June 30, 2004

Stillness, Supplemental Chapter

Part IV

Chapter Supplemental

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Michel poured some more wine.

"The time is very near," he said. "It draws close."

Reuben didn't touch his glass. Michel's story was a long one. It had not been easy, listening to it. But he felt better knowing the truth, even if it had laid waste the festive evening.

Daphne, stunned by what she had heard, looked at Michel with great sadness. She didn't even try to hide her tears.

"So what can we do?" she asked.

"I'm afraid there is nothing to be done, Cheri. You have come too late. It is as simple as that.

Almost on cue, there was a rumbling from the gathering darkness out over the river. They had all studiously ignored how the darkness had grown throughout the evening. But it was unavoidable now. The rumbling quickly became a roaring, and the darkness — somehow palpable — poured in through the open window like a flood.

It took only a moment, and it was finished.

The world had come to an end.

Naw, just kidding. I got too busy with the day job this week to finish editing the latest chapter. Promise to have it up soon.

Thanks for reading!

Posted by Phil at 10:30 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 29, 2004

And Still No Flying Cars

Matthew Fox laments the future we were promised, but which so far hasn't arrived:

At midnight on January 1, 2000, my friends and I stepped out of our apartment to watch the fireworks being fired off on Mount Royal. Despite the millennium hype, the world looked the same—not just as it did on December 31, but as it had for decades. Where were the paperless offices? The robots to dust the piano? The clean-running flying cars? Movies, books and TV had long been drawing the futurescape for us, but it seemed all that promise had been derailed; innovation was too expensive, too extreme or merely impossible.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 10:56 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Mixing it Up

Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!
Well, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!

-- ad for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, circa 1979

So now, via Glenn Reynolds, we read that we might have a space elevator in 15 years.

Edwards believes a space elevator offers a cheaper, safer form of space travel that eventually could be used to carry explorers to the planets.

Edwards' elevator would climb on a cable made of nanotubes -- tiny bundles of carbon atoms many times stronger than steel. The cable would be about three feet wide and thinner than a piece of paper, but capable of supporting a payload up to 13 tons.

Yep. That sounds like what we've been talking about. But the part that really got my attention was this:

The cable would be attached to a platform on the equator, off the Pacific coast of South America where winds are calm, weather is good and commercial airplane flights are few. The platform would be mobile so the cable could be moved to get out of the path of orbiting satellites.

Well, now hang on a second. If we want to protect our elevator cable from winds, air traffic, and possible terrorist threats, maybe we shouldn't start it on the ground. What if built it up from about 100 miles up? That's right, what if we built a huge, massive version of Dark Sky Station (also here) to serve as the ground floor of the space elevator?

I imagine this would require somewhat more robust (shall we say?) balloon technology than is currently on the drawing boards. But if we can use nanotubes to make a cable to space, we ought to be able to use buckyballs or some other sufficiently strong nanomaterial to create a floating Dark Sky Planetoid in the upper atmosphere that could support the cable.

The planetoids — eventually I expect there would be several of them — would serve as spaceports. Airships would transport cargo and passengers to the planetoid, which would eventually make their way to orbit via the elevator. Returning passengers and goods acquired in space (minerals mined from the asteroids, etc.) would come down the elevator to the planetoid, where they would be transported back to Earth via airship.

This idea would not only provide a sound infrastructure from which to move commerce and everyday life into space, it would combine two of the coolest ideas for space exploration currently being tossed around.

And you want to talk about space tourism? Less adventurous folks would just hop an airship to the planetoid, where they would find hotels, casinos...normal big-city tourist stuff. They could say they went to space without having to experience weightlessness or any other inconveniences. But the more adventurous folks would ride the elevator up to the top and do some real space stuff. Weightless sports. EVAs. You name it. Eventually, the boldest of the bold would proceed from the elevator station to the Moon or even Mars.

Now that's what I call two great tastes that taste great together.

Posted by Phil at 10:07 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

June 28, 2004

Better All The Time #15

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





Today's Good Stuff:

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

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Quote of the Day

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


-- Aubrey de Grey


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Item 1
Here Comes the Intelligent Internet

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

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

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

The good news:

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

* Reliable speech recognition should be common by 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The downside:

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

On the other hand...

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

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Item 2
The Dawn of the Private Space Age

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

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

The good news:

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

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

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

Also, see the definitive slide show here.

The downside:

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

Anyway...

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

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Item 3
The Future of Travel: Aquatic to Cosmic Destinations

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

The good news:

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

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

However:

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

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

Luckily...

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

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Item 4
Fish Consumption Tied to Better Cognitive Development In Babies

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

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

The good news:

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

The downside:

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

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

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

Anyway...

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

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Item 5
A Spinach-Powered Laptop?

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

The good news:

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

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

The downside:

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

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

Anyway...

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

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Item 6
Fertility Techniques Save Endangered Species

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

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

The good news:

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

The downside:

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

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Item 7
Beach blob mystery solved at last

(via GeekPress)

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

The good news:

Another nightmare scenario averted...

The downside:

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

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

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

Anyway...

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

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

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

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

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

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

SpaceShipOne, Government Zero.

Posted by Phil at 11:15 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

June 25, 2004

Final Score

This just in.

(via GeekPress)

Posted by Phil at 11:05 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

ITF #141

In the Future...

...stores will carry prepackaged doses of minor colds and intestinal bugs, increasing in intensity for each age.

Futurist: M104 member Karl Gallagher who predicts that — in a brilliant stroke of marketing — the bugs will be sold bundled with tissues and OTC remedies.

Posted by Phil at 11:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 21, 2004

Falling into Their Web?

Chef Quix has some interesting speculations as to how Google is likely to go about distributing their GMail service, and what valuable information they plan to collect along the way.

If he's right, those Google folks are a bunch of sneaky rascals.

Posted by Phil at 02:47 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Good Summaries

A quick note from Rand Simberg and a full-blown news story from Leonard David, both of whom got to watch it all happen from Mojave.

Posted by Phil at 10:10 AM | TrackBack

Weightless M&Ms

Apparently Melvill spilled his snack while weightless. I imagine we'll see footage of those floating chocolates in the eventual IMAX film of the flight.

Posted by Phil at 09:38 AM | TrackBack

"Spectacular"

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

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

Posted by Phil at 09:34 AM | TrackBack

Civilian Pilots

As I mentioned earlier, Mike Melvill will be the first civilian ever awarded astronaut's wings (at least that's what they keep saying on MSNBC). However, he is not the first civilian pilot ever to qualify for astronaut's wings, as explained here.

UPDATE: Reader Scott Janssens points out that Neil Armstrong was a civilian while in the space program. He didn't "earn his wings" while flying the X-15 (never quite made it to space), but I suppose he took some small consolation in being the first man on the moon.

Posted by Phil at 09:28 AM | TrackBack

Wheels Down

SpaceShipOne just landed. Since I was kinda young in the early Mercury days, this was my first opportunity to follow an entire space mission in real time over the course of a couple of hours.

Fun. This was definitely fun.

To qualify for the X-Prize, SpaceshipOne will have to make two such flights in a two-week period with a couple of passengers on board. Where do I sign up?

Posted by Phil at 09:19 AM | TrackBack

"Mission Accomplished"

Just heard the official confirmation. SpaceShip One did pass the 100 Km mark on its way up.

On to the X Prize.

Posted by Phil at 09:08 AM | TrackBack

Over the Top

SpaceShipOne has rounded the top and is on its way home. Pilot Mike Melvill (age 61) will be the first pilot ever to be awarded astronaut's wings on a non-government-sponsored mission.

Posted by Phil at 09:02 AM | TrackBack

We Have Separation

SpaceShipOne has detached from its mothership and is now rocketing straight up to 100 Km and history!

Live feed on BBC.co.uk works best for me. Also, Fox News is covering it live right now.

Posted by Phil at 08:53 AM | TrackBack

Watch it Live

MSNBC has good background on SpaceShipOne and is providing a live feed.

Posted by Phil at 08:32 AM | TrackBack

Now Past 50K

SpaceShipOne has past the 50,000 ft mark, on its way to 100,000, where it will detach from the airplane and start rocketing up.

Rand Simberg is actually there watching it all unfold.

Posted by Phil at 08:21 AM | TrackBack

Saw the Launch!

Just watched SpaceShip One launch on Fox News. This will be the craft's first flight to an X-Prize-eligible altitude of 100 Km. It will not be a qualifying flight, however, because Rutan and company are not prepared to do a follow-up in two weeks.

Will check back in a while when the airplane that the spacecraft is currently sitting on reaches altitude. Meanwhile, there is a lot of good information here.

Posted by Phil at 08:00 AM | TrackBack

ITF #140

In the Future...

...there will be loud public argument about the ethics of gentically modified racing cars.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.

Posted by Phil at 06:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 17, 2004

Better All The Time #14

It's not that Better All the Time is a weekly feature. It's just that — here lately — we've been doing about one a week.



Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Smart Pills for Everybody
  2. Where No Atoms Have Gone Before *
  3. Clotheslines May Make a Comeback
  4. Back to Work!
  5. A Spam-Free Diet
  6. Not the Least Bit Sad(r) to See Him Go
    Update

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Quote of the Day


Sometimes a picture of a kid standing in the driveway with a wagon full of apples is just that--a good and hopeful thing in a good and hopeful place.

-- James Lileks


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Item 1
Strange food for thought

"We're about to be handed a bunch of powerful new capabilities ... to refashion ourselves, improve ourselves," notes Martha Farah, a director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania[.]

Modafinil was developed to treat narcolepsy, a rare condition causing daytime sleepiness. But now it is used by those who simply want to be wakeful and alert, and recently seven American track and field athletes admitted to using it to boost their mental preparation. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, used for nearly two decades to treat depression, has also been found to enhance problem-solving abilities in normal individuals.

The good news:

We certainly like the idea of being more alert, and being able to solve problems better. Such enhancements might just help us to get out more editions of Better All the Time!

Plus, these kinds of upgrades are only the first step. Eventually, we'll be able to load knowledge directly into our heads, making life an awful lot easier for, say, grad students and would-be contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The downside:

Improved brain imaging, or mapping, is yielding new techniques such as "brain fingerprinting," which purports to be able to locate memories within the brain, raising troubling possibilities for invasion of privacy. "There's nothing more private and personal than a person's memories," says Richard Glen Boire, codirector of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, Calif.

In addition to privacy concerns, there are questions as to what the long-term effects of some of these enhacements will be. Such concerns will have to be addressed adequately before enhancements become widespread

Unexpected consequences...

Berlitz and Pimsleur will become pharmaceutical companies. Those SAT and GRE prep books will be available in handy, easy-to-swallow capsules available over the counter.

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Item 2
Scientists Demonstrate Teleportation with Atoms

Physicists in the United States and Austria for the first time have teleported "quantum states" between separate atoms.

The breakthrough may not yet make it possible for people to disappear and reappear somewhere else, like actors in a science fiction television show. But it could help lead to "quantum computing" technology that would make superfast computers.

The good news:

Quantum computers promise to solve a number of problems and bring almost unimaginable processing speeds. Plus, it isn't just (really good) science fiction that they may eventually be used to determine whether parallel universes exist.

The downside:

As the linked article indicates, we're still a long way off from what Star Trek fans normally think of when they hear the word "teleportation."

Anyway...

Previous teleportation experiments were done with photons. That's a significant step, seeing as how we're all made of atoms.

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Item 3
Clothes launder own fabric

(via FuturePundit)

In the classic 1951 film, The Man in the White Suit, Alec Guinness played a scientist who invents a fabric that never gets dirty or wears out. A chemist's pipe dream perhaps, but the prospect of self-cleaning clothes might be getting closer.

Scientists have invented an efficient way to coat cotton cloth with tiny particles of titanium dioxide. These nanoparticles are catalysts that help to break down carbon-based molecules, and require only sunlight to trigger the reaction. The inventors believe that these fabrics could be made into self-cleaning clothes that tackle dirt, environmental pollutants and harmful microorganisms.

The good news:

Where we once hung laundry out to dry, perhaps we will soon hang it out to wash.

The downside:

Let's see...less time spent doing laundry...another good reason to go outdoors...ah, jeez — can we get back to you on the "downside" thing?

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Item 4
Jobless Claims Dip, Leading Indicators Up

The number of new people signing up for jobless benefits dropped last week and a closely watched gauge of future economic activity rose more than expected in May, suggesting the U.S. economy can continue a sturdy expansion through the summer.

In another sign of a broadening recovery, the Labor Department's Producer Price Index, a measure of prices before goods reach store shelves, posted the largest increase in more than a year.

The good news:

Very little explanation required, here. Fewer people are out of work, and our best available yardstick says the good times are going to be with us for quite a while.

The downside:

The uptick in the Producer Price Index, while generally an indicator of a growing economy, also raises the possibility of inflation. Yikes.

However...

The other thing that the PPI is a good indicator of is the level of business confidence. Businesses who are feeling a little weak in the knees don't tend to raise their prices. Management confidence is an excellent indicator of economic growth, if only as a self-fulfilling prophecy. (All of those confident managers are just about bound to make something good happen.)

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Item 5
Programs: ChoiceMail Puts a Stranglehold on Spam

I don't need Viagra, my credit is fine, and somehow I doubt the PhD offered via e-mail with "no required tests, classes, books, or interviews!" is going to be worth much. If you're inundated and infuriated by spam, the newly released free version of DigiPortal Software's ChoiceMail may prevent you from going postal.

The good news:

A reliable cure for Spam e-mails? And it's free?

If we weren't the BATT guys, we would swear that sounds to good to be true.

The downside:

There's a bit of work involved in setting up your initial "whitelist" of allowed e-mail addresses. After that, however, the software runs interference anytime an unknown e-mail address pops up. Legitimate correspondents get the chance to request to be included on the whitelist. Everybody else gets filtered out.

Anyway...

They need to create a version of this thing to weed out unwanted blog comments. We get awfully tired of deleting junk comments from one "Enis Enlargement," or whatever the heck his name is.

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Item 6
Rebel Cleric Signals End to Shiite Insurgency in Iraq

(via Instapundit)

Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr sent his fighters home on Wednesday in what may mark the end of a 10-week revolt against U.S.-led forces that once engulfed southern Iraq and Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines.

With the formal end of U.S.-led occupation just two weeks away, Sadr issued a statement from his base in Najaf calling on his Mehdi Army militiamen to go home.

The good news:

Even though al-Sadr was hailed as the leader of the Iraqi "minutemen" by Michael Moore, and had his newspaper endorsed as a "legitimate voice" by John Kerry, he never really got very far with his plan to take over Iraq.

Good for Iraq.

The downside:

The news from Iraq isn't all good, but this is a very encouraging development. No doubt there are some radical clerics in Iran who are pretty disappointed by this turn of events, however.

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Item 7
Monogamy in Our Genes?

Imagine turning a bed-hopping lothario into a dedicated, monogamous mate with the flip of a genetic switch. A new study shows it may be possible, at least for the notoriously promiscuous meadow mole.

Accomplishing the same feat in humans may be a bit more complicated, but researchers say they've found a gene that appears to have a profound effect on the social behavior of animals.

The good news:

We've reported in the past how technology may one day threaten the institution of marriage, so we're glad to see a scientific development that might actually help marriage.

Gene therapy would certainly be an unexpected arrow to put in the marriage counselor's quiver. But, hey, anything that helps...

The downside:

A development like this could have a devastating impact on the country music recording industry.

Moreover...

It's a good thing that Las Vegas currently doesn't rely too heavily on revenues brought in by meadow moles. Or they might be in trouble, too!

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Update

Reader Kert was good enough to point out our lack of space news in this edition (see below), so we thought we should try to make up from the deficiency. Fortunately, Winds of Change has just published the second edition of Winds of Discovery, which includes a number of interesting items about space — along with a thorough and informative roundup of other science news. Check it out!

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

I am therefore I am.

*Sorry, but references to "beaming up" or "Scotty" would have just been too obvious. (Back)

Posted by Phil at 02:58 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Love Makes You Stupid

It's not cynicism; it's science.

Posted by Phil at 11:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 14, 2004

Tough Questions

Steven Den Beste has published a couple of thought-provoking essays recently on the topics of consciousness and identity. He raises a number of stumpers, of which I found three particularly interesting:

At what point is it accurate to say that a victim of Alzheimer's disease has died?

Is there really such a thing as identity or is it an illusion?

What are the ethics of owning an intelligent machine?

The first question has to do with the death of the "self" which a degenerative disease slowly brings about. Ultimately the damage to the brain is so profound that the person we knew is lost. Den Beste points out that this is what occurred with President Reagan: although his heart stopped beating last week, the man who led our country was gone long before that.

Should there be a definition of "death" that includes the loss of identity, the loss of self that occurs with a degenerative disease? I think not.

In other eras, it might have made sense to come up with such a definition. (I say might.) But today? I don't think so. Things are changing too rapidly. Not only are we learning more and more about what causes Alzheimer's disease — and, by extension, what might be done to prevent it — real strides are being made towards developing effective treatments for the disease. And even bigger breakthroughs are on the horizon. We may not be that far from finding a way to reverse "irreversible" brain damage. So the great danger of a degenerative definition of death is this: we might write someone today off as lost forever only to find in a couple of years that the person we knew can be restored to us, after all.

If President Reagan had been 10 years younger, and his fight with Alzheimer's was staring today rather than a decade ago...who knows?

[Steven's question also brings to mind the ongoing cryonics debate, about which I would have written something had Rand Simberg not beaten me to it. Rand relates the unsettling story of a man with an inoperable brain tumor who wanted to be put in cryonic suspension. Ironically, a court turned down his request because euthanasia is illegal. But the man wasn't trying to kill himself; he was trying to save himself: that is, he was trying to avoid having a tumor grind into mush the brain tissue that defines who he is.]

On the second question, whether there really is a "there" there where individual human identity is concerned, Den Beste writes as follows:

Do I exist? In one sense, of course I do. Cogito Ergo Sum. The fact that I'm able to ask that question proves that the answer is "yes".

But the answer to the question depends on how the question is stressed. Cogito Ergo Sum says "yes" to "Do I exist?" It doesn't help us with the question "Do I exist?"

There's something that exists here. I accept that the universe is real, and that my body is part of it, and that the brain contained within that body is thinking these thoughts and controlling the fingers which type the words you are reading.

The real question is whether that organism's presumption of having a unique and characteristic identity is a fallacy, perhaps even a conceit, one based on incorrect assumptions or a faulty supposition that the subjective experience of life is a true reflection of the nature of life.

Cogito ergo sum does not answer these kinds of questions. Yes, I do think and I have a subjective experience of thinking. That proves that this organism's brain exists and operates in certain ways. But existence and identity are not the same. I exist, but I can't be sure that I exist.

Not that I necessarily have a better one to offer, but I think Den Beste's definition of identity is flawed. He hinges the notion of identity on whether it is unique and characteristic. Let's start with the easier one — characteristic. Although I'm convinced that I exist, I find that the person who I believe to be real is capable of tremendous inconsistency. I have a lot more in common with friends and acquaintances with whom I have contact in the present than I do with myself in the past. Phil-of-the-past and I are, in a very real sense, two different people. What we have in common is some memories (although, lucky me, I have many more than he does) and a subjective experience of things happening in sequence around a single first-person point of reference. Absent discussion of a metaphysical soul — which Steven rejects — that subjective experience of one thing after another from that particular point of view is me.

Unique? Why would it have to be unique? If I'm just a clone who has had Phil Bowermaster's memories grafted onto my brain and I really only just woke up this morning — well, first off, what a waste of perfectly good cloning techniques. And what did they do with the real me? But anyway, I'm still me. That is, I'm still this sequence of first-person singular experiences. I may have never really had a bunch of them, but that's true even if I'm not a clone (or a computer simulation or a brain transplant or what have you). Memory is notoriously unreliable. The point is, here I am. It doesn't matter if I am a characteristic or unique entity. I think therefore, I —

Hold it. There's an easier way of putting it.

I am, therefore I am.

Finally, on the issue of owning an intelligent being — yes, it is definitely immoral to think in those terms. I don't think that there will be an effective way to program a computer that is truly intelligent to want to be owned. Nor do I think such programming would make it okay to do so.

I doubt it will be much of an issue, however, because I don't think that homo sapiens will be calling the shots for very long after computers reach human level intelligence. Those of us who accept the notion that a technological or developmental singularity is in the offing tend to expect that any ethical issues surrounding how we're supposed to treat computers will be solved for us...by the computers. Steven uses the analogy of dogs:

Dogs represent something of a fringe problem here, so let me deal with that. We generally accept that it's OK to own dogs, and there's no doubt whatever that they like being owned by us. The question is whether dogs actually understand the relationship the same way we do, and view themselves as property and us as owners.

It isn't clear that it even means anything to ask such questions. Even if it does, it is by no means clear that dogs are sophisticated enough to understand concepts like "property" and "ownership". But to the extent that we are able to consider the way dogs think about the relationship, the most likely answer is that they do not see it in those terms.

The symbiosis between dogs and humans appears to have come about because each species came close to fitting into a role the other already knew about. The relationship was possible because those mental roles interlocked reasonably nicely. To humans, dogs come close to fitting into the role of "child". To dogs, human masters seemed to be the "alpha" members of the pack. (It's noteworthy that domestic dogs are descended from wild canines with strong pack behaviors, but not from canines like foxes which do not run in packs.) That means the whole partnership has from the first been based on a really big misunderstanding.

A misunderstanding is one way of putting it. Another way would be to say that both humans and dogs have adapted their capability for one kind of relationship into a completely different cross-species relationship with benefits to both groups. This ability to adapt and redefine relationships will probably play a big role in what happens between us an our electronic progeny.

In The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil draws out a series of scenarios that show how this development might take place. The woman who leads us through the next few generations of machine evolution starts out describing "her" AI as a very useful piece of equipment: the ultimate PDA. After a few years, the AI becomes much more than that: her right-hand man, her faithful confidant. Ultimately, the AI becomes her life partner, helping her to augment and expand what she is.

Artificial intelligence may evolve from tools to friends in a very short period of time. From there, we might evolve with them, as Kurzweil suggested. But if they blast past us as quickly as some predict that they will, ultimately it will be the computers deciding whether or not it's ethical to own humans.

In the end, they might keep us around as their beloved pets. In which case we can only hope that they treat us as well as we treat our pets.




Posted by Phil at 08:11 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

June 11, 2004

ITF #139

In the Future...

...archaeologists will find proof that the Anglo-Saxons were small, green,
and trained in the Jedi arts
.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley, who comments as follows:

"Hmm! Vikings, invading they are!"

Posted by Phil at 06:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 10, 2004

Better All The Time #13

Welcome to our lucky 13th edition of "Better all the Time." Grab your lucky horseshoe, rabbits foot, or four-leaf clover and join us!


Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
    Quote of the Day II
  1. First Treatable, Then Curable
  2. Will Gibson and Glover Be Available for the Movie?
  3. Are We Not Men? We Love Tivo
  4. Tiny Robots in Your Bloodstream
  5. Ding, Dong the Grey Goo's Dead
  6. These Fingerprints Are No Myth
  7. This Might Get Even Us Back to School

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Quote of the Day


Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have.


-- Ronald Reagan


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Quote of the Day II

I guess that I just don't feel that way. I've watched people I love age and die, and it wasn't "beautiful and natural." It sucked. Aging is a disease. Cataracts and liver spots don't bring moral enlightenment or spiritual transcendence. Death may be natural -- but so are smallpox, rape, and athlete's foot. "Natural" isn't the same as "good."

As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather see my tax dollars spent on longevity research than, well, most of the other things they're spent on. I wonder how many other people feel that way.

-- Glenn Reynolds

Well, you've got two of them right here, Glenn. And there are many others besides. Keep fighting the good fight.

Also, that idea about how death sucks really resonates...


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Item 1
Drugs May Turn Cancer Into Manageable Disease

Brett Smith, the father of two young children, was only 26 three years ago when he was found to have advanced melanoma, a deadly skin cancer. Several drugs failed to stop the cancer, while leaving him frail, depleted and ill.

But two years ago, Mr. Smith began taking an experimental pill along with chemotherapy, and his tumors disappeared. He dropped the chemotherapy nearly a year ago but still takes the pill twice a day. And his disease, though it may return one day, is still at bay.

The pill Mr. Smith takes, known by the awkward code name BAY 43-9006, could reach the market in one to three years. It is one of a new generation of "targeted" therapies that are transforming cancer treatment by attacking the underlying molecular mechanisms of the disease.

The good news:

Good news on the cancer front is good news for all of us. Rates of contraction of various forms of the disease have been on a steady rise for some time. We believe, however, that the growth rate of cancer is no match for the speed with which new developments are being made to combat the disease. We very much expect to live to see the end of the cancer threat.

Prediction:

Within our lifetimes, most forms of cancer will be either eliminated outright or relegated to a treatable condition that people can live with. Best-case: cancer is gone altogether. Worst case: some people live with cancer the way people currently live with diabetes.

Also...

This is a very interesting approach: "attacking the underlying molecular mechanisms of the disease." See Item Four, below, for an overview of the next generation of weapons we will have for carrying out such an attack.

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Item 2
Nonlethal Weapons

Test subjects can't see the invisible beam from the Pentagon's new, Star Trek-like weapon, but no one has withstood the pain it produces for more than three seconds. People who volunteered to stand in front of the directed energy beam say they felt as if they were on fire. When they stepped aside, the pain disappeared instantly.

[The beam] is among the most potent of a new generation of futuristic, "less-than-lethal" weapons being developed by the Defense Department - tools that could dramatically alter the way police control riots and soldiers fight wars.

The good news:

A weapon such as this could be particularly useful in close quarter combat. Imagine how useful this weapon would be in a hostage rescue opperation or in other instances where there is a high risk of friendly fire.

The downside:

Just because it's harmless doesn't mean we want to experience being shot with one of these things. The very fact that it leaves no evidence of trauma could increase the likelihood that it is misused as an instrument of torture.

Anyway...

The availability of nonlethal weapons could have some interesting implications for the gun control debate. The linked article doesn't have much to say about individual weapons; the weapons described are more the combat or crowd-control variety. But assuming that a viable nonlethal alternative to the handgun could be developed, think of the benefits:

Gun advocates would be able to promote an alternative means of self-sefense lacking the dangerous downsides of handguns.

Gun control advocates could sleep soundly at night knowing that the new proliferation of weapons would help ensure that no one is going to get killed.

Yes, there would be risks. And there would definitely be potential for abuse. But a de-stigmatized, nonlethal alternative to the handgun could go along way toward making us safer from the bad guys and (if need be) ourselves.

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Item 3
New Service by TiVo Will Build Bridges From Internet to the TV

The Internet, in jumping past the personal computer and into the living room television set, is starting to give viewers the possibility of bypassing traditional cable and satellite services.

TiVo, the maker of a popular digital video recorder, plans to announce a new set of Internet-based services today that will further blur the line between programming delivered over traditional cable and satellite channels and content from the Internet. It is just one of a growing group of large and small companies that are looking at high-speed Internet to deliver video content to the living room.

The good news:

Stand-alone Internet devices have not been as successful as computers. Just as the Internet became an added function for computers in the early 90's, Internet on TV has a better chance of success as an added function to another device like TiVo or Playstation than as a stand-alone device such as WebTV.

This could prove to be the video version of iTunes. In addition to providing a much-needed legal aspect to the practice of downloading movies on the Internet, we suspect that the Tivo service will prove slightly more efficient than the alternatives. For example, it has been reported that Kazaa user spent nearly three weeks trying to download an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 before suffering some kind of breakdown — he referred to it as "having an epiphany."

He now lives on a communal farm in Oregan where he carves figurines from soap. Organic soap.

Further Good News:

More fun toys for all you video geeks out there.

How's that?

Okay..all us video geeks. Jeez, this whole "full disclosure" thing gets awfully tiresome.

The downside...

Bad news for anyone who happens to be married to a video geek and who doesn't share the passion. Sorry, folks. Maybe you'd like to take up a hobby. Soap carving, anyone?

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Item 4
Cell Repair Nanorobot Design And Simulation

A new Russian study by Svidinenko Yuri simulates cell-repair nanorobots. Yuri has generated several models based on the book Nanomedicine by Robert A. Freitas Jr.

The good news:

As we reported in Item 1, above, making repairs at the molecular level may very well be the key to fixing cancer (and, perhaps, aging). Nanomedicine advocates also believe that molecular repairs will be the solution to such diverse conditions as tooth decay and heart disease. Here's a picture of the doctor of the future:

The downside:

For now, alas, it is only an artist's conception. But stay tuned.

Obscure Reference that Shows our Age:

Cool! This is going to be just like Fantastic Voyage, only without the tiny Raquel Welch!

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Item 5
Speaking of Tiny Robots...

Eric Drexler, known as the father of nanotechnology, published a paper on Wednesday that admits that self-replicating machines are not vital for large-scale molecular manufacture, and that nanotechnology-based fabrication can be thoroughly non-biological and inherently safe.

Talk of runaway self-replicating machines, or “grey goo”, which he first cautioned against in his book Engines of Creation in 1986, has spurred fears that have long hampered rational public debate about nanotechnology. Writing in the Institute of Physics journal Nanotechnology, Drexler slays the myth that molecular manufacture must use dangerous self-replicating machines.

The good news:

...comes in two parts. First, it's good news that we can benefit from molecular manufacturing without the self-replicating assemblers that some skeptics still say are impossible or impractical (but see this recent study that indicates otherwise).

Second, the very fact that we can exploit the nanocosm without self-replicating assemblers will allow us all to give our “grey goo” worries a rest.

The downside:

Bill Joy and Prince Charles will no doubt find something new to worry about.

Anyway...

Publishing this paper is a stroke of genius on Drexler's part. Rather than continuing to argue about the feasibility of self-replication (in fact, the Foresight Institute has been talking in terms of non-self-replicating assemblers for some time now), he has made what is viewed as a concession, thus "changing the subject" in the ongoing dialog about nanotechnology. Instead of more coverage of grey goo and other nightmare scenarios, we might begin to see more serious coverage of this developing field in the mainstream media.

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Item 6
Genetic fingerprints will help extend life

A drop of blood from a thumbprick will be enough to test 10,000 elements of our health a decade or two from now, says a leading scientist.

A pioneer of the US biotechnology industry, Dr Leroy Hood, told the Bio 2004 conference in San Francisco yesterday that scientists would soon be able to spot the genetic fingerprints of most ailments by running that drop of blood through a computer.

Six-monthly genetic checkups would warn of the susceptibility to diseases such as heart disease, allowing people to take cholesterol-thinning pills and change their diet long before the at-risk age for heart attacks.

It would also catch cancer and other slow-growth diseases early enough to allow treatment.

"My prediction is that, if this comes through over the next 30 years or so, we will see an enormous elongation of perhaps 10 to 20 years in the productive lifespan of each individual," he said.

The good news:

Let's review. Cancer is now much more treatable than it used to be. New technologies may soon provide much more effective ways of addressing cancer at the molecular level. Those technologies are more likely to be developed now that an ongoing smear job against them has been discredited. And if none of that is enough for you, we now read that a drop of your blood may soon add 10 to 20 years to your life, independent of any of the above.

And that's just one day's worth of developments.

You know, we're actually starting to feel kinda sorry for the people who don't recognize that the world is getting better and better. What are they...delusional?

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Item 7
Earn Your PhD While Playing Games

Yes, it is possible to get a PhD while playing games, at least if you're studying at the University of Southern California. In "A PhD in Mortal Kombat" (free registration needed), the Los Angeles Times reports today that a "pioneering USC group tries to get into the heads of players to learn if the pastime harms or can help." The Annenberg Studies on Computer Games is a 20-person multidisciplinary group which studies "the impact of computer game-playing on individuals, groups, and society at large." The group wants to understand how some players become "addicted" to gaming. The students will also investigate why some gamers develop "anti-social" behavior while others see an improvement of their interpersonal skills.

The good news:

Academic credit for goofing off. It doesn't get any sweeter than that.

The downside:

We're guessing the hours we've already put into these games won't count toward "life experience" credit.

Anyway...

It's good fodder for Grumpy Old Man-style complaints.

"In my day, we didn't get school credit for playing com-puter games. We etched out our calculus assignments on tiny little slates with only piece of chalk to share among the whole class. And we liked it!"

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Special thanks to Kurzweil AI for making it so easy to find good news.

It's morning in America!


Posted by Phil at 05:27 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

June 09, 2004

Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004)

A great man died Saturday. Ronald Reagan was a champion of simple, powerful ideas. He believed that the purpose of government is to serve people, not people the government. He believed right makes might, and that evil brings weakness. He understood that communism was evil because it held people in captivity. These beliefs allowed him to see that the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse even as the State Department and the CIA argued otherwise.

He had a servant's heart. He understood that his position was not his to exploit – he refused to even take off his coat and tie in the Oval Office. Even in his decline, his wife Nancy sought to continue his service by raising awareness and funding for Alzheimer's research. Recently, Nancy bravely came out in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

When Reagan came to office many people felt that the best days for America were behind it. We were experiencing a new form of misery – economic stagnation with inflation. This prompted the creation of the "misery index" and a new word "stagflation."

Reagan had this bizarre idea that he could stimulate the economy by cutting taxes. It worked. And the government was rewarded with increased tax revenues as the economy improved.

On a personal note, much of my optimism about the future is due to Mr. Reagan. I would have been less likely to join with Phil in saying that things are getting "better all the time" were it not for the influence of this remarkable man during my formative years.

From Mr. Reagan's 1994 farewell letter:

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you."

May God bless Ronald Reagan.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:20 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 08, 2004

Pop Quiz!

What do regenerative braking, electrical outlets, fuel cells, and solar cells all have in common?

..................

Time's up! Put your pencils down. If you answered "these are all potential sources of electrical energy for powering a automobile," you're correct.

Two of these sources of electricity are insufficient on their own. The laws of physics (in particular entropy) tell us that no matter how efficient we make a regenerative braking system, we will never be able to produce all of a vehicle's energy requirements in this way. It's not so much a source of energy as a way to reclaim some of the energy that we used to lose entirely. Today regenerative braking is primarily used in hybrid cars – cars that still have an internal combustion engine.

Likewise, I don't expect to see solar energy become the primary way we power vehicles either. "On a bright, sunny day, the sun shines approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square meter of the planet's surface." At present we don't have solar cells efficient enough to capture anywhere close to 1,000 watts per square meter per day. Not all days are sunny, not everyone wants an all-black car (solar cells could be made different colors but would be less efficient), and I'm guessing that there aren't enough square meters on a car to power a reasonably sized vehicle. Still, why not use this as a secondary source of power as well? In fact, why not have electric cars that are powered by solar, regenerative braking, plugging in to an electric outlet, AND fuel cells?

The answer is the battery. The battery is the weak link in an electric car. They are expensive in many ways: they're heavy and so increase the power required to move the vehicle, they're costly to manufacture, they have to be replaced every two or three years, and they are not particularly kind to the environment in disposal. Batteries also have trouble storing enough energy to give an electric car a range competitive with internal combustion cars.

This is a big reason why there has been so much excitement about the possibility of fuel cells. A hydrogen fuel cell automobile is electric, but there is no requirement for a battery array.

The howstuffworks.com folks describe a fuel cell as follows:

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity and heat in the process. It is very much like a battery that can be recharged while you are drawing power from it. Instead of recharging using electricity, however, a fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen.

So my question is whether a fuel cell can hold electricity produced outside the cell – from sources other than hydrogen conversion. If so, what are the limits to this storage capacity? If fuel cells can be charged with outside power (and I don't see why not), and the storage capacity is significant, I would expect to see fuel cell cars with regenerative braking, solar cells, and even the ability to "plug in" to an electrical outlet.

All of these technologies involve costs and benefits. Different auto companies will, no doubt, weigh these technologies differently. Consumers could have many options in the coming decades.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:32 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

June 04, 2004

Better All The Time #12

You want good news? We've got optimistic Americans, tiny robots, aligning planets, and SUVs that will save the environment. Enjoy!

Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Most Americans Get It
  2. Mercy, Mercy Me, The Air Is Cleaner Than it Used To Be
  3. Yeah, Baby, She's Got It
  4. Old MacDonald had a Biopharm, FDA I Owe
  5. Gene Therapy Takes a Leap
  6. Nanobots are Coming to Town
  7. Winds of (Accelerating) Change

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Quote of the Day

The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance - the idea that anything is possible.

-Ray Bradbury

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Item 1
Glass Half Full for Most Americans


Americans are optimistic, "very satisfied with life" and have confidence in their public institutions, especially the U.S. armed forces and law-enforcement agencies, two new polls show.

Fifty-six percent of Americans say their personal situation has improved over the last five years, up seven points since last year, and 68 percent expect their personal situation to improve over the next five years, up five points from 2003, a Harris poll released yesterday found.

The good news:

Cynicism is self-defeating and is, frankly, un-American. We Americans are an optimistic people. We've always had hope that things are getting better all the time.

The downside:

Apparently 32% of us don't believe that our lives will improve in the next five years. Perhaps these people should start reading The Speculist!

Anyway...

The majority in this case is correct. Here's a quick example: Glenn Reynolds reports that there's good news on the employment front. For another example, see next item. (For further examples, just keep scrolling.)

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Item 2
North American Pollution Falls 10%

Pollution in North America fell 10 percent over three years...

The 10 percent drop occurred from 1998 to 2001, said the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a three-nation panel established by the United States, Canada and Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 2001, the latest year for which figures were available, the total amount of pollution released or transferred elsewhere in North America was 3.25 million tons, the commission said in a study. Of the total, nearly 1 million tons went to recycling operations and more than 600 thousand tons was sent to treatment, energy recovery or disposal facilities...

Chemical pollutants released into the air from all industrial sources decreased 18 percent over the three years, falling to 832,000 tons in 2001. But chemical pollutants from power plants fell only 9 percent, to 376,000 tons, the study said.

All but four of the top 50 air polluters in North America were coal-burning power plants.

The good news:

Everybody wants a cleaner environment.

The downside:

If you're an angry activist type, news like this kinda takes the wind out of your sails, doesn't it?

Anyway...

The nation that originated the environmental movement continues to show leadership in making and keeping the world cleaner. The article doesn't say whether we've made any progress on greenhouse emissions, but then again not everyone is agreed that such emsissions are truly to blame for the increase in global temperature.

Besides, the real solution to greenhouse emissions is SUVs. Big ones.

That might sound a little whacked, but bear with us.

Step 1: Hybrid gas-powered and hydraulic SUVs (and pickups) will become the next big thing in must-have vehicles. Unlike dorky-looking electric hybrids, these vehicles are big and powerful. Plus, the hydraulic booster can actually give you more torque and accleration than gas-powered vehicles alone. Moreover, the bigger they are, the better the hydraulics work. People will buy these vehicles primarily because they're cool and useful, with the environmental angle serving as a strong rationale for spending a little more.

Step 2: Once hybrids are established as THE thing to have, gas-hydrogen-hydraulic hybrids will be introduced. (We reported [item 5] the coming gas-hydrogen hybrids a while back.) The cool factor will be the determining factor once again. "Oh, you're still driving a non-hydrogen hybrid? Wow. I gues that's like really...retro..."

Step 3: Now that everyone is driving a huge monster truck or SUV that runs on hydrogen anyway, all we have to do is start swapping out the gas tanks and conversion units with fuel cells. Once again, it's all about having the latest and greatest. "Yeah, just got me a new F-950. Four tons. Man, can she haul. Pure hydrogen, too. What about you? Are you still burning gas in that old Hummer of yours?"

Answer: he won't be for long.

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Item 3
First Transit of Venus in 124 years is June 8

Astronomy enthusiasts everywhere will soon have the chance to see an event nobody alive has seen – the transit of Venus.

Venus will appear to drift across the face of the sun as it passes directly between it and the Earth for the first time since 1882. Such events help define Earth’s role in the cosmos, including the distance from it to the sun and stars, according to a news release from the Minnesota Planetarium.

The good news:

We need to celebrate these rare solar system events when they occur. Even with tremendous strides in life extension, we won't have a chance to see this again for 121 years or so!


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Item 4
Group: 'Biopharming' Industry Growing

Biotechnology companies are quietly pushing to splice more human genes into food crops after the practice was nearly abandoned last year, a Washington-based advocacy group says.

The news comes some 18 months after College Station,Texas-based Prodigene Inc. caused an uproar by accidentally mixing such crops with conventionally grown plants in Nebraska. At the time, giant food manufacturers called for tighter regulation of such experiments, and biotech titan Monsanto Co. announced it was pulling out of the field.

The number of federal regulatory approvals and applications for these outdoor plantings — often called "biopharming" because the idea is to lower drug-making costs by using plants as delivery agents — have nearly doubled in the last 12 months when compared to the previous year, according to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"The biopharming industry seems to be back in business," the group concludes in a report being released Wednesday that is based on publicly available U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The good news:

Reason once again triumphs over the superstitious dread that many seem to have about biotechnology. (We reported similar good news just a short while back.)

The downside:

It was a stupid and costly mistake that put biopharming into the position of having to start back up. We certainly hope that the lesson has been learned and that we won't see a repeat.

Anyway...

Can we hope that (some) lower-cost drugs are on the horizon? We can, indeed.

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Item 5
Researchers Report Major Advance in Gene Therapy Technique

[Researchers from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, the Waisman Center and Mirus Bio Corporation] have discovered a remarkably simple solution [to safely and effectively get therapeutic DNA inside cells]. They used a system that is virtually the same as administering an IV (intravenous injection) to inject genes and proteins into the limb veins of laboratory animals of varying sizes. The genetic material easily found its way to muscle cells, where it functioned as it should for an extended period of time...

In the experiments, the scientists did not use viruses to carry genes inside cells, a path many other groups have taken. Instead, they used “naked” DNA, an approach Wolff has pioneered. Naked DNA poses fewer immune issues because, unlike viruses, it does not contain a protein coat (hence the term “naked”), which means it cannot move freely from cell to cell and integrate into the chromosome. As a result, naked DNA does not cause antibody responses or genetic reactions that can render the procedure harmful.

-hat tip to Randall Parker

The good news:

We just love news like this. Can't you just see some grad-student hesitantly raising her hand in the middle of an interminable viral vector lecture to ask the stupid question, "Has anybody ever tried just injecting the DNA?"

The downside:

The only downside here is that they didn't think of it sooner.

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Item 6
Study: Self-Replicating Nanomachines Feasible

A useful self-replicating machine could be less complex than a Pentium IV chip, according to a new study (PDF, 1.73 MB) performed by General Dynamics for NASA.

General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems recently concluded a six-month study for NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts that examined the design of "kinematic cellular automata," a reconfigurable system of many identical modules. Through simulations, the researchers demonstrated the feasibility of this kind of self-replication, which could in a decade or more lead to the mass manufacture of molecularly precise robots, display monitors and integrated circuits that can be programmed in the field, the study said.

The good news:

Self-replicating molecular machines have the potential to bring unimaginable benefits to humankind. Eventually we may use them for projects as diverse as cleaning up the environment, eliminating poverty and hunger, and curing every known disease. Plus, since NASA is involved, it's only fair to mention that they might be the key to exploring the universe.

However, none of these awesome possibilities is news to a reader of The Speculist. This article is significant because in the longtsanding debate about whether such technology will ever exist, the "yes" crowd has just scored a substantial victory.

The downside:

On the heels of this announcement, we should start a countdown as to when a major national publication will express "grave concern" and raise the grey goo scenario or other hysterical (albeit sometimes entertaining) nonsense.

But fortunately...

The study also examined machine designs that would meet guidelines established by the California-based nanotech think-tank Foresight Institute to ensure the safety of self-replication techniques. The preliminary study is believed to be among the first U.S.-sponsored studies on self-replication in two decades.

"While self-replication is not necessary for achieving the goal of molecular manufacturing, it's good to see that these NASA-funded system designs are in compliance with the Foresight Guidelines safety recommendations," said Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute.

Okay? Everybody got that?

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Item 7
Winds of Discovery

The Winds of Change blog is beginning a monthly feature called Winds of Discovery that promises to take us "on a wild ride across the spectrum of science and discovery."

We intend to be regular readers.

Topics this week include: Sperm storage record broken; UK advances on embryonic stem cell research; Leroy Hood's latest venture; Search continues for Alzheimer's Disease cure; Nanotech turnaround?; The first nanochips; Metal rubber; Venus crosses the sun; Size of the universe; Birth of the sun; Space elevators; Lomborg thinks like Hitler?; Maunder minimum; Running out of oil?; Ban on trans-fats; Monsanto wins patent case; Dinosaurs fried within hours; Must we love cicadas?; Hippo sweat.

The amazing parallels:

"Hippo Sweat?" Hmm...seems we've heard about that somewhere before.

Anyway...

Congrats and best wishes to Glenn Halpern. Nothing could be more timely nor important than news on the amazing frontiers that science is opening up every day.

And on a selfish note, we're looking forward to finding lots of material to use here for Better All the Time!

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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Brought to you by the Speculist, where futurists, visionaries, and transhumanists "keep it real."

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June 03, 2004

A Life Extension Milestone

Anti-aging research is finally reaching an important threshold of mainstream credibility and respect. For years the field (if it could be called that) was left to nostrum peddlers. Now Fortune magazine has published an explanation of Dr. Aubrey de Grey's work (hat tip to Reason at FightAging.Org).

Also, Aubrey is taking over as editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research, formerly The Journal of Anti-Aging Medicine. Rejuvenation Research describes itself as:

an authoritative peer-review journal that publishes leading work on the implementation of rejuvenation therapies in the laboratory and eventually in the clinic, as well as basic research relevant to the further elucidation of what such therapies must do at the molecular and cellular level in order to be truly effective. Sociopolitical and ethical issues relating to substantial extension of healthy human life expectancy are also covered.

Another hat tip to FightAging.

So, congratulations to Aubrey, Reason, and all of us that would rather live long and healthy lives than deteriorate and die.

UPDATE: And don't miss Phil's interview with Aubrey!

UPDATE II: Randall Parker has much more.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:44 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 02, 2004

Planetary Accommodation Part 2

Previous posts on global warming (here, here at "Item 6," and here) have touched on reasons why panic might be premature. We don't know enough about how the Earth naturally stabilizes the climate.

When the earth grows too warm by way of increased emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (as, it appears, has happened in the last few years) it seems the Earth has mechanisms to deal with it.

Increased carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, leads to a greening of the world - particularly in the northern latitudes. Plants require carbon dioxide and thrive in its presence. The secondary effect of a world "greening" is ultimately, a lowering of global temperature. Greater plant life absorbs more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.

This mechanism has limits. If the Earth's temperature rose too high or too quickly to cause the beneficial "greening" effect, you might see a scorched planet instead of a greener planet. The loss of rainforests is a significant blow to the earth's ability to handle carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide isn't the only greenhouse gas we've been emitting.

Fortunately the earth has another mechanism for dealing with heat. Increased heat increases evaporation, which increases cloud cover. Clouds reflect more of the sun's heat and provide rain, which is of further benefit to the carbon-dioxide-absorbing plant life. Evidence that this mechanism is working came with the release last month of a study on earthshine. "Earthshine" (here's a picture) is the ghostly outline of light reflected from the Earth to the Moon and back again.

The new study, published in Science, was conducted by Enric Palle and colleagues at the Big Bear Solar Observatory in California and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. They report that the brightness of earthshine decreased steadily during the period 1984 to 2000, although that trend appears to have reversed since.

The decline suggests fewer clouds, which reflect sunlight, and therefore that more sunlight has been making it into the lower atmosphere (troposphere). That change is "consistent with the large tropospheric warming that has occurred over the most recent decades", they write.

Beside offering another explanation for increased temperatures other than greenhouse gases, the best part of this news is that Earthshine has increased since 2000. This suggests that cloud cover is returning and that we are in for cooler, rainier weather.

We know more about how a warm Earth cools than how a cold Earth heats up. In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson said (page 429):

If Earth did freeze over, then there is the very difficult question of how it ever got warm again. An icy planet should reflect so much heat that it would stay frozen forever.

Bryson suggests that we've been saved during previous ice ages by volcanoes pumping out heat and greenhouse gases.

UPDATE: This afternoon Reuters reports:

In an article in the science journal Nature, Norwegian researchers said they had found traces of thousands of hydrothermal vents in lava off Norway that could have been the source of a rise in greenhouse gases 55 million years ago.

Until now, scientists have been at a loss to explain the trigger for a 5-10 Celsius (10-20F) global warming over about 10,000 years in the Eocene -- a blink in geological time.

"We think that magma heated sediments containing organic material and led to an explosive release of gases," said Henrik Svensen, a researcher at the University of Oslo and main author of the article.

The scientists said the annual rate of modern human emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in the 1990s -- from fossil fuels burned in cars, factories and power plants -- was 35-360 times as fast as the pace of the Eocene gas buildup…

"We can cause the same amount of global warming ourselves in a few hundred years at current rates," Svensen said.

I just can't work up too much panic over this. We can't say with any degree of certainty what fuels we will use 25 years from now, much less what our fossil fuel consumption patterns will be over the next "few hundred years."

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June 01, 2004

North Again

I'm heading to Toronto on business early tomorrow and will only be blogging intermittently over the next few days (if at all). The latest chapter of Stillness isn't quite ready for prime time. It will go up either Friday or next Wednesday.

See you all in the very near future. Meanwhile...take it away, Stephen.

Posted by Phil at 10:48 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Better All The Time #11

The end of a three-day weekend can be a little depressing (for some), so it always helps to remember that the difficult "Monday" you face after such a weekend is really Tuesday. The next weekend is closer than you think!

For more good news, just keep reading.



Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Stem Cell Breakthrough
  2. Wouldn't Miss It for Anything
  3. Getting a Better Look at the Brain
  4. It's Going to Be a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad-Cow-Free World
  5. Martian Wake-up Call
  6. No One Can Eat Just One
  7. The Love Patent

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Quote of the Day

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

-- Joseph Campbell


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Item 1
German Doctors Say They Create New Stem-Cell Method


German scientists said Friday they had developed a "pioneering" method of extracting stem cells from the human body that could render obsolete the controversial practice of harvesting the cells from embryos.

Researchers at the Frauenhofer Institute and the University of Luebeck succeeded in extracting cells from human and rat glandular tissue that have similar properties to embryonic stem cells, the institute said in a statement. Researchers said they took cells from a 74-year-old person and a rat that were extremely stable, and easily multiplied them and conserved them by freezing.

The good news:

This is fantastic news.

Stem cell research has shown incredible promise for treating injuries, aging, and a variety of degenerative conditions. The potential benefits would be difficult to overstate. In a few years, when we're all living much longer, healthier lives, stem cell reserach will probably have a lot to do with it.

The current controversy surrounding stem cell research derives from the fact that a human embryo is destroyed in in the process of creating a stem cell line. As we have argued extensivley on this sight (look here and here and here for a few examples) the optimum solution to this problem would be to find a way to create new embryonic stem cells from mature cells. If embryonic stem cells (or, more accurately, cells that act just like them) could be produced from mature cells, the ethical concerns would disappear.

Now it looks as if a group of researchers have done exactly that.

If they really have done it, the current restrictions will soon be irrelevent, and we can all look forward to reaping the benefits of stem cell reserach that much sooner.

One note of caution:

A lot hinges on the statement that these cells have "similar properties" to embryonic stem cells. We'll be watching very carefully to see just how similar they really are.

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Item 2
Soldiers in Iraq See Texas Graduations

Victor Rogers' father was thousands of miles away in Iraq, but he was still able to see the 18-year-old graduate from high school Saturday. Several schools near Fort Hood worked with the Army post to broadcast this week's graduation ceremonies to soldiers in Iraq through the Internet and a live satellite hookup. Deployed parents also spoke with graduates in private video conferences.

The good news:

The death of distance continues. Serving one's country has always meant long separations from loved ones and often missing out on important milestones. But that's changing fast.

The downside:

A TV broadcast and videoconferencing are awkward subsititutes for being there for your kid's big day.

Anyway...

We'll see much more of this kind of thing in the future. After all, the technology is getting better all the time.

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Item 3
Doctors Peer Into Brains to Gauge Antidepressants

Aspect Medical Systems Inc. has developed a system based on the EEG, which records the firing of brain cells, blood flow and other activity, to gauge the effectiveness of antidepressants.

"You can see changes in the brain 48 hours after the patient takes the drug," said Andrew Leuchter, vice chairman at UCLA's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Leuchter, who has an advisory role at Aspect, said the monitoring device could cut 80 percent off the time it normally takes to do human clinical trials.

The good news:

The current methods for testing antidepressant effectiveness are intrusive, take a long time, and pose a number of health risks for patients. Plus they aren't very relaible. This development is very good news for those who suffer from depression, as well as those who care about them.

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Item 4
Mad Cow-Resistant Bovine Developed

Japanese and U.S. scientists have genetically engineered a bovine embryo that is resistant to the deadly mad cow disease and they plan to breed several of the cows to use them to make medicines to treat human diseases, an official said Monday.

The cows will not be bred to produce mad-cow-free meat. Instead, blood and milk extracted from them will be used in drugs to fight pneumonia, hepatitis C and rheumatic diseases such as arthritis, for the U.S. market by 2013, Nakano said.

The good news:

Mad cow disease is a formidable foe, but in the long run it it doesn't stand a chance against science.

The downside:

Unfortunately, these new mad-cow-resistant cows will not be a solution to the problem of tainted meat. As the linked article explains, meat from genetically engineered cattle is just too expensive a proposition to be practical.

At least for the present.

Anyway...

It's a step in the right direction. And while they're hard at work using the blood and milk of these cows to develop treatments for a variety of human diseases, maybe these scientists (or some of their colleagues) will look into developing a cure for mad cow disease. Just a thought.

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Item 5
Mars Rover Survives 'Deep Sleep' Mode

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity endured a martian winter night despite being put into a new energy-saving but risky "deep sleep" mode, a mission flight director said Friday.

The good news:

By saving energy, NASA will be able to lengthen the Opportunity's lifespan. The longer we have it, the more it can teach us.

More Good News:

With all the trouble that NASA has had with its Mars missions over the years, it's pretty good news when routine procedures are carried out as planned. But when they manage to do something that they've come right out and called "risky," it's time to start popping corks.

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Item 6
Healthy chip sales forecast

Global chip sales are likely to grow 28.4 percent to a record $213.6bn in 2004, boosted by strong demand for PCs, cellphones, DVD recorders and other electronics products, an industry group said on Tuesday.

The good news:

The forecast, if correct, is more than just good news for the folks who make and sell computer chips. Chip sales can serve as a pretty good economic barometer. Chips are like hot dog buns. If we read a report that shows that hot dog bun sales were at an all-time high over Memorial Day weekend, we can pretty much rest assured that it was also a good weekend for hot dogs and potato salad.

Likewise, if more chips are being sold, then more things that contain chips are being sold. So this is good news for the folks who make and sell PCs, cellphones, DVD recorders, and lots of other stuff — the fact that they're buying more chips indicates that they plan on selling more of the things they build.

Moreover:

This could be very good news for all of us, even those of us who don't benefit directly from the sale of chips or items that contain chips. After all, the forecast is predicated on the idea that we, the general public, will be buying more of these items in the near future. If the forecast is right, it means that we are not only going to have more money, we've also got some nifty new gadgets to look forward to.

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Item 7
EHarmony.com Patents Matchmaking Formula

Chemistry? Forget it. Psychology and statistics best determine whether two people will have a happy marriage. At least so claims an online dating service that's patented its matchmaking formula.

EHarmony.com Inc. this month received U.S. Patent No. 6,735,568, which describes a "method and system for identifying people who are likely to have a successful relationship."

The good news:

Love is a wonderful thing, and one of our favorite topics. According to the testimonial page, Eharmony.com's patented process seems to be doing an excellent job bringing people together. That's great!


On the other hand:

If compatibility can be reduced to a few hundred answers on a questionnaire, it won't be that difficult — in the near future — to program an artificial person to be your perfect significant other. Don't laugh. Researchers are already trying to figure out how to make computers that care about people. And we observed a while back that some people are apparently a lot more willing to have dalliances with virtual lovers than they would with the real thing. How much more alluring will be a piece of software with which one is likely to have a "successful relationship?"

What have these Eharmony.com people done? Here's hoping they guard their secret love formula very carefully.

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

Posted by Phil at 05:33 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Biggest Month Ever

In addition to providing an alternative to the often negatively-focused news presented in standard media channels, Better All the Time has provided another positive effect:

May was the biggest month in Speculist history! It shaped up as follows:

More than 15,000 unique visitors

More than 25,000 visits

More than 50,000 page views

While we're crunching numbers, we are also pleased to announce that we have passed the 100K mark for unique visitors, the 150K mark for visits, and the 300K mark for page views.

To paraphrase Sally Field, it would appear that you like us — you really like us. And we're grateful.

Thanks to all of you for reading, and to Glenn Reynolds for putting Better All the Time on the map.

Webstat pictures follow.


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