July 30, 2004

Better All the Time #17

After this weeks festivities in Boston, whether you viewed them as a tremendous renewal of hope for our nation, a massive hot-air-athon, or an unwlecome disruption of your summer re-run viewing, what better wrap-up could there be than a little good news?


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Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day I
  1. Lung Cancer Gene Identified
  2. Raising Nicer Rats. And Monkeys. And Children.
  3. Richer All the Time
  4. Frozen Ark
  5. Stem Cell Therapy Even a Mother Could Love
  6. There's Never an Alien Around When You Need One
  7. IP Addresses for Everyone Everything!

    Quote of the Day II

    Update


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Quote of the Day I


We've discovered the secret of life.

-- Francis Crick

via BrainyQuote


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Item 1
Lung Cancer Gene Isolated?


The Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium (GELCC) examined 52 families who had at least three first-degree family members affected by lung, throat or laryngeal cancer. Of these 52 families, 36 had affected members in at least two generations. Using 392 known genetic markers, which are DNA sequences that are known to be common sites of genetic variation, the researchers generated and then compared the alleles (the different variations each gene can take) of all affected and non-affected family members who were willing to participate in the study.

The good news:

First off, this is good news because it should provide some additional impetus for some people not to smoke. As the article explains:

Another interesting discovery the team made involved the effects of smoking on cancer risk for carriers and non-carriers of the predicted familial lung cancer gene. They found that in non-carriers, the more they smoked, the greater their risk of cancer. In carriers, on the other hand, any amount of smoking increased lung cancer risk. These findings suggest that smoking even a small amount can lead to cancer for individuals with inherited susceptibility.

Of course...

Many will argue that you would have to be crazy to smoke, anyway. Maybe the knowledge that you carry this gene would be enough to scare a long-time smoker into quitting; maybe not. But you would really have to be crazy to know that you carry this gene and go ahead and start smoking anyway.

Anyway...

This news suggests a possible path to gene therapy treatments that could be used to prevent, maybe one day even cure, lung cancer. Great stuff.

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Item 2
Nature, Nurture, Tomato, Tomahto

Try connecting the dots between the these three pieces of news.

(1) From Tech Central Station

Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you'll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.

Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

(2) From NewScientist.com:

Good mothering can abolish the impact of a "bad" gene for aggression, suggests a new study, adding spice to the "nature-versus-nurture" controversy.

The new work, on rhesus monkeys, backs an earlier study in people which gave the same result.

(3) From Kurzweil AI:

Scientists have discovered that rat genes can be altered by the mother's behavior.

All newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene, they found. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.


The good news:

So it appears that good parenting is as important for monkeys as it is for humans. And if human physiology is similar to that of rats in this regard (which is a leap, of course) it's just possible that kids are better today because we've actually made them...better. Maybe they aren't just making better use of what nature gave them, maybe nature has — through the good offices of their parents — given them a little more to work with than the previous generation had.

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Item 3
The Rich Are Getting Richer, and the Poor Are Getting...Richer!

Without a doubt, there is some connection between economic and technological development. Technological development fuels productivity growth, which in turn drives economic growth. This raises an interesting question: is there an economic version of Moore's Law? How fast is our standard of living increasing? If Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974, is it fair to say that standard of living is doubling every 30 years? And if so, how does that rate of growth compared to what was experienced in years gone by?

The good news:

The article draws a link between increasing economic productivity, technological advancement, and improved standards of living. It seems that these three are related in a very positive way, which keeps pushing all of us towards better and better economic circumstances.

The downside:

As Stephen points out in the comments to the linked entry, although the wealthiest individuals may have vastly more material resources than the poorest, the difference between the two in terms of standard of living is getting smaller and smaller. It's so sad: being super-rich doesn't buy you the same gloating rights it used to.

Boo hoo.

Anyway...

The steady rise in the standard of living over time means most of us, inlcuding some of the poorest among us, richer than kings.

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Item 4
DNA Code Freeze

Britain's "Frozen Ark" project boarded its first endangered passengers on Monday: an Arabian oryx, a Socorro dove, a mountain chicken, a Banggai cardinal, a spotted sea horse, a British field cricket and Polynesian tree snails.

The "ark", a project by three British institutions, doesn't include any living animals, but hopes to collect frozen DNA and tissue specimens from thousands of endangered species.

Like Noah, the scientists harbour hopes of repopulating the Earth.

The good news:

Everybody complains about the loss of biodiversity through man-made extinctions, and now somebody is doing something about it.

The critical assumption:

The ark approach is similar to cryonics, but the aim is to preserve whole species rather than individual organisms. In both cases, it is assumed that the future holds the key to restoring that which we have lost (or in this case, are losing.)

This project assumes that, in the future, we will have the technology to restore these lost species, and to generate new populations of them. It also assumes that we will have — or have the ability to create — a suitable habitat for them. To support a project such as this may involve believing that the present is not all it should be, but one could not possibly get behind such an endeavor without believing that a better future is possible.

Prediction:

Most of us reading this will live to see the restoration of at least one "extinct" species of animal.


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Item 5
Fetuses Give Pregnant Women Stem Cell Therapy

Diana W. Bianchi, M.D. of the Tufts University Sackle School of Graduate Biomedical Research has found that cells from fetuses during pregnancy cross over into mothers and become a large assortment of types of specialized cells in the mothers and persist for years.

The good news:

This good news on a couple of fronts. First, it suggests a heretorfore unimagined health benefit associated with motherhood. What could be more deserved than that? Perhaps even more importantly, it suggests that we may have found a new source of fetal and embryonic stem cells, one that may be free of the controversey which has surrounded stem cell research up to this point.

As Randall Parker explains it:

My guess is that a large fraction of the hESC research opponents will decide that extraction of hESC from a mother's blood is morally acceptable. No fetus will be killed by the extraction. The cells so extracted are not cells that would go on to become a complete new human life. If a sizable portion of the religious hESC opponents can be satisfied by this approach for acquiring hESC then Bianchi's research may well lead to a method to get hESC that will open the gates to a much larger effort to develop therapies based on hESC.

On thing is for sure...

It will prove a lot easier to "win" the stem cell debate by coming up with a solution that both sides like than it would have been to get one side to agree that we should walk away, or the other side to agree that it's okay to kill an embryo. There's a lot to be said for the win-win scenario.


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Item 6
Close Encounter Soon?

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute is predicting "First Contact" with an alien civilization within a generation. To be specific the prediction is:

If intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, advances in computer processing power and radio telescope technology will ensure we detect their transmissions within two decades.

The good news:

If there's anybody out there, and these calculations based on the Drake Equation are correct, we should know about it in a fairly short period of time (relatively speaking. And if there isn't anyone out there, we will be more sure of that if we haven't heard anything within the next 20 years or so.

The downside:

The problem with Drake's equation (which Drake would certainly acknowledge) is that all variables are unknown. We can make educated guesses, but we can't know with any degree of certainty as long as our sample size for known civilizations is one.

Anyway...

Drake's equation has always been better for providing a framework for speculation than for proving anything. But Shostak has expanded Drakes' framework and has given SETI a goal.

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Item 7
The Gift of Understatement

Paul Hsieh on the new version six of the Internet Protocol:

The new IPv6 internet naming and number protocol will make it possible for every person (or device) on Earth to have their own IP address.

The Good News:

Every person or device on Earth? Well, er, yeah...and then some. The linked article repeats the same modest claim before getting to heart of the matter:

Vinton Cerf of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) said the next-generation protocol, IPv6, had been added to its root server systems, making it possible for every person or device to have an Internet protocol address.

Cerf said about two-thirds of the 4.3 billion Internet addresses currently available were used up, adding that IPv6 could magnify capacity by some "25,000 trillion trillion times."

The Good News Amplified:

Our friend Alex Lightman gave a talk a while back that touched on a number of interesting topics, one of which was the introduction of IPv6. He estimates that IPv6 will provide enough IP addresses so that every atom in the known universe can have one.

Now that oughta hold us for a while.

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Quote of the Day II

Watching science catch up to science fiction. Portable computers, Star Trek communicators, all that stuff has actually happened and there’s more on the way.

-- Major Robert Blackington, USAF, on what's best about living in the future.


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UPDATE
It's Official

SpaceShipOne will fly September 29, 2004, making the first of its two qualifying flights required to win the X Prize.

We'll be there. (Virtually, of course.)

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For more good stuff, don't miss the latest Winds of Discovery.

Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster, Stephen Gordon, Kathy Hanson, and Michael "El Jefe Grande" Sargent. Live to see it!

Posted by Phil at 08:45 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 13, 2004

Better All The Time #16


There are so many exciting developments taking place every week that it's sometimes hard to narrow them down to seven. We'd like to think that the following items are a representative sample, but failing that, they're at least a good start.




Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. More Hardware from Veggies
  2. Stem Cells Grow Up
  3. Hope for Hubble
  4. Now All We Need is a Tiny, Portable Sofa
  5. Bug-Proof Duds
  6. Stoneage Sistine Chapel Discovered
  7. Is This Really "Good" News?

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Quote of the Day

Only those who will risk going too far, can possibly find out how far they can go

-- T. S. Eliot


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Item 1
You Call it Corn, We Call it Optical Disks

In September 2003, Sanyo Electric introduced the concept of a new optical disc, dubbed 'MildDisc' and based on poly lactid acid produced from corn. These discs will have a lifetime of 50 to 100 years and are biodegradable.

The good news:

A CD made from corn? What could be better for running on your spinach-powered laptop? We live in amazing times.

The downside:

The disks have been delayed coming to market. Apparently they do not do well with high temperatures. (Is it possible that their failure is accompanied by a loud popping sound?)

Anyway...

Roland Piquepaille comments on the production of the disks:

[H]ere are interesting numbers. Sanyo said that an ear of corn would be enough to deliver 10 discs. There are about 9 billions of CDs produced annually, and the yearly world corn production is estimated to be around 600 million tons. So only 0.1 percent of the world corn's production would be enough to satisfy the worldwide disc market, according to the company.

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Item 2
If I Only Had a Heart, the Nerve, some...Teeth


Our good friend Randall Parker, the FuturePundit himself, has run a series of stories over the past week about major breakthroughs in the use of adult stem cells:

Helmut Drexler of University of Freiburg, Germany and his colleagues treated sufferers of acute myocardial infarctions (i.e. heart attacks) with bone marrow stem cells and found that the bone marrow stem cells boosted the volume of blood pumped by the left ventricle of the heart.

...

Better Humans reports on research by Siddharthan Chandran of the University of Cambridge, UK Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair on the use of a mix of growth factors to successfully turn skin cells into neural stem cells.

...

Working with freshly extracted human third molars (wisdom teeth) scientists have been able to isolate stem cells that can turn into the ligament that hold teeth into place.

The good news:

Adult stem cells are the often-ignored older siblings of embryonic stem cells, which hold so much promise and which are surrounded by so much controversey. The conventional wisdom is that embryonic stem cells are more or less "universal assemblers" capable of replenishing or creating anew virutally any cell in the body, where adult stem cells are much less flexible, having only one direction that they can grow. The second item cited above, which describes adult skin cells being converted to neural stem cells, would appear to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom. We may yet see universal cell assemblers grown from adult cells. And even if we don't, it seems that new applications for adult stem cells are being found all the time — which is tremendous news in its own right.

The downside:

Randall explains:

In the United States the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is throwing up roadblocks even for adult stem cell therapy. The FDA's stance has nothing to do with the debate about embryonic stem cells. Rather, it is part of the FDA's never-ending quest to protect people with fatal diseases from the risk that experimental therapies might harm them. In my view people with fatal diseases ought to be allowed to try experimental therapies and the FDA's position both slows the rate at which treatments are developed and unjustifiably takes away the individual's right to choose which treatment risks are worth taking.

Hear, hear.

Anyway...

It's encouraging to see that progress is being made in so many different areas at once. We can expect to hear a lot more about adult stem cell therapy in the months and years to come.

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Item 3
Keep Hubble Repair Options Open - Experts

NASA should not rule out sending a shuttle to fix the aging Hubble Space Telescope, an expert panel told the space agency on Tuesday, six months after a planned repair mission was dismissed as too risky.

The good news:

We are big believers that the Hubble telescope, which has opened the eyes of the world to a universe we could scarcely have imagined, is worth saving. It's gratifying to see NASA coming to the same conclusion.

Anyway:

In a week in which the Cassini probe has survived being peppered by ring chunks, and speculation is increasing about passengers on SpaceShipOne, we didn't want to miss this very positive development.

Obscure Blogosphere Reference:

James Taranto would have headlined this piece as follows:

What Would the Hubble Telescope Do Without Experts?

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Item 4
New Portable Multimedia Entertainment Devices Head for Stores

Get ready to feel obsolete with your iPod. Portable media players will be available within weeks, and they store and play not only music, but movies, recorded TV shows, and photo slide shows.

The good news:

These gadgets can be configured with up to 40 GB of storage, "enough to store every episode of The Simpsons." Kawabunga, Dude!

The downside:

The screen sizes are 3.5 and 3.8 inches, which might prove to be a bit of a strain for tired old eyes. Also, at an estimated street price of $500, they are a smidge more expensive than an iPod.

On the other hand...

It's 1984.

The phone rings, and you answer it. It's you, calling from the future:

"Hey, Me-From-20-Years-Ago. How's it going?"

"Okay. How about with you, Me-From-20-Years-Ahead?"

"Great! You'll never guess what I just bought."

"Tell me."

"Well, it's a portable combination TV, VCR, stereo."

"Portable? What does it use, tiny little tapes?"

"No tapes. It stores everything in computer memory."

"No kidding. Can it hold as much as a six-hour extended play vhs tape?"

"It can hold hundreds of hours of video and music."

"Whoah. So you say it's portable. What does it weigh, 15-20 pounds?"

"It weighs about the same as your beloved Sony Walkman. And it's just a little bigger than the Walkman. You could carry it in your coat pocket if you wanted to."

"I don't believe it! How much did it cost?"

"Guess."

"Well, let's see. I just bought some stuff. My TV cost me about $500. My VCR was about $200. My stereo was about $300. That's $1,000 in 1984 money. I'm thinking the device you're talking about must have set you back a good $10,000. What, are we like rich in the future?"

"Gotta go. See you in 20!"

"But, wait I want to know —"

[Click]

So you see, "expensive" is a relative notion.


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Item 5
West Nile fears boost protective clothing sales

Recently, the battle of man vs. insect has spawned a new tool: clothes that appear normal in every way, except for their built-in repellent that keeps bugs at bay.

"This is the first new development in personal insect protection since DEET," says Haynes Griffin, CEO of Buzz Off Insect Shield of Greensboro, N.C. DEET is the active ingredient in most tick and insect repellents.

The active ingredient in Buzz Off clothing is permethrin, a synthetic version of pyrethrum, a natural insect repellent derived from the daisy-like flowers of a plant in the chrysanthemum family.

The good news:

You might be wondering just how effective these bug-proof clothes really are. It seems that West Point Academy has reported a reduction in the incidence of Lyme disease from 10 cases to zero one year after switching to field uniforms made from the fabric.

That's pretty impressive.

The downside:

In the long run, insect-proof clothes are probably bad news for, say, the people who make Off.

Anyway...

The Better All The Time Wardrobe grows. Insect-proof clothes now join power-generating clothes, self-cleaning clothes, and bullet-proof shirts.

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Item 6

A Stoneage Sistine Chapel

An elaborately decorated cave ceiling with artwork dating to 13,000 years ago has been found in Nottinghamshire, England, according to a press release issued today by the University of Sheffield.

The site of the find, Church Hole Cave at Creswell Crags, is being called the "Sistine Chapel" of the Ice Age because it contains the most ornate cave art ceiling in the world. The ceiling extends the earliest rock art in Britain by approximately 8,000 years and suggests that a primary culture unified Europeans during the Ice Age.

The good news:

The fact that this important find is just now being discovered in a well-known cave is evidence of how much we still can still learn from known archeological sites.

The scope of the discovery:

Jon Humble, inspector of ancient monuments for a preservation group called English Heritage, commented, "The text books say that there is no cave art in Britain. These will now have to be rewritten. It is remarkable to consider that some 500 generations ago people created pictures on the wall of the caves depicting the world that they knew, which certainly was not as we know it."

Moreover...

It seems we know less than we think we do about the world we live in. There's more to learn, folks.

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Item 7
Extended Life For Baby Boomers!

In a radio interview, famous futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that health conscious baby boomers have a good shot of living long enough to benefit from life extension technologies - to bootstrap into indefinite lifespans.

On "Living Forever," Kurzweil discussed how to dramatically slow down the aging process, even stop and reverse it, and the social and cultural ramifications. He also described his forthcoming book, "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever," co-authored with Terry Grossman, M.D.

"The book makes the scientific case that immortality is within our grasp," says Kurzweil. "Our health program enables people to slow aging and disease processes to such a degree that we can remain in good health and spirits until the more radical life-extending and life-enhancing technologies, now in the research and testing pipeline, become available.

Here's an real audio link to the interview.


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


Posted by Phil at 07:52 AM | Comments (18) | 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.

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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)

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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!


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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 01, 2004

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

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 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

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

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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

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 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!

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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?

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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

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

- - - - -

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

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

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.


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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

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.

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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.

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