May 27, 2004

Better All The Time #10

If the thought of a three-day weekend, the official beginning of barbeque season, and (for those to whom it applies) the end of the school year aren't enough good news for you, perhaps it's time to reflect on the men and women who have served so bravely over the years to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity." We owe them a lot. In fact, we owe them everything.

And then if you want still MORE good news, may we suggest the following seven items...

Today's Good Stuff:

    Update: the Debate Continues
    Quote of the Day
  1. Ever See a Sunburned Hippo?
  2. Awwww, Isn't it Cute?
  3. Genetic study Shows Chimps are Less Human
  4. Mars Rover Output Starts to Dim
  5. Smart Batteries
  6. The Birth of Individualized Medicine
  7. A Modern Rip Van Winkle (Kinda)

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Update
More Fun with Mr. Farlops

The debate over the "Better all the Time" series between Mr. Farlops and us continues, but with much agreement:

Yes, I guess I really meant that subjective happiness is always chronic. Objectively global health continues to improve and the global middle class continues to grow and clearly by those standards it really is getting better all the time.

And one way of improving subjective happiness is to celebrate objective improvements. That's what the "Better all the Time" series is all about.

But at the same time we must admit that every technical advance delivers unexpected consequences both good and bad. In the early twentieth century, who would have thought that cars would contribute to the atrophy of back muscles from lack of walking? Or to changing sexual and romantic mores as kids got privacy away from parents?

Hey, you're not knocking "parking" are you? Some of us wouldn't be here if… er, we may have said too much.

While the global middle class continues to grow and its health continues to improve, population pressure and resource use continues to rise. Nanotech will relieve that quite a bit, along with declining birth rates but, it's something to worry about.

Over-population is less of a problem than exploitative government. Have you ever noticed that the famines never seem to occur in democratic/capitalistic countries? Where there is freedom to innovate, population is not a liability, but an asset.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it's not going to be all roses and it's not going to be all horrors. It's going to be both and neither. The main thing is that it's going to be surprising.

We agree, except that we'll wager that our biggest surprise will be how good we'll have it in about twenty years.

Once one problem is solved, we humans always find something else to grouse about. I guess I am saying that the quest for utopia is a never-ending process. The journey itself is better than the goal. Also the challenge of avoiding dystopia is also a never-ending one; new dangers arise all the time.

Yeah, that's the only bad thing about Utopia. It would be too boring for us humans. We are happiest when we are busy solving some problem or fixing something. The unexpected new challenges created by our improvements mean that perhaps we shouldn't worry about utopian ennui setting in any time soon.

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Quote of the Day

It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though the limits of our abilities do not exist.

Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

(from BrainyQuote)

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Item 1
For the Ultimate Sunscreen, Try Hippo Sweat!

The colourful secrets of hippopotamus sweat have been uncovered. Researchers have identified the chemicals responsible for the timeless myth that hippopotamus sweat blood...

Kimiko Hashimoto and his colleagues at Kyoto Pharmaceutical University, Japan, revealed that hippos' secretions are neither blood nor sweat, but a mixture of pigments that function both as sunscreen and antibiotic. This mixture keeps hippos' cool and protects them from the harmful effects of the sun.

The good news:

This could mean that you will never have to come face-to-face with a hot, sunburned, infectious hippo!

The downside:

Hippos aren't likely to surpass plastic bottles as the preferred sunscreen container. Hold it. Come to think of it, that isn't really a downside.

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Item 2
NASA Scientists Discover Baby Planet

NASA scientists have discovered what may be one of the youngest planets known to man.

The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope identified the planet which is thought to be a million years old, meaning it is a mere baby.

The object is in the constellation Taurus, 420 light-years away.

Until now the youngest known planets observed are several billion years old...

Spitzer is the fourth and final spacecraft in NASA’s Great Observatory series, which began with Hubble and continued with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, now gone, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

The good news:

Witnessing the birth of new planets will increase our understanding of how our own solar system was formed.

The downside:

Too bad we can't see it up close.

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Item 3
Genetic study shows chimps are less human

Genetically, chimpanzees are 98.5 percent identical to humans. But the differences between the species are clearly profound and geneticists have been laboring to find out how such subtle variations in DNA can be so crucial…

The team of scientists from China, Japan, Germany and the Republic of Korea (ROK) compared chromosome 22 on three different chimpanzees to its counterpart in humans, chromosome 21, where certain genetic problems can lead to severe diseases, including Down's syndrome.

Insiders say the comparison will help understand disease and also help in comparing one person's genetic sequence to another by helping to set a "base" genetic sequence…

The scientists looked for differences that would help separate the human sequence from the chimp sequence, and found 1.44 percent of the DNA was different…

They reported in Nature that many of the differences were within genes, the regions of DNA that code for proteins: 83 percent of the 231 genes compared had differences that affected the amino acid sequence of the protein they encoded, and 47 showed "significant structural changes"…

Some of the genetic differences they found may have direct implications for disease. They found differences between chimp and human immune system genes, for instance, and molecules involved in early brain development.

Besides, significant genetic differences in the brains and livers of the two species, for example, may help explain why chimps rarely have symptoms of complicated human diseases, such as AIDS, malaria and hepatitis C, even after they are infected with the same viruses.

The good news:

Understanding the genetic differences between us might well be the key to making us less susceptible to those nasty diseases listed that we get but chimps don't. To Bonzo, Cheetah, J. Fred Muggs, and anyone we may be forgetting: a hearty thank you.

Moreover:

Does it strike anyone else as kind of a relief to learn that we're not all that closely related to chimps, after all?


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Item 4
Mars Rover Output Starts to Dim

The slow and inevitable build-up of dust on the solar panels of the Mars rover Opportunity is prompting scientists to cut overnight heating to the vehicle in hopes of eking out a few more hours for investigations by day.

The cold, however, could mean the death of one of the rover's most productive science instruments, an infrared sensor called mini-TES that scientists have been using to detect minerals from afar and measure surface and atmospheric temperatures.

The good news:

Not running the heater at night is apparently risky only to the one instrument, the mini-TES. Even if this is the end of the useful life of that instrument, the rover can still do useful work as long as its solar panel provides enough electricity to function.

Opportunity has now been on Mars 124 days. It was 50 days ago that Opportunity was cleared for an extended "beyond the warranty" mission. And it isn't finished just yet.

As this rover slowly dies, we celebrate the "little engine that could." And let's not forget the resurrected Spirit is still going strong!

The downside:

Goodbyes are always tough.

Anyway...

We should be gratfeul for the time we were given. Others haven't been so lucky.

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Item 5
Nanotech Improving Energy Options

Nanotechnology could help revolutionize the energy industry, producing advances such as solar power cells made of plastics to environmentally friendly batteries that detoxify themselves, experts told United Press International.

One nanotech firm, mPhase Technologies in Norwalk, Conn., is partnering with Lucent Technologies to commercialize nanotechnology by creating intelligent batteries, with the intent of bringing the devices to the marketplace within the next 12 to 18 months.

The company is seeking to develop a battery containing millions of silicon nanotube electrodes, sitting upright like a bed of nails. Atop each nanotube sits a droplet of electrolyte. The droplets rest atop the nanotubes without interacting, much like an Indian fakir can rest atop a nail bed. But when a voltage change pushes the droplets down into the spaces between the tubes, they react, causing current to flow.

"This can give them a very long storage life of years and years, by only activating when in use," Simon explained. The silicon-based devices are compatible with semiconductor processes, are easy to miniaturize, have a quick ramp up to full power, are inexpensive to mass produce and have high power and energy density.

The good news:

Clearly, we're going to need batteries such as these for robots, starships etc. [ Actually, I can't wait to get one for my wireless optical mouse. — Phil]

Moreover:

This expands on the good news we reported recently about the role nanotechnology will play in helping us to switch to hydrogen-powered cars.

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Item 6
Pharmacogenomics could replace 'trial-and-error' with science from the human genome

The future use of a gene-based technology called pharmacogenomics could lower the cost of health care by decreasing the occurrence of adverse drug effects and increasing the probability of successful therapy. These findings are published by investigators at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in the May 27 issue of Nature.

According to the authors, the significant potential for improving health and reducing cost will not be achieved unless three things happen. First, more studies must be undertaken to identify the network of genes that govern most drug responses. Second, systems must be developed to assist physicians and pharmacists in interpreting genetic tests for selecting drug therapy. Finally, legal protections must be put in place to preclude the misuse of genetic information from patients.

The good news:

We will witness over the next decade the birth of individualized medicine. As these methods of treatment mature, it will make today's medicine look crude and ineffectual by comparison.

The downside:

Unfortunately, it's going to take a while.

The way the pharmaceutical market is currently structured may slow the development of pharmacogenomics. The current structure does not encourage the sharing of information between companies or the production of small lots of drugs.

Anyway...

Eventually this will come to pass simply because the market will demand it.

In the future you may take a single pill tailor-made for you that contains multiple drugs patented by different drug companies. The companies could be paid royalties for the ingredients they contribute.

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Item 7
Baby Born From Sperm Frozen 21 Years

In what's believed to be a world record, a healthy baby boy was born using sperm that had been frozen for 21 years, according to British researchers.

Reporting in the May 25 issue of Human Reproduction, the authors say the baby was born two years ago using in-vitro fertilization.

The good news:

The ability to store viable semen for long periods of time by way of freezing offers hope to would-be dads stricken by testicular cancer at a young age. In fact, that's exactly the situation that led to the birth described above.

BATT-congrats to the parents, who now have a baby boy after four unsuccessful attempts! If you ever doubt that things are getting better all the time, just a have chat with those happy folks.

The downside:

Reader, M104 member, and noted deity Joanie comments:

C'mon...you can't tell me that science has completely eliminated freezer burn...and if they have, why can't they make it so that my food doesn't experience it? Why is it reserved solely for something like this?

Don't worry, Joanie. If science can make this happen, there has got to be hope for those 21-year-old Swanson TV dinners in your freezer. Just hang in there.

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Our thanks to Joanie, to John Atkinson (who reports that he is now solo-blogging), and to the inimitable Mr. Farlops. We'll be taking Monday off as it's a national holiday and all (here in the USA). We'll return Tuesday, June 1.

Until then, don't forget to stop and smell the roses...especially the blue ones.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:22 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Better All The Time #9

For those who have pointed out that this edition of Better All the Time is a little late in coming, thanks for noticing. We find your attentive reading of this site to be very good news, indeed!



Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Russian Craft Bound for Space Station
  2. Alzheimer's Breakthrough
  3. Breathalyzer 2.0
  4. Future Force Warriors
  5. Mom? How High is the Sky?
  6. Aspirin Delivers Again!
  7. Roses Are Red, Roses Are Blue

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Quote of the Day

Courage, it would seem, is nothing less than the power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always tomorrow.

-- Dorothy Thompson
(from Wisdom Quotes)

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Item 1
Russian craft bound for space station


Russia successfully launched a cargo spacecraft Tuesday loaded with fuel, food and mail for the Russian-American crew of the international space station, an official at mission control said.

The good news:

We should be thankful that the Russian space program, as cash-strapped as it is, can mount an service mission to the International Space Station. With the U.S. shuttle fleet grounded, the ISS depends on it.

The downside:

Our country is nowhere near the point where it could mount an emergency space mission with say, a week's notice. We should seek to get to that point. One idea is to have more than one type of space craft available. We don't make do with one type of airplane, why should one shuttle type be all that we have?

Anyway...

More news on space preparedness. Looks like the planned spacewalk will go ahead.

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Item 2
Amyloid-Dissolving Protein May be Alzheimer Breakthrough

Amyloid fibers, those clumps of plaque-like proteins that clog up the brains of Alzheimer's patients, have perplexed scientists with their robust structures. In laboratory experiments, they are able to withstand extreme heat and cold and powerful detergents that cripple most other proteins. The fibers are in fact so tough that researchers now are exploring ways that they can be used in nanoscale industrial applications. While they are not necessarily the cause of Alzheimer's, they are associated with it and with many other neurological conditions, and researchers don't yet have a way to assail these resilient molecules.

A study published this week in the advance online publication of the journal Science suggests that yeast may succeed where scientists have not. The research by a team at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research reports on a natural biological process by which yeast cells dismantle amyloid fibers.

"These proteins are remarkably stable," says Susan Lindquist, director of Whitehead and lead researcher on the project. "This is the first time that anyone has found anything that can catalytically take apart an amyloid fiber."

The good news:

Double good news! Greater understanding of these fibers could lead to effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease AND advance materials technology. Wouldn't it be interesting if the same fibers that have destroyed our minds for generations end up taking us into space?

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Item 3
Handheld Nose Odor Sensor Diagnoses Pneumonia


A fairly small device is able to quickly and accurately diagnose pneumonia and may be able to diagnose a large number of other diseases including cancers.

The good news:

Looks like we'll have Dr. McCoy's medical tricorder long before the 23rd century. It probably won't look like a 60's era transistor radio.


The downside:

Obviously this is bad news for any surgically altered Klingon agents trying to live among us under deep cover.

Anyway...

Combine this technology with the CD-based blood test capability we reported on last week, and going to the doctor will soon be an unrecognizable experience. In a good way.

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Item 4
Army Reboots GIs' Tired Fatigues

Ever since they tangled with the Red Coats, American generals have been giving their grunts more and more and more gear to lug -- from rations to radios, body armor to batteries. Now, for the first time, the Army has decided to junk the old uniforms and start from scratch.

"We're stripping the soldier down to his skin, and building out from there," said Jean-Louis "Dutch" DeGay, an equipment specialist at the Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center, which is supervising the seven-year, $250 million overhaul, dubbed Future Force Warrior, or FFW.

The good news:

Our soldiers don't need to be fumbling with their equipment during a firefight. Integrating equipment directly into a bullet resistant chassis, it will save lives.

The downside:

Military expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan have, according to the article, taken funds away from this program.

Has the Soldier's Systems Center bitten off too much? Perhaps baby steps that could be implemented immediately would be given greater funding. Why not start by producing the bulletproof chassis with integrated holster and equipment pouches?

Anyway...

As the linked article points out, our armed forces have been at the forefront of incredible technological change over the past few decades. It's long past time their uniforms started catching up.

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Item 5
Universe Measured: We're 156 Billion Light-years Wide!

If you've ever wondered how big the universe is, you're not alone. Astronomers have long pondered this, too, and they've had a hard time figuring it out. Now an estimate has been made, and it’s a whopper.

The universe is at least 156 billion light-years wide.

The good news:

The universe gives up a few more of its secrets every day.

The downside:

Some would argue that this kind of development isn't really good news because it doesn't have any practical applications. But then, those aren't the people who would figure out how to get to blue roses or space balloons from Alzheimer's research.

Meanwhile...

Our 156-billion-light-year universe is getting bigger all the time. While that might be a great name for a new web feature, it's discouraging for those of us who hope that humanity will one day spread out and see the whole thing. This daunting size may be further evidence that humanity's ultimate destination is inner (not outer) space.

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Item 6
Aspirin May Help Prevent Breast Cancer

An effective weapon against many women's most feared disease might be as close as their medicine cabinets, according to new research linking aspirin with a reduced risk of breast cancer.

Women who frequently used aspirin were less likely than nonusers to get the most common type of breast cancer, but faced no reduced risk for developing another form of the disease - a distinction the researchers said may explain why previous studies had conflicting results.

The good news:

The good news here speaks for itself.

The downside:

The report says that the results are too preliminary to recommend that women begin taking aspirin as a means of preventing breast cancer. So stay tuned.

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Item 7
Accidental Discovery May Bring Blue Roses

Blue roses could generate a lot of green. Two researchers at Vanderbilt University took a gene from a human liver and placed it into bacteria to better understand how the body metabolizes drugs as part of their research on cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

"The bacteria turned blue," said Peter Guengerich, a professor of biochemistry and director of the Center in Molecular Toxicology at Vanderbilt. "We knew people have been interested in making a blue rose for years so we thought if we could move these human genes into flowers, we might come up with one."

The good news:

Okay, it's not like anyone was dying from the lack of blue roses in this world, but this development (like Item 2, above) exemplifies how improvements build on improvements. Scientists doing very serious research on treating very serious ailments stumble upon the means to add a little more color to the already-resplendent world of flowers. When we say that the world is getting better all the time, this is exactly the kind of thing we're talking about. Humanity today faces daunting challenges, as we have from the beginning. While some would (accurately) point out that every problem we solve brings about new problems, the flip side seems to be that the process of solving problems consistently brings about unexpected benefits and provides unexpected solutions to problems that we weren't even thinking about.

That's how working on curing diseases gives us new space fabrics or new floral options. And it also helps to explain how a drug developed more than a hundred years ago to treat arthritis and migraines can now offer new hope in the fight against breast cancer.

Obscure implications:

Poets now have a pretty good rhyme for the word "neurosis."

Still more benefits:

These researchers have also, quite inadvertently, given the Speculist a new (temporary) motto.

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Thanks to John Atkinson. Don't forget to stop and smell the roses...especially the blue ones!

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:00 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 25, 2004

Dark Sky Station

October 9, 2016
Journal of Captain Marvin Orr
Day 1

I was encouraged to keep a journal during my stay at Dark Sky. The eggheads think a journal helps aeronauts handle isolation. I really don't think it'll be that big of a deal. I'll be alone at the station for just 9 days before another crewmember is scheduled to join me. Three months ago I spent 11 days alone in an isolation chamber. I got bored, but I didn't go crazy. At Dark Sky I'll be too busy to get bored. I'll be putting in 11-hour days, and when I'm not working there's always television, and the Internet.

Whether I need the journal or not, I'm a team player, even if the game is solitaire. So I'll keep the journal.

I arrived early this morning on the Dakota airship. The ride was a bit rough at first . Those airships can get buffeted around pretty badly below 50,000 feet if the weather is not perfect. And the weather wasn't anywhere near perfect. They launched me because the station had been unmanned for a month and there was some maintenance that couldn't wait any longer if the station was going to remain operational.

The Dakota was automatically piloted. I've got some operational training on that model, but I was happy to let the craft guide itself. It even handled the docking. Once docked I pushed a large cargo container into the airlock and shut the first door. My ears popped as the pressure in the lock equalized with the station. The second door opened and I pushed the cargo through. When that door closed I heard the Dakota undock quickly. I didn't take time to watch it leave, I immediately went to the head.

I had been onboard the Dakota for 19 hours and it was good to be able to get out and stretch – and use a real restroom. I didn't delay long however. Inside of ten minutes I was back at the airlock preparing for an EVA.

Inside my cargo container was a specially fitted EVA suit. This suit had been designed so that I could get into it without help. All was well except for the zipper on the inner liner. That zipper runs from butt to neck and I was supposed to be able the do it myself. I found a hanger in the cargo bin, hooked the zipper and pulled it up. Small victories.

During suit-up I got a call from Vandenberg. They were just getting audio confirmation of what they already knew – that I had arrived and was preparing for EVA.

It took every bit of an hour, but I got the suit on. The suit performed a quick diagnostic and gave me a green light to go outside. I grabbed my toolkit, strapped it around my waist so that it was handy at my hip, and stepped into the airlock.

Inside the airlock I attached a safety line. In case of sudden loss of pressure I didn't want to be blown out into space. Actually, SOP demands that you always have at least one attached safety line during an EVA or within the airlock. I slowly depressurized the lock (very little oxygen is lost) and then opened the outside door. Just past where the Dakota had docked was a small catwalk that climbed up the side of the station and onto the roof.

How can I describe it? You can see the whole world from the top of the station. It was midmorning directly below, so only about a quarter of the world was blue with light. At 100,000 feet the sky above is always black with steady points of stars. It is a beautiful sight. I heard that Senate appropriations demanded that the station be capable of conversion to a civilian observatory. Smart. It really is quite a view.

The station itself looks like a giant cross or "X." Each of the four legs of the cross is a helium pontoon that runs out over a mile away from the central station. The most critical problem was about a quarter mile out onto pontoon "C." I reattached my safety line to a cable running the length of the pontoon. I walked out to find the problem.

I saw it when I got within twenty feet. The pontoons are made of a stiff composite fabric that is extremely thin and light, but very tough. Tough or not, if it gets hit by a micrometeor, it will rip. Inside the tear I saw that we had lost just one helium cell – no big deal. I could simply add a little more helium to all the other cells in the pontoon to make up the difference. That I could do inside the station. Out there I used duct tape to hold the rip in place while I patched it with epoxy.

Once I was finished I returned to the station. I was dead tired from the trip and the exertion of the EVA. I hit the bunk and fell asleep quickly.

The low gravity seems to be affecting my sleep cycle. I woke after about four hours of sleep, long before I was scheduled to start the day. So I sat down to write this.

My second day will be spent working on the ground surveillance gear. The thermal camera is on the blink.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:10 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

May 24, 2004

Better All The Time #8

Here's our latest round-up of upward trends, improving prospects, and positive developments. Enjoy.


Today's Good Stuff:

    Question of the Day
  1. Pacemakers for the Brain
  2. Reverse Migration
  3. Treatment Combo Offers Hope for Spinal Cord Injuries
  4. World Takes Notice of Sudan Crisis
  5. Families Reunited
  6. Space Balloons
  7. Lassie to the Rescue

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Question of the Day

How will minds expand, once we understand how the brain makes mind?

-- William H. Calvin Neurophysiologist, University of Washington


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Item 1
Doctors Put Hope in Thin Wires for a Life in Epilepsy's Clutches

Deep-brain stimulators ("pacemakers for the brain") are at the forefront of research by neuroscientists seeking to treat a variety of difficult conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and other types of tremors and movement disorders.

Conditions may eventually include depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome.

The devices inhibit syncronized nerve impulses in parts of the brain that are too active.

The good news:

Deep-brain stimulators promise to eliminate (or drastically reduce) epileptic seizures. They may also help those suffering from Parkinson's disease to stop shaking. It would be difficult to overstate how beneficial this technology will be if it can actually delivery on these promises.

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Item 2
In a Reverse Migration, Blacks Head to New South

In what demographers are calling a "full scale reversal" of the Great Migration in the early part of the 20th century, blacks are leaving California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey and retracing steps to a place their families once fled — the South.

This population shift of hundreds of thousands of blacks is nowhere near the millions who left the South from 1910 to 1970. But the flow is sustained and large enough, according to a study released today by the Brookings Institution, that a new map of black America must be drawn.

The good news:

So not only is the South no longer a place from which to flee, it is now a viable alternative — for many who left, it is once again the preferred place to be. This speaks volumes about how far the South has come in the past few decades, both economically and socially. Moreover, this fresh infusion of returning families may help to accelerate both economic and social development.

The demographic shift also suggests a real improvement in the circumstances of African Americans over the past 40 years or so. It would seem that they now have more choices as to where to go, what to do, and who to be than they did in the past. And that's a very good thing, indeed.

The downside:

On that second point, we probably still have a long way to go.

Even so...

It's nice to see evidence of real improvement.

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Item 3
Nerve Fibers Regrown in Spines of Rats

A combination of therapies helped damaged spines regrow nerve fibers, researchers report in a study of rats.

Three separate therapies, each of which had shown promise in earlier tests, were combined in the new effort by a team at the University of Miami, according to Sunday's online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.

The combination therapy was designed by Damien D. Pearse and Mary Bartlett Bunge, who were looking for a way to help damaged nerve cells overcome signals that limit their growth after an injury.

"This work opens up new possibilities for treatments for spinal cord-injured humans," Bunge said in a statement.


The good news:

The ability to re-grow nerve fibers in a damaged spinal cord suggests that many cases of "irreversible" paralysis may be treatable, possibly even curable. Interestingly, there is no mention of stem cells in the linked article. Apparently these results were achieved by grafting adult nerve cells.

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Item 4
Sudan's Darfur crisis prompts calls for world to act

More than a year after the seeds of its current humanitarian catastrophe were sown, calls for robust international action in the war-ravaged Sudanese region of Darfur and pressure on Khartoum are finally mounting.

The good news:

Reporting on a terrible humanitarian crisis such as the situation in Sudan is a little bit outside of what we usually do at Better All The Time. But after months of watching this situation worsen, it is a great relief to see that Darfur is now getting some of the attention it deserves.

The downside:

What took so long?

Anyway...

Here's hoping that this attention is translated into immediate and effective action.

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Item 5
Abductee Families Begin New Life in Japan

One of the first things Kaoru Hasuike did after meeting his children at the airport in Tokyo was tell them their new names. His 22-year-old daughter — called Yong Hwa back in North Korea (news - web sites) — would be Shigeyo. His 19-year-old son, Ki Hyok, would be Katsuya. From now on, they would be Japanese.

Closing a chapter in a bizarre tale of political intrigue, the Hasuikes and another couple abducted by spies in the 1970s and taken to North Korea have been reunited with their children, forced to stay behind in the North when their parents were allowed to return to Japan two years ago.

The good news:

It's wonderful that the families are finally free and reunited.

The downside:

Such a bizarre story. If you didn't know it really happened, you would swear it was a plot line from Alias.

Anyway...

Here's hoping that the adjustment isn't too tough for the kids, who have only just learned that they're not Korean. And who (apparently) don't yet realize that they were living in Korea because their parents were abducated.

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Item 6
Airship groomed for flight to edge of space

Next month, a V-shaped airship bigger than a baseball diamond is due to rise from the West Texas desert to an altitude of 100,000 feet (30.5 kilometers), navigate by remote control, linger above the clouds and drift back to earth.

For the U.S. Air Force, the feat will demonstrate the feasibility of a new kind of semi-autonomous craft that could hover in "near space," to do reconnaissance and relay battlefield communications.

That vision is ambitious enough. But for JP Aerospace, the California-based company that built the airship for the military, the flight would represent just one more small step toward an even bigger conceptual leap: a system of floating platforms that gossamer spaceships could use as high-altitude way stations.

The good news:

Next to the space elevator, high-flying airships have got to be our favorite proposed method of "cheating" one's way into space — that is, getting there without the use of rockets. Airships might just open up the high frontier in ways that rockets never could. (Plus, they have many other potentioal applications.)

The downside:

The first proposed ship will "only" go up to 65,000 feet. Moreover, according to the linked article, the orbital airship is still a long way off. If it's even possible.

Prediction:

The world's first space hotel will not be an orbiting satellite; it will be built on a platform similar to the Dark Sky Station described in the linked article.

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Item 7
Purebred dogs could be doctor's best friend

A study of 414 pedigree dogs from 85 breeds has uncovered some genetic surprises which could boost efforts to track down human disease genes for illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Each breed was also defined by a surprisingly precise genetic signature. By studying a few pieces of DNA from a purebred dog, the researchers were able to assign its breed with 99 per cent accuracy.

Because owners lavish veterinary care on their pets, knowledge of natural dog disease rivals that of human diseases. The dog genome is also expected to be published in the summer of 2004, which will make comparisons between dog and human genes far easier.

However, for a disease such as cancer, genes are only thought to be half of the puzzle - environment also plays a role. And being the close companion of humans for millennia has exposed dogs to many of the same chemicals, foods, and lifestyles.

The good news:

They give us so much. Friendhsip. Loyalty. Love. Now they're helping us to understand ourselves better so that we can make ourselves healthier.

Dogs rule.

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Live to see it!

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:05 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

It's Over

Steven den Beste delivers the bad news.

A book that provides an interesting perspective on these kind of phenomena is The Deviant's Advantage, by Watts Wacker and Ryan Matthews. Wacker and Matthews trace the flow of products and ideas from the Fringe, to the Edge, to the Realm of the Cool, to the Next Big Thing until finally coming to rest in the stagnant waters of Social Convention. It's a fun read — the authors trace the progress of ideas as diverse as Las Vegas, evnagelical Christianity, and Hello Kitty.

I guess with Mr. G.'s announcement, we can say that blogging is rapidly moving from its Next Big Thing status into the realm of Social Convention. This is, indeed, disturbing news for den Beste and all the rest of us deviants. Is it time for us to go back out to the edge and look for something else to do?

Posted by Phil at 02:18 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The Meaning of Life

[There. That ought to get everybody's attention.]

Via KurzweilAI, an article in the Biloxi Sun Herald provides an introduction to transhumanism and gives a run-down on some of the pros and cons. Here's an interesting argument:

But living forever could rob life of its meaning, said Bill McKibben, author of "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." In the book he argues that without death, humans have no opportunity to sacrifice for their children, no reason to pour out a life's work under the literal deadline of mortality.

"Human meaning is more vulnerable than they imagine," McKibben said.

Well, first off: there aren't that many transhumanists who see "living forever" as being in the cards. Aubrey de Grey talks about life extension that might buy us a few centuries. Eliezer Yudkowsky has a more expansive view, promoting a Theory of Fun that would help us to make the most of a life that extends to millions or even billions of years. The only transhumanist I can think of offhand who talks in terms of "living forever" is Frank J. Tipler in The Physics of Immortality. But to object to Tipler's model of living forever is to object to the religious idea of dying and going to heaven, since it amounts to the same thing. I wonder whether McKibben has the same objections to religious ideas about living forever as he does transhumanist ideas on the same subject?

In any case, I take issue with the idea that human meaning is more "vulnerable" than we imagine. On the contrary, I believe that human meaning is much more resilient than we imagine. In Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl demonstrated how people found and held onto meaning in their lives while subjected to the most horrifying of circumstances, imprisonment at Auschwitz.

If life rendered unrecognizable by the cruelist of suffering can still be found meaningful, isn't it just possible that we will be able to find meaning within life rendered unrecognizable by the removal of hardship? Maybe we won't be able to make sacrifices to our children, but there will still be things to learned, long-term projects to be taken on to provide a sense of direction and accomplishment. There will still be friendship and family. And, as Yudkowsky points out, there will still be fun.

So will life in an engineered, transhumanist future be meaningful? Personally, I'm willing to take my chances.






UPDATE: Stephen , in a recent e-mail on a related topic, wrote the following:

When Leon Kass accused life extension advocates of robbing humanity of "necessary" sorrow, I countered:

"Does anyone think that a prolonged life will eliminate sorrow? If anything you will have more opportunity to experience sorrow. In fact, if you eliminate aging as a cause of death, a larger percentage of the population will die violently than
before. You are, in effect, trading a peaceful death soon, for the chance of being offed by a jealous lover in a couple of centuries."

Exactly. Even if one must define meaning in life as coming from sorrow and hardship, there will be plenty of those things to go around in an extended lifespan. The removal of some difficulties isn't the same of the removal of them all. Life may yet be difficult, even in a transhumanist future.

(But I'll still take my chances.)

Posted by Phil at 09:13 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea

It's a marker, a reminder of an event that rendered extinct 90% of the species living on Earth at the time, and paved the way for the world we know.

via Da Goddess

Posted by Phil at 08:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 20, 2004

Better All The Time #7

Media overload got you down? Finding nothing but war, gloom, grief, and despair everywhere you look? Well, have we got some news for you.


Today's Good Stuff:

  1. Wearable Computers
  2. Picture This: A New Planet
  3. Hitting the Wall
  4. Why Fly Without Wi-Fi?
  5. Teen Techies Engineer the Future
  6. Fighting Fire with Virtual Fire
  7. New Drill for Tomorrow's Dentists

    Quote of the Day

    Update on the BATT Challenge

- - - - -


Item 1
Researchers demonstrate wearable electronics

Soon you may be wearing your computer, or elements of it, according to a team of researchers and designers at Arizona State University. The era of smart bodysuits is about to begin.

In a demonstration of integrated and embedded electronic sensors, power sources, microfluidic devices and pumps in clothes, the ASU researchers are showing off two versions of their “biometric bodysuit” at NextFest 2004, which is billed as a mini-World's Fair. NextFest 2004, sponsored by Wired Magazine and General Electric, is being held May 14-16 in San Francisco.

The good news:

At the Speculist, we've been covering wearable electronics from the beginning. One of our first interviews was with Mr. Wearable Computers himself, Alex lightman, and just yesterday we featured a story about computerized sneakers. Wearable computers will have a host of applications, from the whimsical to the very serious. Various health tracking monitors will provide warnings when strokes or heart attacks are imminent. A personalized On*Star-like system will prevent you from ever getting lost, whether you're in your vehicle or not. And as we discussed a while back, other devices might help out in a variety of social situations.

The downside:

It won't be long before you find yourself saying the following.

"I'll be right with you. I just need to clear this spam out of my underwear."

That's just disturbing.

Anyway...

Corpulent Cowboy Store Clerk to Homer Simpson: Now this is made from a space-age fabric specially designed for Elvis. Sweat actually cleans this suit!

From "The Simpson's" episode "Lurleen on Me"

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Item 2
Photo may show another world

Astronomers from Pennsylvania State University may have taken the first photo of a planet circling a distant star. Though many planets outside our solar system have already been discovered, this would be the first time another world has ever been photographed directly. The difficulty is that the much brighter light of host stars usually obscures fainter objects, such as planets.

The good news:

Ever since the first planets outside the solar system were discovered a few years ago, we've been eagerly looking forward to the day when we would actually see one. And now that day is here.

The downside:

This new insight into our universe — like so many before it — is courtesy of the Hubble telescope, which is scheduled to be shut down.

However...

That doesn't have to happen. Save the Hubble!

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Item 3
Chip-Making 'Wall' Forces Intel to Try a Major Shift

[T]wo weeks ago, Intel, the world's largest chip maker, publicly acknowledged that it had hit a "thermal wall" on its microprocessor line. As a result, the company is changing its product strategy and disbanding one of its most advanced design groups. Intel also said that it would abandon two advanced chip development projects, code-named Tejas and Jayhawk.

Intel is embarked on a course already adopted by some of its major rivals: obtaining more computing power by stamping multiple processors on a single chip rather than straining to increase the speed of a single processor.

The good news:

Chip manufacturers are moving from an old computational paradigm seamlessly and without pause to the next. Rumors of the death of Moore's Law have been greatly exaggerated.

The downside:

Intel was obviously hoping to mine a little more performance from this paradigm before being forced to move on.

Anyway...

Who says that big companies can't be nimble when they have to be?

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Item 4
Hi-Flying Wi-Fi Debuts on Transatlantic Flight

Passengers flying on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Los Angeles [this month] became the first to experience in-flight Wi-Fi - a broadband wireless internet connection.

The satellite-based system enables passengers to surf the web and send emails from their own Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or handheld computers instead of using the more limited services some airlines offer through their seatback displays…

The cost to passengers is $10 for half an hour, or a flat rate of $30 for the entire flight. This is far cheaper that the $16 per email charged by some companies via seatback equipment.

The good news:

Better service for less money. What's not to like?

The downside:

We just wish our local Quizno's would offer Wi-Fi along with their pepper bar.

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Item 5
Teen Techies Engineer the Future

The world's brightest aspiring scientists gathered in Portland, Oregon, last week to compete for a piece of $3 million and the recognition that could help them to become the next Bill Gates or Jonas Salk.

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair awards college scholarships to encourage high-school students to work in a field that experts say will soon face a critical shortage. Students designed autonomous robots, studied the heavens and the seas, and harnessed solar power for their projects, which were judged by an international panel of scientists…

[One winning competitor] used a tungsten filament from light bulbs, recycled Styrofoam blocks and a PC sound card to create a low-cost tunneling microscope that delivers improved resolution over standard light microscopes.

The good news:

There exists in this world a high school student who made a tunneling microscope from a light bulb, Styrofoam, and a sound card.

The downside:

We need more kids like this!

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Item 6
"Computer Virus" Fights AIDS

Promising news, from the search for an effective treatment for HIV: two assistant professors at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs are using a new approach using computer modeling to create a virus that will spread like (and along with) HIV but actually inhibit HIV's ability to kill immune cells, preventing it from developing into full-blown AIDS

The good news:

This simulated virus may well lead to the development of an actual virus which will bring hope to millions of HIV-positive folks around the world.

The downside:

It's only a simulation.

But anyway...

This has got to be the best use ever made of a computer virus.

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Item 7
A Story with Real Bite

The dental world of the future will be one where patients grow their own new teeth, much like a 6-year-old.

Dentists will implant cells from a young tooth, then apply proteins to make it grow. Roots will grow into the jaw, dentin and enamel will form, and a new tooth will grow where there was once just a gum. The best part is it won't hurt.

The good news:

No fillings. No crowns. No root canals. Just healthy, whole new teeth.

Oh, and no pain.

The downside:

What downside? Did we forget to mention...no pain.

Anyway...

Here's a good example of how things really are changing for the better. Let's suppose for a moment that the techniques described are 25 years in the future. Looking back, what did the future of dentistry hold in store for us 25 years ago?

"In the future, you'll be able to go the dentist without having to spit."

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Quote of the Day

Ideas are the only thing that can change the world. The rest is details.

-- Scott Adams

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Update
The BATT Challenge, Part 2

Yesterday, we issued the BATT challenge,

Name an era prior to the present in which (given the opportunity to do so) you would go and live for the rest of your life.

The simple answer for us at The Speculist is that there has never been as fine a time to be alive as right now. We say this with our eyes wide open. The fundamentalist fanaticism we face in the Muslim world today is not some modern anomaly. In the past it was the rule. Our free and open society was the historical exception. But today our successes are neither easily hidden nor easily destroyed.

The recent discovery of the ruins of the Library of Alexandria reminds us that this wasn't always true. When that library diminished much knowledge went with it. Today, even the loss of the much larger Library of Congress would not have a significant impact on western learning. Whether via Gutenberg's printing press or the Internet, knowledge is too dispersed to destroy.

Given the choice, we'll stick with the 21st Century.

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Live to see it!

Posted by Phil at 02:39 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Daily Rimshot

M104 member Chris Hall has the news on a huge archeological find. And he throws in a one-liner for free!

Posted by Phil at 07:44 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

May 19, 2004

Better All The Time #6

Any time is a good time for some good news. Like right now, for example.



Today's Good Stuff:

  1. Better all The Time, Says Who?
  2. Sir 2 With Love
  3. Test Results Just a CD-Burn Away
  4. Global Polio Eradication Back on Track
  5. Quote of the Day
  6. First Amateur Rocket Blasts into Space
  7. Computerized Sneakers

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Item 1
Take the BATT Challenge

Reader Mr. Farlops (see comments on linked entry) takes issue with the BATT premise:

Getting better? Getting worse? You can argue both ways. Personally I discard the idea that the world is getting better or worse as too simplistic. All we can really say for certain is the world is getting different. We solve old problems only to create new ones. This seems to be a loop stretches on to infinity. There is no endpoint, no heaven or hell--just difference.

Mr. Farlops raises an excellent point, in that (any way you slice it) "better" is going to turn out to be a pretty subjective idea. Here's a subjective test of whether the world is truly getting better:

Name an era prior to the present in which (given the opportunity to do so) you would go and live for the rest of your life. No short visits just to see what things were like. (Anybody who wouldn't do that is a total buzzkill.) You have to be willing to swap this era for that one.

For simplicity's sake, we'll define an "era" as 100 years. Let's try a few...

1904
Relive the first half of the twentieth century! (Probably not an appealing choice for minorities or career-minded women.)

1804
See Napolean in action. Join Lewis and Clark as they open up the West. Ride horses! (If you want to get anywhere.) Wait months for news from other parts of the world! By the way, your life expectancy wil be somewhere in the late thirties.

1504
See the Renaissance in full flower! Risk injury and illness in an era without antibiotics or anaesthesia. But not to worry...they have leeches.

404 BC
Discuss philosophy with Socrates! If you have time. Because, let's face it, chances are you'll end up a slave. But, hey — it's honest work.

Of course, there's no denying that each of the eras named above would be a fascinating age to experience firsthand. And each of them almost certainly has its own advantages over the present. Even so, we believe it would take a serious history buff to choose any of them over today.

But let's go one step further. Let's suppose that the deal was that you must choose one of these eras and go live there for the rest of your life. Which would you pick?

If you conisder the choice seriously, looking beyond romantic associations many of us may have with each of these eras, you're likely to choose 1904. Of all the eras named, it would be the most familiar. It's the one with (rudimentary) electricity, telephones, automobiles, and airplanes. More importantly, it's an era in which some of our current medical technology exists and more is coming soon. People living in 1904* have more choices about where to go, what to do, and who to be than their ancestors living in previous eras. There are those horrifying world wars on the horizon, but then at least you know they're coming. And if you arrive in 1904 and live long enough to see the end of World War II, you'll probably have survived longer than you would have in any of those other eras.

Preferring the present to the past, and the recent past to the distant past, is not just a bias that favors the familiar. From a rational standpoint, it makes sense to prefer an era in which life is longer, healthier, and richer in terms of the options that it offers. As Mr. Farlops points out, there are strong arguments to be made that the world has grown worse over the past two hundred years. But if the world were really no better, only "different," we would expect a significant number of people taking the challenge to choose the past.

But will they? Would you?

On the other hand, if life is not just changing, but improving, then it only makes sense to conclude that the world really is getting better all the time.


* Obviously, this is written by Americans and it describes progress from an American perspective. Not everyone in 1904 had more choices than they did in 1804 (or 1504, for that matter.) In fact, not everyone living today has more choices than they did in the past. It was said that Afghanistan under the Taliban was transported back to Middle Ages. If the past was merely "different," why was this viewed as such a terrible thing?

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Item 2
Antiaging Enzyme Target Found

A drug that flips on longevity switches is a step closer following the discovery of how to activate a key antiaging enzyme.

The good news:

As we reported here yesterday, Sir2 may be the key to achieving the life-extending benefits of caloric restriction without having to take on what most would consider to be a hard-to-maintain dietary lifestyle. Moreover, isolating the enzyme that produces these benefits might well lead to treatments which can extend the anti-aging effect far beyond what caloric restriction alone would have achieved.

The downside:

There's no real downside, but it's probably a good idea to reiterate the note of caution we sounded yesterday:

This is good news, but these are early results.


Anyway...

Ah, to heck with caution. Woo-hoo! We're all going to live to be 500! At least!

Ah...okay. Sorry about that. We return you now to our good-news round-up, already in progress.

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Item 3
BioCDs could hit No. 1 on doctors' charts

(via FuturePundit)

While-you-wait medical tests that screen patients for thousands of disease markers could be possible with compact-disk technology patented by Purdue University scientists.

A team led by physicist David D. Nolte has pioneered a method of creating analog CDs that can function as inexpensive diagnostic tools for protein detection.

"This technology could revolutionize medical testing," said Nolte, who is a professor of physics in Purdue's School of Science.

"Each ring of pits, or 'track,' on the CD could be coated with a different protein," he said. "Once the surface of a BioCD has been exposed to a blood serum sample – which would not need to be larger than a single drop – you could read the disk with laser technology similar to what is found in conventional CD players. Instead of seeing digital data, the laser reader would see how concentrated a given protein had become on each track."

The good news:

Ever had this conversation?

"Hi, Doctor. My symptoms are XYZ."

"Hmmm...I'm a little concerned. Let's take a blood sample and see what it shows."

[Assistant takes blood sample.]

"So, what now, Doctor?"

"We'll just send that off to the lab and we'll have your results in a day or two. A week, tops. In the mean time, don't worry."

I think we can all agree that it would be just dandy never to have to have that particular conversation again. With these modified CD drives, doctors will be able to perform the test themselves and provide your results while you wait.

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Item 4
Global polio eradication back on track

The bid to banish polio from the world may be back on track, as a state in Nigeria which banned polio immunisation now says it will source the vaccine from Indonesia.

The state of Kano, in northern Nigeria, suspended the polio mass immunisation campaign in October 2003, amid local claims that the vaccine was contaminated with anti-fertility hormones and HIV.

Muslim clerics claimed the vaccine was part of a Western plot to depopulate Africa. Subsequent tests by Nigerian experts gave the vaccine the all-clear and two other states that had opted out resumed the campaign. But Kano did not reinstate the programme.

The good news:

Kano will now obtain "safe," "untainted" polio vaccine from Indonesia. In spite of the paranoid idiocy described above, the children of Kano will be protected from polio. And that, of course, is wonderful news.

The downside:

The clerics who brought about the ban are still in power, and can still bring about untold future mischief.

Anyway...

At least the children are safe from polio. Maybe someday there will be a vaccine to protect them from the "protection" of their religious leaders.

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Item 5
Quote of the Day

[T]hings are getting better by a greater absolute amount each year, with the exception of very few remaining parts of the developing world. And improving conditions in the developing world is something we also have more ability to do today than ever before.

This amazing state of affairs is due almost entirely to advances in science and technology, and the profoundly civilizing way that these subjects interact with the half-bald primates that have discovered them and who are now feverishly employing them at every level of human endeavor it on this precious little planet.

-- John Smart

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Item 6
First amateur rocket blasts into space


An amateur rocket called GoFast has made history by becoming the first such rocket to reach 100 kilometres altitude - the official edge of space.

The seven-metre-tall rocket was launched from Nevada's Black Rock Desert on Monday carrying a ham radio avionics package which broadcasted position and altitude data during its ascent.

The Civilian Space Exploration Team (CSXT) built the rocket at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. CSXT claims it is the most powerful amateur rocket ever built.

The good news:

Here's more evidence that the space age has truly begun. Like the contestants in the X Prize competition, CSXT is made up of rocket enthusiasts eager to make history. However, they aren't necessarily looking to usher in an era of commercial space exploitation. They aren't even doing it for the prize money. As the linked story indicates, the only prize this launch was eligible for expired 3 years ago.

No, they did it because they love rockets and they wanted to see how far they could make one go. Robert Goddard would be proud.


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Item 7
Adidas Creates Computerized 'Smart Shoe'

Adidas says it has created the world's first "smart shoe" by mating it with a computer chip that adapts its cushioning level to a runner's size and stride.

The good news:

The war between geeks and jocks is over! A new era begins!

What are the chances they'll make a sequel to a Disney family classic, changing the title just ever so slightly: The Tennis Shoes Wore a Computer? Kurt Russel may be available.

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Live to see it!

Posted by Phil at 09:40 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

May 18, 2004

Modzelewski Employment Watch Day 98

Mark Modzelewski is stepping down as director of the Nanobusiness Alliance to join Lux Research Inc., a nanotech firm.

No word on whether Lux is undertaking Drexlerian nanobot research.

Via Instapundit

Phil's right. Things ARE getting better all the time.

For a history of the Modzelewski Employment Watch see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:35 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Yes SIR2!

Here's a quick recap: caloric restriction leads to longevity in virtually every animal species in which it's been tried. Why? There is continuing debate, but a lot of attention has been given to an enzyme, SIR2, that is increased with caloric restriction.

When Phil first reported on the enzyme SIR2, he was cautiously optimistic:

This is good news, but these are early results. First off, the findings apply only to yeast. (Although it can be surprising to learn how closely related we humans are to what we would normally consider much lower forms of life.) Secondly, we're a long way from finding a way to increase SIR2 levels without the rabbit-food regimen.

I love it when accelerating change takes even we Speculists by surprise:

Marmorstein and colleagues [researchers at the The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia] found that sirtuins [a family of enzymes that includes SIR2] influence longevity by flipping genetic switches. They appear to promote genomic stability, a process that goes awry in cancer and aging.

This is important. Just because something follows, it does not mean that it's the cause. We knew that SIR2 levels increased prior to measurable increases in longevity, but that did not mean that SIR2 was the reason. Now that we have a greater understanding of what SIR2 does, we may soon be able to evaluate SIR2's involvement in regulating lifespan.

But wait, there's more:

[Marmorstein and colleagues] used a yeast sirtuin as a model and captured 3D images of it to gain a structural picture of its enzymatic activity.

This led them to a binding site that when blocked activated the sirtuin.

Using virtual libraries of molecules, they are now identifying molecules with structures that might bind to this site and serve as SIR2 activators.

I am just overcome with geeky joy reading stuff like this. Think about the tools that were required to take these three steps. These tools were simply not available ten years ago. And what if Marmostein's group is correct about SIR2?

Okay, I'm back in control. "This is good news, but these are early results."

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:24 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Light Blogging

I flew into Lileks country yesterday on business. Tried to spot Jasperwood from the plane, but I guess you have to know exactly where to look.

Anyhow, I'm going to be away from the computer until late tonight, so the blog will be in Stephen's capable hands. I don't think we'll see a new Better All The Time until tomorrow. But it will be back tomorrow, along with a new chapter of Stillness.

Posted by Phil at 06:14 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 17, 2004

Better All The Time #5

Here's more proof that things may not be as bad as they seem. In fact, some "things" appear to be getting better and better.

Today's Good Stuff:

  1. Nanotech to Enable Hydrogen Cars
  2. The Information Super...market
  3. HIV Treatments Coming Sooner
  4. Quote of the Day
  5. Home of the World's Fastest Sumpercomputer
  6. A Crucial First Step
  7. I Got It on Freebay!

- - - - -

Item 1
Hydrogen Cars the Nanotech Way

(via KurzweilAI.net)


A Department of Energy report has found that nanotechnology could reduce the high costs of hydrogen cars by developing revolutionary ways of producing and storing hydrogen. Hydrogen stores energy more effectively than batteries, burns twice as efficiently in a fuel cell as gasoline does in an engine, and produces a single waste product, water.

"The amount of hydrogen that would be needed for a hydrogen economy is about five times what we're producing today..." In order to generate hydrogen energy, we first need to develop inexpensive, renewable sources of electricity like wind or solar power. Some nanotechnologists are already working on more efficient solar cells

[Hydrogen gas may] have to be compressed, and the tank that holds it would need to be able to withstand the resulting high pressure. Nanotechnology could provide materials strong, light, and cheap enough to build such a tank. Another approach would be to have a tank filled with a solid material that absorbs hydrogen at fill-up time, and releases it while driving. Nanotechnology could produce that very porous solid material.

The good news:

As we reported last week (item 5), gasoline may play a role in the first generation of hydrogen-powered cars. According to the DOE report, nanotechnology may pick up where today's fuels leave off.

Ironically, most of the nine million tons of hydrogen we produce today is extracted from fossil fuels. In order to generate hydrogen energy, we first need to develop inexpensive, renewable sources of electricity like wind or solar power. Some nanotechnologists are already working on more efficient solar cells, which would help provide inexpensive electric power to produce more hydrogen at low cost.


The downside:

Currently, it costs ten times as much to operate a car using hydrogen fuel cells than it does gasoline.

Anyway...

That price can only go down as hydrogen technology is phased in. Hydrogen powered vehicles will be great for the environment and will reduce the world's dependence on Arab oil. Imagine the political importance of being able to tell the Saudis, "keep the oil and the Wahhabism please."

Yep, sounds like a pretty good idea.

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Item 2
Internet Groceries Continue to Expand


After the spectacular crashes of big-name Internet grocers in the late 1990s, the dream of a grand new wave of online food stores appeared to fizzle. But with intentionally meager fanfare, grocers have made Internet shopping available to tens of millions of consumers nationwide, and upcoming expansions will expand it to millions more.

Industry watchers say it's no longer a question of whether Internet grocery can be successful, but rather of how big it will become.

The good news:

It has taken a few false starts to get us to this point, but it looks as though there really is a viable business model for this service. What helps is that the offering now includes services such as storable, reusable shopping lists and delivery within a 2-hour window. It costs about $10 bucks.

Online grocery shopping will really take off when the supermarkets themselves becomes virtual. When we can stroll the aisles, comparison-shop, use virtual coupons clipped from our virtual newspapers...

The downside:

Of course, at that point, it won't represent that much of a time savings. Also, it is likely that virtual grocery shopping will never be as big a hit with women as it is with guys. (I for one can't imagine the Specuwife buying meat or produce this way — Phil.)

Anyway...

Online grocery shopping is a long-promised, long-anticipated feature of the digital age. And now it looks as though we have it.

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Item 3
US accelerates HIV drug approval

The US is to accelerate its approval of new HIV drugs for the world's poor from four years to as little as six weeks.

But the US Food and Drug Administration, which will run the scheme, says it will not cut corners on safety to rush drugs through the system. Many will be combinations of medicines that have already been approved, it says.

The good news:

There are two pieces of very encouraging news, here:

  1. HIV treatments getting to peeple who desperately need them.
  2. A government agency refining its normal process — actually doing something faster! — to help people in need.

It's especially encouraging to run a story like this on a Monday.

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Item 4
Quote of the Day

Extended longevity means extended healthy life span, not more years of increasing infirmity. You would never be old for longer - you would be healthy and in the prime of your life for longer. Hopefully for as long as you choose, if medical research proceeds rapidly enough.

Resources are never fixed, and nor are the ways in which we use them. We humans continue to produce more resources, and make better use of existing resources, all the time through our advancing technology and knowledge of the world.

-- Reason at Fight Aging!

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Item 5
The U.S. Wants to be the Fastest

Winning back the title of world's fastest supercomputer is the goal of a $25 million contract awarded by the Energy Department to Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Center for Computational Science…

"The new machine will enable breakthrough discoveries in biology, fusion energy, climate prediction, nanoscience and many other fields that will fundamentally change both science and its impact across society," Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Jeff Wadsworth said. "Our plans are to surpass the world's current fastest supercomputer--Japan's 40-teraflops Earth Simulator--within a year."

The partnership begins with Oak Ridge's Cray X1 computer, which will be upgraded to 20 teraflops this year, and next year will be combined with a second 20-teraflops Cray Red Storm-based processor. Also next year, partner Argonne National Laboratory will add a 5-teraflops IBM Blue Gene computer that is expected to move the partners past the Earth Simulator.

The good news:

You don't have to be jingoistic flag-wavers like we are to appreciate the importance of not living in a scientific backwater.

But taking a broader view, faster computation (6.25 times faster than today's champ in just three years) means that problems too complex today will be solved tomorrow.

We're also encouraged that this is not a one-shot bid to beat Japan. As history has shown, with computers one cannot rest on past accomplishments. Success is a process, not a finish line.

The downside:

You ever see the Terminator movies?

Top

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Item 6
Just 11 More Steps

The first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem.

The Bush administration is now admitting that the limited number of embryonic stem cell lines may be impeding research.

In the letter, Dr. Zerhouni reiterated the president's stand that tax dollars not be used to "sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos." But he also wrote, "It is also fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas" of research.

Via KurzweilAI

The good news:

Rather than tightening restrictions on stem cell research in a second term (as we have pessimistically predicted), this may signal an easing of restrictions. The government is such a big player in R&D, that restrictions in government funding can steer American science away from promising fields like embryonic stem cell research. So it's particularly good news that Bush is admitting that his policy may be slowing science.

The downside:

The easing of restrictions can't come too soon for those suffering with disease. And the rest of us ain't getting any younger either…yet.

This is probably election-year triangulation. Activists should get a commitment from Bush while the election is still tight. If they fail to get a commitment, this may be the last we hear of it from the Bush administration.

Anyway...

The admission that more stem cell lines would do some good is significant. We'll see what happens next.

Top

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Item 7
'FreeBay' Sites Connect the Cheap and the Green

Attention Rhode Island residents: A free washing machine is yours for the taking at the corner of Tangent and Burgess in East Providence.

It might not clean your clothes, but it could come in handy as a movie prop or ... something.

Sounds enticing? Jen Duclos hopes her notice on the Free Market (http://www.freemarketri.org) will attract an Internet-savvy dumpster diver willing to cart away the unsightly appliance, which was mistakenly posted as a stove.

"It's been sitting out on the curb for like a year," Duclos said. "It just makes the neighborhood look so ghetto, I hate it."

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but online exchanges offer free lumber, refrigerators and other slightly used treasures for anybody willing to come haul them away.

The good news:

Have you ever said this:

"eBay? Forget it. I couldn't give this stuff away!"

Well, here's your big chance to see if you were right.

Top

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Live to see it!

Posted by Phil at 08:33 PM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

ITF #138

In the Future...

...at-home, do-it-yourself parallel universe detection tests will be as common as DIY pregnancy tests are today.

Posted by Phil at 09:49 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 14, 2004

Better All The Time #4

Just in time for the weekend: seven reasons to believe that life just keeps getting better.

Today's Good Stuff:

  1. Spaceship One Soars!
  2. More Big Space News
  3. Quote of the Day
  4. It's More Fun to Earn It
  5. No Hotel on Coral Reef
  6. Please Pass the GM Corn
  7. Octo-Update

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Item 1
SpaceShipOne makes third rocket-powered flight

With pilot Mike Melvill at the controls — following release from the White Knight turbojet-powered launch aircraft high above the Mojave, California desert — SpaceShipOne punched through the sky today boosted by a hybrid propellant rocket motor. According to sources who witnessed the flight, SpaceShipOne appears to have reached an altitude of a little over 200,000 feet.

The good news:

It looks like NASA is going to have to do something really impressive (like build a space elevator) to stay ahead of the private sector.

The downside:

Time is running out for X-prize competitors. The Ansari X Prize expires January 1, 2005. The X Prize requires that a vehicle capable of carrying three people reach a height of 330,000 feet and then return safely to Earth, and repeat the flight with the same vehicle within two weeks.

Still, it appears that Burt Rutan is determined to meet the deadline. Today's flight to over 200,000 feet is almost double Rutan's April 8 flight. I'm betting that Rutan wins the X-prize in autumn. Any takers?

UPDATE: It's official. This flight took them to space.

Top

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Item 2
World's First SpacePort


Given all the rocket plane activity at the Mojave Airport, steps have been taken to have the facility certified as a spaceport.

Stuart Witt, General Manager of the Mojave Airport, envisions the site busily handling the horizontal launchings and landings of reusable spacecraft.

Witt said the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is reviewing an application to license Mojave Airport as an inland spaceport. In fact, the airport is already a natural center for research and development and certification programs, such as the rocket plane work of Scaled Composites and XCOR Aerospace.

The good news:

Glenn's quote comes from the same story we cited in Item one, above, but we felt this item deserved its own entry. The opening of the world's first spaceport follows close on the heels of the FAA issuing its first license for a commercial space flight. As someone recently commented, the space age has truly begun.

The downside:

Now that we have them, it's only a matter of time before we find spaceports as annoying as airports. Mark my words. In a few years, you'll be no more thrilled about having to to go to the spaceport to catch the red-eye (get it?) to Mars than you currently are about being re-routed through Newark on your way to Detroit.

But on the other hand...

It's going to be way fun until we get so jaded. (And by then, maybe the starships will be flying.)

Top

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Item 3
Quote of the Day

(From The Incipient Posthuman)

All that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.

H. G. Wells

Top

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Item 4
Brain Scans Show Money Gained From Good Performance More Meaningful

(From FuturePundit)

Money that comes as a result of reasons unrelated to one's own performance causes less activity in the area of the brain associated with reward processing than when the money comes as a result of good performance.

The good news:

The research cited in the linked article reveals something significant about what makes human beings tick. By and large, we'd all like to have a million bucks, but we would feel very differently about a million that we'd earned than we would a million that we found/inherited/won in the lottery.

Sure, we want to see to it that our material needs are met, but there's apparently something else at work, too. We are hardwired to take satisfaction from adding value. If, has been asserted, human beings are primarily and inherently problem solvers, then it only makes sense that we find the accomplishment of our goals more much more satisfying than stumbling upon (or being handed) the things we want.

The downside:

Of course, this is terrible news for the "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs" crowd, but then they've been having kind of a tough time of it for the past 50 years or so, anyway.

Top

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Item 5
Seychelles Scraps Plans for Hotel on Remote Atoll

Seychelles Thursday scrapped plans to build a luxury hotel on the world's largest raised coral atoll, Aldabra, bringing relief to environmentalists concerned about the impact of tourism on the atoll's ecosystem.

Home to giant tortoises, huge robber crabs, marine turtles and the last surviving flightless bird in the Indian Ocean, the white throated rail, Aldabra is considered to be one of the world's greatest surviving natural treasures.

The good news:

We're usually pretty pro-development around these parts, but if you've ever seen a coral reef killed off by industry or tourism...well, it's not pretty. Let's chalk one up for the tortoises, crabs, turtles, colorful fishies and, above all, the Aldabra — long may she, um, walk.

The downside:

It's bad news for the developers, who were only trying to make an honest buck, after all.

Anyway...

There are plenty of other prime resort sites left on the planet. Get crackin', folks.

Top
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Item 6
EU to Approve Genetically Modified Corn

The European Union's head office said Friday it would approve a type of genetically modified corn for human consumption, ending a 6-year biotech moratorium that the United States has challenged at the World Trade Organization

The good news:

Science triumphs over enviro-superstition.

The downside:

Ill-founded environmental "protections" are still rampant, causing tremendous damage.

Anyway...

That genetically modified corn has made it through is very encouraging. Let's see more of this kind of progress.

Top

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Item 7
Octo Update

Yesterday, we reported on the touching love story of J-1 and Aurora — two star-crossed, eight-tentacled lovers in Anchorage, Alaska. Astute reader (and M104 member) Andrew Salamon pointed out a downside to this story that we overlooked:

I think you missed a slight drawback on Item 7, at least from Aurora's point of view:

"She will weaken and die soon after they hatch."

It's true: this is a possibility if Aurora is carrying an excessive number of...children. What a strange saga hers has been since being found in a tire in front of the Sea Life Center. Now she has love, celebrity, and an uncertain future.

Hang in there, Aurora. With J-1getting on in years, the kids are going to need their mother.

Top

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Viva la future, dude!

Posted by Phil at 11:16 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

An Unofficial ITF

In the Future...

...Al-Jazeera will round out its investigative portfolio, abandoning minor conspiracies in favor of the really big fish.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley, who has made the big time!

Posted by Phil at 08:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 13, 2004

Better All The Time #3

It's been said that no news is good news. That's incorrect. It turns out that GOOD news is actually good news. Here are some examples.

Item 1
'Nanobodies' promising as anti-cancer medicines

(from KurzweilAI.net)

Researchers are using a new class of extremely small antibodies named "nanobodies" with all the advantages of the conventional antibodies, but are small, very stable, soluble proteins that are much easier and less expensive to produce than conventional antibodies.

The researchers at VIB, Flanders Interuniversity Institute of Biotechnology have recently begun to evaluate nanobodies as anti-cancer medicines. The first results look promising: in experiments conducted on mice, a tumor with a certain protein on its membrane was successfully counteracted through administration of a nanobody.

The good news:

These nanobodies are able to target tumors in a much more specific way than the anitbodies that are currently used in cancer treatment. Where antibodies often have the unfortunate habit of going after healthy tissues, nanobodies have a one-track mind: they just want to kill cancer. They may also prove useful in treating inflammatory disease as well as heart and vascular diseases.

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Item 2
Australia's jobless rate remains 14-year low

Australia's unemployment rate was at 5.6 percent in April, remaining at a 14-year low, according to official figures released Thursday.

The jobless rate was the lowest since December 1989 thanks to an increase in new jobs, said the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The good news:

Speaks for itself. Way to go, Oz.

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Item 3
Stem Cell Research Institute Is Launched

(via KurzweilAI.net)

Saying that the frontiers of medical science should not be hemmed in by politics, Gov. James E. McGreevey signed legislation Wednesday to establish the nation's first state-supported stem cell research facility.

Stem cells - found in human embryos, placentas and umbilical cords - can be induced to grow into an array of different types of body tissues, and researchers say they could be useful in treating a variety of ailments. Because harvesting the cells often involves destroying a human embryo, many conservatives and anti-abortion campaigners say it is unethical.

The good news:

As we reported yesterday (item 8) and as we have touched on numerous times in the past few months, stem cell research promises to open up tremendously more effective means of treating injury, degenerative disease, and aging than have ever been available before.

The downside:

There are sticky ethical issues involved that can't be wished away. In navigating these waters, it's important that we learn to make the correct distinctions and avoid hysteria.

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Item 4
'Keyhole' colon cancer surgery found to be safe, less painful

A decadelong study comparing conventional colon cancer surgery with ''keyhole'' surgery found identical success rates, disproving fears that tumors would be more likely to return if surgeons did not open up the patient's belly for a full view.

The good news:

More wonderful progress in the ongoing fight against cancer.

The downside:

Is it just me, or does anyone else squirm at the use of the word "keyhole?"

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Item 5
Lewis and Clark Bicentennial

On Friday, the reconstituted Corps of Discovery will begin the long slog up the Missouri River. The event is part of the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, which aptly began at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello more than a year ago and will continue to chronologically and geographically follow the intrepid explorers' path over the next three years, from Missouri to the Pacific Coast and back.

The good news:

Look how far we've come. Here's a bit more from the OpinionJournal piece, concerning how much was known about what is now the Western US before the Lewis and Clark expidition: "Jefferson held the common belief that the Rockies were no bigger than the Appalachians. Others believed the American West to be an untouched prehistoric land complete with mammoths."

Today we know far more about the dark side of the moon and the geography of the plant Mars than our recent ancestors did about the western half of the continent they lived on.

The downside:

Obviously, the opening up of the West was not good news for the plains Indians.

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Item 6
Networking Is Back

Cisco's CEO said in his keynote speech at NetWorld+Interop that IT spending is on the upswing, and that Investments In IT are helping to improve productivity.

The good news:

The IT-spending drought has been a long and painful one. If companies are starting to spend money on IT infrastructure, this elusive "economic recovery" that we've been reading about is about to hit home for a lot of regular folks who happen to work in the IT field. (Including, here's hoping, Yours Truly.)

The downside:

Not really a downside, but more in the nature of adding a grain of salt: this was a keynote speech at a tech conference, after all. (However, those Cisco earnings are real.)

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Item 7
True Romance

It looks like J-1 is in love. After meeting the very fetching and slightly younger Aurora, he changed color and his eight arms became intertwined with hers. Then, the two retreated to a secluded corner to get to know each other better. We're talking about giant Pacific octopuses here.

The good news:

Just warms the heart, doesn't it? Ah...love...

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Item 8
Wearable Wireless Displays Are In Sight

via KurzweilAI

Imagine having a 17-inch screen constantly at your disposal that lets you look up information online, check your e-mail or watch a movie--and that isn't attached to a laptop...

scientists and startups alike have figured out how to make tiny wearable screens--with diagonals of less than half an inch--project what looks like a lifesize screen floating in space just a couple of feet from your eyes. These devices permit the wearer to remain totally engaged with their environment, able to see everything around them. The trick is in the magnifying optics on top of the display, which creates the illusion of a large, legible monitor that moves with you when you move your head...

"People have been talking about this kind of thing for ten years," says John Fan, chief executive of Kopin (nasdaq: KOPN - news - people ), which makes these tiny displays. "But now the technology is here and it has the right price point."

The good news:

The big beige box can't disapear fast enough to suit me. And because this will be part of a computer system that can always be with you, it may also replace pen and paper.

The bad news:

Computers and telephones will be harder than ever to get away from as we start wearing our office around with us.

And I don't care what they say about remaining engaged with your environment, this would be dangerous to look at while driving. And people will do it.

But hey, maybe this will be the reason we get smart highways and autodrive cars!

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Viva la future, dude!

Posted by Phil at 04:11 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Planetary Accommodation?

Item 6 of yesterday's " Better All The Time #2" touched on one way the earth can cope with the Greenhouse Effect - increased heat leads to increased evaporation which leads to increased rain which leads to increased vegetation. And vegetation absorbs greenhouse gases.

Today, the New York Times reported on another way the earth can cope with increased emissions – by directly blocking sunlight.
…hundreds of instruments around the world recorded a drop in sunshine reaching the surface of Earth, as much as 10 percent from the late 1950's to the early 90's, or 2 percent to 3 percent a decade…

Dr. James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, said that scientists had long known that pollution particles reflected some sunlight, but that they were now realizing the magnitude of the effect…

Satellite measurements show that the sun remains as bright as ever, but that less and less sunlight has been making it through the atmosphere to the ground.

Pollution dims sunlight in two ways, scientists theorize. Some light bounces off soot particles in the air and goes back into outer space. The pollution also causes more water droplets to condense out of air, leading to thicker, darker clouds, which also block more light.

Via KurzweilAI
Of course increased evaporation also leads to thicker darker clouds.

Global Warming is a complicated issue. We simply don't know enough about the effect of emissions, our planet's ability to cope, or even how technology will allow us to clean up the environment in the near future.

We do know that the world's population requires modern technology to survive. And I suspect that increased technology will allow us to decrease emissions. In the meantime we should tread lightly.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 02:57 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

An Open Letter to Peggy Noonan

Dear Peggy

I've always looked forward to reading your columns in the Wall Street Journal. You have been a consistent source of information and inspiration. I was therefore extremely disappointed to read your most recent piece, ("Bada Bing? Bada Boom."), dated May 13.

While I agree with and share your fears about the dangers of terrorism on US soil, I found your views on the (completely unrelated) subject of human cloning to be both ill-informed and wrong-headed.

Specifically, you wrote:

Whenever I think of cloning, I think of Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. He quoted the Bible to Richard Nixon's malefactors: "God is not mocked." Indeed he is not. Once we can have cloning, we will have cloning. Once we can have cloning we'll be cloning replacement-part humans to make new hearts for aging baby boomers. We'll throw the rest away, or mine these beings for other organs and elixirs. Once we have cloning, we'll start growing cloned armies. Why shouldn't they fight for us? Once we have cloning, a lot of things will happen, including that we'll be opening the mouth of hell.

As scary as the "dirty nuke in Port Newark" scenario is, I find that I am nearly as chilled by the scientific illiteracy displayed in the above quote. It would appear that you have learned everything you know about the subject from watching the Star Wars movies.

Cloned armies, indeed.

There is an enormous difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The latter need not require the production of an entire "replacement human;" it may be possible to grow "replacement organs" on their own, or to develop stem cell lines that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. How precisely this will open up the "mouth of hell" is unclear.

Reproductive cloning raises serious moral and ethical issues, but "cloned armies" is not one of them. The ability to produce armies would require not cloning, but a technique popular in (uninformed) science fiction movies that might properly be called Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Sentient Adults in Vats. That I know of, no one is currently working on developing that technology — not even in New Jersey.

Peggy, you are too serious a journalist and too valuable a voice to entertain such nonsense. If you would take some time to learn what cloning is really all about, I'm sure that you would have something significant to say about both the potential risks and the potential benefits of this technology.

In the mean time, I suggest you stick to subjects you're more familiar with.

Your Faithful Reader,

Phil Bowermaster

Posted by Phil at 11:15 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

May 12, 2004

Better All The Time #2

So the world is a hard, ugly, and dangerous place. What are we going to do about it? We're going to remember that it's getting better all the time.

Item 1
Competition Good for Broadband

The threat of competition from wireless broadband providers is forcing incumbent telcos to speed-up the roll-out of DSL services.

What's more, incumbent that fail to react to competitive pressures will face losing punters as they shop around for alternative broadband and telecoms providers.

Why this is good news:

Broadband for everybody! Competition isn't always encouraged (or even allowed) in European markets, so it's encouraging to see it here in full force: not only helping to bring broadband to the masses, but getting those incumbent (often state-controlled) telcos off their butts and producing some positive results.


- - - - -

Item 2
Sony Drops Playstation Prices

Sony expects a long life for its PlayStation 2. So this week it dropped the gaming console's price to keep sales brisk while simultaneously announcing new online services designed to keep gamers coming back.

Why this is good news:

Self-evident.


Why this is bad news:

It's only bad news if you're a parent who just ran out of excuses for buying one of these things, or you just bought one last week at the higher price.

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Item 3
World's Youth Better Off Today

(from the Great News Network)

The world's youth are better off today than earlier generations, although many are still severely hindered by a lack of education, poverty, health problems, unemployment and the impact of conflict, the United Nations says in a new report released today, the first to examine the global situation of young people.

The World Youth Report 2003 measures progress in 10 priority areas - education, employment, extreme poverty, health issues, the environment, drugs, delinquency, leisure time, the situation of girls and young women, and youth participation in decision-making - identified by Member States when they adopted the 1995 World Programme of Action for Youth.

Why this is good news:

Apparently, young people are doing better (on average) in all of these areas than they have in years gone by. It's especially encouraging that a positive report on the state of the world's youth would come from the United Nations, a group whose bread is buttered by the existence and worsening of global problems rather than by their elimination. (Which stance would explain everything that follows the "although" in the first paragraph.)

Let's face it: if the UN says that life is getting better for the world's young people, it really must be.


Why this is bad news:

It's only bad news for people who have a vested interest in believing that the world is going down the tubes. (But then that applies to all the news covered in Better All The Time.)

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Item 4
An Inspiring Story

Who says you can't choose your family? Susan Tom of Fairfield, California, has done just that, adopting 11 special-needs children and giving them love, hope and as close to a normal childhood as possible.

Winner of the Audience Award and Director's Award at 2003's Sundance Film Festival, MY FLESH AND BLOOD follows a year in the life of this remarkable family as it confronts a litany of daily routines, celebrates life's small pleasures, and copes with major crises.

Why this is good news:

The good news here is that this documentary is currently running on HBO. Sure, go ahead and Tivo The Sopranos and Deadwood, but leave a little room on the box (and in your viewing schedule) for a program that has an unreservedly positive message about family, courage, and humanity.


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Item 5
Hydrogen Powered Cars

(via FuturePundit)

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing a system to rapidly produce hydrogen from gasoline in your car. "This brings fuel cell-powered cars one step closer to the mass market," said Larry Pederson, project leader at PNNL. Researchers will present their developments at the American Institute for Chemical Engineers spring meeting in New Orleans, on April 27th, 2004.

Fuel cells use hydrogen to produce electricity which runs the vehicle. Fuel cell-powered vehicles get about twice the fuel efficiency of today's cars and significantly reduce emissions. But how do you "gas up" a hydrogen car? Instead of building a new infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations you can convert or reform gasoline onboard the vehicle. One approach uses steam reforming, in which hydrocarbon fuel reacts with steam at high temperatures over a catalyst. Hydrogen atoms are stripped from water and hydrocarbon molecules to produce hydrogen gas.

Why this is good news:

Hey, if you can create hydrogen from gasoline, even the oil companies are going to get behind it.


Why this is bad news:

The bad news is that hydrogen made from petroleum won't help reduce our dependence on foreign oil as much as would hydrogen from other sources. (Also, aren't we supposed to run out of oil one of these days?) Still, this could be an important first step. If we can get cars running on hydrogen made from gasoline, eventually we should be able to make them run on fuel cells made of borax or some other hydrogen-rich material.

- - - - -

Item 6
Wetter World Counters Greenhouse Gases -Scientists

Australian scientists have found the Earth may be more resilient to global warming than first thought, and they say a warmer world means a wetter planet, encouraging more plants to grow and soak up greenhouse gases.

"Contrary to widespread expectations, potential evaporation from the soil and land-based water bodies like lakes is decreasing in most places," the scientists said.

An increase in trees and shrubs in the world's grasslands in recent decades was a major counter to greenhouse gases, they said.

Why this is good news:

Speaks for itself, doesn't it?


Why this is bad news:

I guess it would be bad news for anyone whose stand on climate issues is based less on this kind of research and more on tie-ins to cheesey movie premiers and that sort of thing.


- - - - -

Item 7
New Intel chipset

Intel, the world's largest chip maker, unveiled its Pentium M chipset yesterday based on the Dothan processor developed in Israel.

Why this is good news:

New mobile chip. Better. Stronger. Faster.

Plus, Israel continues with the technological breakthroughs in spite of all the regional turmoil.

- - - - -

Item 8

"Tooth Stem Cells Could Treat Parkinson's"

An effective treatment for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's could be developed from stem cells found inside teeth.

Researcher Christopher Nosrat and colleagues at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in Ann Arbor have found that dental pulp-derived stem cells can protect and promote the survival of dopaminergic neurons—brain cells involved in movement.

Why this is good news:

Apart from the obvious – that we may soon have a new and much better treatment for Parkinson's Disease - it's good news that scientists see potential in adult stem cells.

Even if you have no ethical qualms about using embryonic stem cells for treatment of disease, it's a political reality that many people in this country oppose embryonic stem cell research.

Also, the expense of cloning and extracting these cells is, presently, prohibitive. If treatments using adult stem cells prove to be effective, it will be good news for everyone.

Why this is bad news:

This is a bit of a stretch, but if adult stem cells prove to have little versatility by comparison to embryonic stem cells, then this scientific dead end may provide political cover for the opponents of stem cell research in two ways.

First, while scientists investigate the potential of adult stem cells, embryonic stem cell opponents can say to the public, "see, we support stem cell research," even as they block research of the most promising form of stem cells. Most of the public has not made the distinction between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

And second, if adult stem cells really do prove to have little use, research opponents will say that embryonic stem cells will have little use as well.

Why we should be optimistic:

Adult stem cells will almost certainly prove to have some versatility in the treatment of disease. At the same time, research of embryonic stem cells will continue (to some extent) here and elsewhere. As effective treatments develop, embryonic stem cell research will come to be accepted.

Either that, or a method will be developed for creating an embryonic stem cell equivalent without making an embryo.


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Item 9
Quote of the Day

(Ray Kurzweil via Ken Novak)

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). .. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity -- technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.


- - - - -

Item 10
More effective coffee drinking

(from FuturePundit

Here is some useful news you can use. Morning "big gulp" coffee drinkers are misusing the power of caffeine. Researchers at the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago along with colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have shown that caffeine is best admnistered in a larger number of smaller doses with the doses coming later in the day.



Why this is good news:

I'm about a half-a-pot-a-day man, StarBuck's French Roast. Since I'm going to drink it anyway, I might as well get the most out of it.


Why this is bad news:

Anti-caffeine buzzkills who are always trying to get us to switch to decaf have just lost some ground.

- - - - -

Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Thanks to David Gertsman, Reason, and Sam Ghandchi. Special thanks to John Atkinson for linking to us and supplying the Speculist motto for this week:

Viva la future, dude!

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Speculist Bathroom

Whenever you… sit down to read, you don't always have hours of time to spend. Sometimes you might have just a few minutes. The market for such reading material began to be directly exploited a few years back with the publication of The Great American Bathroom Book, Volume 1: Single-Sitting Summaries of All Time Great Books.

There is a rumor that the book was originally published under a different title like "Classic Abstracts." After selling about three copies, the writer had the brilliant idea of the new title. Not only did the author make a bundle on the retitled book, but a series of books was born.

Being, er, a regular reader, I haven't had a chance to peruse the entire series. I own "Volume 1" and I can recommend it as a fun educational supplement. After reading the book you'll know the basic outline of many, many classics - a quantity of stories that you would most likely never have time to consume otherwise.

Knowing the classics is great, but your typical Speculist also has a taste for practical nonfiction. Stories where the water meets the wheel. In fact, we want to know who invented the water wheel and why, how it worked, how it was later improved, and what effect it had on society.

This is just the sort of information you'll find in another series of bathroom-worthy books by Charles Panati:

Panati's "origins" series has actually grown to include about ten books. The three books listed are those I've read. I thoroughly enjoyed all three.

Sometimes history is not just about battles that were won and lost, sometimes it's just as informative to know the history of alcoholic beverages. And I'm a sucker for "useless" trivia like the fact that cough drops were invented in Egypt in 1000 B.C., or that there was a real "Uncle Sam" and a real "Johnny Appleseed" and that they were boyhood friends.

If you're a fan of Daniel J. Boorstin's The Discoverers and The Creators, you'll probably enjoy these less academic books. Boorstin's books require hours of time to fully appreciate, but you can enjoy one of Panati's light anecdotes before your feet go numb.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:23 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

ITF #137

In the Future...

...you won't be able to identify your ethnicity without first considering the intellectual property issues.

Futurist: Mary (Definitely on the Outer Ring), who draws our attention to the URL and to the trademark symbol next to the sentence "I am Asian."

Posted by Phil at 08:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 11, 2004

Better All The Time #1

The world is getting better all the time.

That might sound a little crazy, but I firmly believe it to be true. It's been one of the underlying assumptions of this weblog since we launched it last year.

There's a reason we don't (necessarily) nod in enthusiastic agreement when someone tells us that the world is getting better. And it isn't that the media and the government and our educational insitutions and our houses of worship have conspired together to make us all "negative." The reason is that human beings are problem-solvers by nature. We are all — as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a species — continually grasping with problems that appear to threaten all that we hold dear, if not our very existence. And while grasping with one such problem, we are often busy worrying about two or three others.

Ironically, our preoccupation with these challenges tends to blind us to the fact that we have actually been pretty darn good at solving problems and that we are likely to get even better at it. The notion that the world is getting better all the time isn't starry-eyed optimism. It's serious optimism, based on a serious reading of humanity's record of accomplishment.

With that in mind, today we launch Better All The Time, dedicated to reminding us that — all appearances and temporary setbacks to the contrary — humanity's lot is improving. We are growing in wealth, health, knowledge, and freedom. We are striving to make the world cleaner and more beautiful, and to make ourselves better people. It's a long and difficult road, but we're getting there.

Here are a few of the signposts along the way.



Item 1
British courts say women are the 'better' drivers

[NOTE: Scare quotes in original headline.]

Women, much-maligned by the opposite sex for their supposed lack of ability behind the wheel, make far safer and more law-abiding drivers than their male counterparts, British officials said.

Why this is good news:

That this announcement helps to disprove a negative stereotype about women is good news, although it would probably have been much better news a few decades ago. I doubt that particular stereotype (and many that accompany it) holds quite the same sway it used to.

Here's what excites me about this development. If we can recognize that women are statistically better drivers than men, we can identify the specific driving behaviors and strategies that set women apart and look for ways to help men learn them. It won't be easy. It will take time. But I can imagine a future in which men drive nearly as well as women.

Additionally, we can model these same behaviors when we begin developing automated driving systems. (See item 3.)

Why this is bad news:

This development is bad news for anyone who insists that there is no real difference between the sexes. Clearly there is a difference, one that we can capitalize on to make our highways safer. And there are without a doubt many other valuable skills that men could learn from women. Moreover, there may even be a few things that women could stand to learn from men.

Am I in trouble yet?

Let me just round out my PC blasphemy by suggesting that there might be some gaps that we don't want to close. There may be a few differences between men and women that we would be better off just leaving...well, different.

- - - - -

Item 2
Iraqis Protest Against Shi'ite Militia in Najaf

Hundreds of Iraqis marched in Najaf Tuesday calling on militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to withdraw his fighters from the Shi'ite holy city.

Why this is good news:

These Iraqis are taking advantage of the freedom of speech they were denied under Saddam's rule. In calling for al-Sadr's withdrawl, they're demonstrating that they will not tolerate the co-opting of their religion — in this case, their holiest religious site — for military ends.

A very good sign, indeed.

- - - - -

Item 3
Gene Block Prevents Diabetes

From BetterHumans

Inhibiting a gene involved in the development of type 1 diabetes prevents its occurrence in mice, suggesting drug strategies that can do the same in humans.

Why this is good news:

Self-explanatory.

- - - - -

Item 4
Oscillatory associative memory networks promise pattern-recognition breakthrough

From KurzweilAI.net

Arizona State University researchers have come up with a new mathematical and computational model for oscillatory networks that could help unlock some of the secrets of how humans process patterns and possibly lead to smarter robots.

The new model is closer to real, oscillatory biological networks... It could mean robots or other electro-mechanical devices could recognize patterns and do some form of reasoning on the fly.

Why this is good news:

Did you ever just want to say the following to your computer: "Okay, got it? You see where I'm going with this, right? Riiiight, like the other time. Okay, great. Now take over." Our current computers have some limited capacity for this kind of thing — for example, in Microsoft Excel, after I create one row labeled Profit, all I have to do is type a P in another cell and the word Profit magically appears, conveniently highlighted so I can type over it if that wasn't what I intended.

That's pretty handy. But here's what I would like: I'm doing my expense report, and I've just entered that I stayed at such-and-such hotel from this date to that date, and I've entered the first night's stay (room charge plus state tax, plus local tax, plus inexplicable-extra-charge-for-staying-in-a-hotel.) I want the computer to jump in and go "Aha! If he paid that much the first night, he probably paid that much every other night. Let me just assume that's the case, plug in the charges for his other nights, and he can change them if he wants."

Sure, I realize there are macros that could do this, or that I could use copy and paste. That keeps the burden of pattern-identification on me. Besides, I do dozens of these kinds of tasks every day. Copy and paste and the use of templates is what I already do for most of these things. (I don't have time to create macros for all my repetitive tasks.)

I'm ready for the computer to pick up some of the slack, and now it appears that the computer might be getting ready to do so.

Also, the ability of machines to recognize patterns and do reasoning on the fly will have a lot to do with how long it takes us to get to cars that drives themselves and other future essentials.

- - - - -

Item 5
The Secrets of Sleep

Many intriguing studies in both humans and animals suggest that the sleeping brain does something to solidify memories and process newly learned lessons. The brain work of sleep may even allow people to form insights that they can't achieve while awake, according to research that gives new weight to the old notion of taking a tough problem and "sleeping on it." With most Americans routinely getting far less sleep than they should, some experts are starting to wonder if widespread sleep deprivation is having a real but unrecognized effect on society's brainpower and creativity.

Why this is good news:

Forewarned is forearmed, people. Why are you still reading this? Go get some shut-eye.

- - - - -

Posted by Phil at 08:22 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

May 10, 2004

Tipping Point Management

Phil wrote last week about the "tipping point" that could lead directly to the Singularity – the advent of "machines that are able to create machines more complex than themselves."

There are tipping points, like the Industrial Revolution, that have worked in our favor and others, like Global Warming, that we want to avoid.

I am of two minds about "Global Warming." Many of those who are most vocal about the dangers of global warning are the same people that distrust economic and technological development. Most futurists, myself included, feel that increased technological development are the best hope for improving the environment.

For that reason I look with suspicion upon efforts like the Kyoto treaty. The cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions required by Kyoto could push us over an economic tipping point into a Depression. But there never was much danger that the United State would ever accept Kyoto.

I see democracy and capitalism as great allies in the real fight for a cleaner environment. Among developed nations, the freest also are the cleanest. There are those who see little promise in continued economic and technological development. But I see accelerating development as our best hope for dealing with the problem of global warming.

Humanity needs a much better understanding of the global system before it will be able to accurately predict the effects of global warming. Many of the models that have been used for past predictions have failed to take into account the ability of the planet to correct for increased greenhouse gasses.

On the other hand, many of my fellow conservatives have acted as though the Earth's ability to absorb abuse is infinite. I've actually heard Rush Limbaugh say that we couldn't destroy the planet if we wanted to. Of course we could. Any complex system has a tipping point - a point beyond which it is unable to cope with additional stress. Our problem is that we have don't know what that point is.

The environmentalists would argue that since we don't know what the environmental tipping point is, that we should err on the side of caution. That we should adopt Kyoto in the hope that we are not too late already. This is their best argument. Certainly my greatest concern with Global Warming is that we stumble over a tipping point unaware.

But the Kyoto economic depression would also delay real technological progress. We are so close to another tipping point, the Technological Singularity, that there is real hope that our emissions problems can be mostly solved within a generation.

As for knowing where the Global Warming tipping point is, the answer is to apply greater computation to the problem. Today the world's fastest supercomputer, known as the Earth Simulator, is devoted to world climate simulations.

The ultimate key to solving these complex problems is tipping point management. We should avoid signing Kyoto, but push for technological developments that would allow us to meet the Kyoto goals anyway. We should push for incentives for businesses to adopt cleaner practices. We should also learn as much as we can through climate simulations so that we can have a full cost/benefit analysis on emissions.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:39 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

ITF #136

In the Future...

... the US Navy will be desegregated, allowing dolphins to rise through the ranks.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.

Posted by Phil at 11:04 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Holodeck? Transporter!

The progress toward Star Trek technology continues.

As we have reported here in the past, Ray Kurzweil continues to "beam into" various meetings from remote locations. He uses simulated teleportation (transporter) technology that makes use of real holography (holodeck) technology.

But if, like me, you find "simulated" teleportation technology to be something of a cop-out, consider this:

Australian scientists claim breakthrough in teleportation

A more complex form of information teleportation involving multiple recipients has been developed by researchers at Canberra's Australian National University.

The researchers used crystals, lenses and mirrors to produce a pair of "entangled" laser beams that are then used to carry information in the form of quantum states. The encrypted message can only be decoded by a majority of recipients, allowing for greater security.

Right now, we're "only" able to teleport information. Hmm...I wonder which of the following will happen first:

1. Teleportation technology will advance to the point that we can send physical objects, including people.

2. Human uploading will be accomplished, redefining human beings as information which can be teleported using refinements of the technology described above.

Posted by Phil at 10:25 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 06, 2004

Making It So

The world may not revolve around Star Trek, but it can be inspired by it.

It's fitting that the world's first primitive holodeck (I assume there are no others) is being used to create a Star Trek experience – a Borg attack on a space ship you, the viewer, get to visit.
A digital effects company in Santa Monica, Calif., has created a 3-D movie that not only gives the illusion of a world in front of you, but all around…

The technique is being used in a seven-and-a-half-minute film that is part of "Star Trek: Borg Invasion 4D,'' a 22-minute attraction…

"It gets harder and harder to come up with something to encourage people to leave the house," said Larry Kasanoff, the chairman of Threshold. "We needed to create a film that would last for years and that people would fly in to see."

…To reduce eyestrain, the company shot each scene so that both the foreground and the background were in focus. The filmmakers could then create parallel planes of action, allowing viewers to scan the frame to discover unconnected activities going on throughout the ship.

To create the overhead action, Mr. Johnsen and his colleagues wrote an algorithm that would put the computer-generated animation in proper perspective. While the ceiling screen is at a 90-degree angle to the vertical wall, a spaceship passing overhead would need to appear to spread out as it passed above and then receded in the distance.

This visually rich environment required a lot of computer processing power to render…

To avoid getting stuck with a big hardware investment that could be obsolete in a matter of months, Threshold contracted out their rendering needs, leasing time from I.B.M.'s Deep Computing Capacity on Demand center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and sending files to it through high-speed T-1 lines.

[Via KurzweilAI]
Kasanoff is right about the increasing difficulty of luring people to Las Vegas. Imagine how hard this will be when holodeck technology comes home.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 03, 2004

Cellular Competence

A pair of stem cell stories out today demonstrates the broad impact that stem cell technology will have on medicine:
Research that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology 56th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, Calif., April 24 – May 1, 2004, shows that cells taken from adult human bone marrow can be converted into brain stem cells that meet the criteria for transplantation into the brain.
Also today, scientists from King's College, London announced success in getting mice to grow new permanent teeth from stem cell packets injected into the gums.
The procedure is fairly simple. Doctors take stem cells from the patient. These are unique in their ability to form any of the tissues that make up the body. By carefully nurturing the stem cells in a laboratory, scientists can nudge the cells down a path that will make them grow into a tooth. After a couple of weeks, the ball of cells, known as a bud, is ready to be implanted. Tests reveal what type of tooth - for example, a molar or an incisor - the bud will form.
The scientists involved see no reason why this technology can't be adapted for humans.

Both of these stories beg the question "how does the stem cell know how to incorporate itself into the body?" In both of these cases the stem cells are coaxed by scientists into becoming brain cells or tooth cells, but such cells would be useless on their own. Brain cells have to interact with other brain cells. Tooth cells need to work with other tooth cells and the surrounding tissue in order to form a healthy tooth. How is this accomplished?

William Atkinson touched on the answer in the last chapter of his book, "Nanocosm."

My only problem with "Nanocosm" was Atkinson's relentless criticism of Eric Drexler (I posted on it here and here). It took me awhile to understand the disagreement. Atkinson accepted the possibility of self-assembling nanofactories, so what was his problem with Drexler?

Finally Atkinson explained his real disagreement with Drexler - the issue of control. If Atkinson's characterization of Drexler's position is correct, Drexler believes that we will be able to micromanage the work of the molecular assemblers.

Atkinson argued that such top down control is not practical (you can't micromanage the work of millions of molecular assemblers) or even possible. Certainly, nature doesn't attempt to micromanage the work of cells. Our brains are not in control of cellular activity within our body. The cells have to be autonomous workers – cellular automata that know their place within the overall scheme of things. Atkinson suggests that in this respect our molecular assemblers must emulate life.

Consider the nautilus. This beautiful structure was self-assembled at the molecular level. How? The mathematical description of this structure is incredibly complex. Do the cells understand the complex mathematics involved? No. Then how was it done?

The nautilus develops from the innermost chamber out. According to Atkinson the cells that build these chambers follow a simple program not unlike the following:

If prior chamber = nonexistent, then build chamber size A

If prior chamber = existent, then build chamber size 110% of prior chamber size
These two lines of code give every nautilus cell much of the information needed to perform a very complex task. This is a simple, elegant solution to a difficult problem. All multicellular organisms require their cells to have some competence in the overall design of the organism, their place within it, and the activity of their neighbors.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:08 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

North to Alaska

I'm on vacation this week. The Speculist is in the capable hands of Stephen Gordon and El Jefe (should his schedule permit.)

Stillness is on vacation with me, and will return on Wednesday, May 12.

Posted by Phil at 10:17 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

ITF #135

In the Future...

...robot traffic cones might get bored and cause mayhem by misdirecting traffic for a laugh.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley, who is currently featuring cute baby-duck pictures on his site.

Posted by Phil at 10:12 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 02, 2004

Tipping Points

Chris Phoenix on tipping points:

...[U]p to a certain point, we won't see the power of this technology, but the advantages will develop rapidly once that point is reached. This is not how humans expect things to work -- we expect a linear progression. But a tipping point is nonlinear. If we don't recognize it in advance and plan for it, it will take us by surprise.

Chris points out that we have experienced two such tipping points in the history of technological development: the first occured when precision became a function of machinery (rather than human skill); the second occured when the same thing happened with reliability. The next tipping point is yet to come, and it has to do with complexity. When machines can rotuinely create machines more complex than themselves, we're there.

Chris claims that this tipping point is at least as significant as the other two. I think it may turn out to be more significant than the two that preceded it, if only because it builds on them and helps to further exploit the advantagesbrought about by the other two. Moreover, it occurs to me that the ability of machines to produce ever more complex machines is an essential ingredient in the coming singularity.

By all means, read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 10:16 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack