to limit fish to the correct amounts of the right kinds.


Smarter kids are all very well, but what about stronger? Next we need to find out what the parents of the German super-baby have been eating.


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Item 5
A Spinach-Powered Laptop?

Nature reports that researchers from the MIT have made solar cells powered by spinach proteins. These prototype solar cells which transform light into 'green' energy could be used one day to coat and power your laptop.

The good news:

Of course, we all want our technology to be as green-friendly as possible. Well, how does Spinach sound? Green enough for you?

We can expect spinach-derived power sources to be a lot easier on the environment in terms of their manufacture and their disposal.

The downside:

There is still work to be done before becoming a commercial product. Right now, the prototype delivers current for only three weeks. And they are not very efficient, converting only 12% of the light they absorb into electricity.

So we're not quite there yet. Stay tuned.


This is the kind of merging of biotech and other "techs" (nano, info, etc.) that we can expect to see a lot more of. Spinach-powered computers are only the beginning. While biotech helps us make our technology greener and cleaner, infotech and nanotech promise to bring about myriad improvements in our lives, both external and internal.


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Item 6
Fertility Techniques Save Endangered Species

Fertility techniques that have enabled millions of couples to have children are helping scientists to save endangered species.

From killer whales and giant pandas to cheetahs and black-footed ferrets, assisted reproductive technology (ART) has allowed scientists to breed wild animals in captivity and learn more about how they reproduce.

The good news:

Any time we preserve a species from extinction, it is cause for celebration. The fact that these efforts have derived from a seemingly unrelated line of research only makes the story that much more exciting.

The downside:

This will be bad news for those who view human reproduction and the survival of other species as a zero-sum game. Here we have heroic efforts to produce more babies leading to the preservation of other species that might otherwise have gone extinct. Go figure.


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Item 7
Beach blob mystery solved at last

(via GeekPress)

Marine biologists have definitively shown that the "Chilean Blob" and other similar mysteries are simply the remains of whales.

The good news:

Another nightmare scenario averted...

The downside:

"An ocean without unnamed monsters," wrote John Steinbeck, "would be like sleep without dreams." But the dream that a new species of sea monster washed up in Chile in 2003 is over.

By putting preserved samples through similar tests, the researchers have confirmed that the "giant octopus of St Augustine" from 1896, the 1960 Tasmanian west coast monster, two Bermuda blobs from the 1990s and the 1996 Nantucket blob are also just the washed-up remains of whales.

But you've got to wonder — how did these poor whales' innards get separated from their bones?


Around here, if we're going to report on squishy, slimy sea creatures, we prefer to do it from a warm and fuzzy angle.


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Update: Iraq
U.S. Hands Power to Iraqis Two Days Early

The U.S.-led coalition transferred sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government two days early Monday in a surprise move that apparently caught insurgents off guard, averting a feared campaign of attacks to sabotage the historic step toward self-rule.

We've tracked some of the positive developments in Iraq over the past few weeks (here and here), now culiminating with the transfer of power from American occupation to a provisional Iraqi government. This is a big next step for the people of Iraq.

The timing of the hand-off was very smart. Enemies of freedom and self-determination for Iraq may have been planning terrorist attacks to coincide with the June 30 hand-over. Looks like they missed their big chance. There may yet be future attacks (although we sincerely hope the Iraqi authorities will be able to prevent them), but whatever they do now, they will be doing against Iraqis. The claim that they're only fighting against an occupation force has lost most of its punch.


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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon.

SpaceShipOne, Government Zero.

Posted by Phil at June 28, 2004 11:15 AM | TrackBack

I guess I don't mind eating fish as long as the computer eats my spinach.

Posted by: JW at June 28, 2004 05:00 PM

That was hilarious! Thanks for your clever observation.

Posted by: Jonathan at June 28, 2004 06:02 PM

I disagree

Posted by: Steve at June 28, 2004 11:21 PM


Posted by: Steve at June 28, 2004 11:24 PM

Not to get gross or anything, Steve, but I am I to assume that that was a green, spinachy burp?

Posted by: Phil at June 29, 2004 10:21 AM

Huh, the way Aubrey de Grey put that makes me think ageism is here to stay. Let's manufacture a dilemma.

Suppose that two people, one aged 20 and one aged 10,000 need to escape a burning space ship. There's one escape pod with room for only one person. The other person will die (assume here that the body/brain won't be recoverable and there are no backups). Using our calculators and mortality tables we determine that the 10,000 year old will probably live longer due to their greater wisdom (or merely the fact that they managed to make it to 10,000). And despite the equal intellects, it's clear that the older person has more knowledge, skills, wealth, and experience. They would be more valuable to society. But on the other hand, it seems really unfair for the youngster to die at the start of their life when the other has lived so long and done so much. Maybe the preference should be given to those with less past?

Let's make the dilemma worse. What happens if spaceships always have too few escape pods (due to the rules on such things), but it's never a problem for the old people in charge? They never have trouble getting out alive so they never fix the problem. In fact, it could even be a boon since it eliminates a number of potential competitors. Surviving the unfairness until you are older than a certain fraction of the human race might be called "paying your dues". This state of things might take the risk out of rulership at the expense of eating the young, Cronos style (warning: gory Goya painting).

This seems particularly relevant to the stagnation problem. Namely, the perception that an unaging society is an unchanging society. Mild ageism could be a good way to keep things stirred up. I'm not advocating wigging out and say building a global computer to kill everyone over 21 here, but a deliberate bias in favor of those with less past.

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