August 16, 2004

Success: Memes or Materials?

In the midst of a post about the battle in Najaf, blogger Wretchard made a remarkable statement:

Civilization does not principally consist of bricks and mortar, but in a set of commonly accepted values and restraints. If the inhabitants of the sub-Saharan Africa and the United States could be exchanged instanteously; the one materializing in suburban homes and the other in wattle huts, the material imbalance would be reversed again within ten years, because the technology and civilization of Americans is carried in their heads and not in their possessions. There would be nothing Americans could not rebuild in Africa; and there would be nothing Africans could repair or replace in America.

This is an interesting thought experiment. What would happen if we Americans magically switched places with the population of part of the third world? The speed at which we could get things "up and running" if we found ourselves in Arabia would depend I think on how we were dispersed. If we were still together as families, and communities were still roughly intact, we could be back up and going very quickly. If we were dispersed randomly – my next door neighbor on the opposite side of the country - my wife and kids who-knows-where – it would take much longer. The Herculean task of getting families reunited would be second in priority only to basic necessities.

Assuming though that communities were moved basically intact (as much as the new geography allows), what would be our priorities?

  • Basic necessities
  • Defense
  • Economy
  • Retaking of portions or all of our old homeland

…in that order. These tasks would overlap, but this would be the rough order of our priorities.

Those that would disagree with Wretchard's conclusion – that the material imbalance would be reversed again quickly – no doubt believe that much of our success is due to our national resources. We do have abundant resources, but success hardly requires it. Japan is a good example of success based upon people rather than resources. And the Arab countries give us some evidence that material resources can actually get in the way of advancement by empowering an elite ruling class.

Ralph Peters has said that "national success is eccentric. But national failure is programmed and predictable."

Even assuming that our population could never return home (that pesky magic again) we would find a way to succeed. It would be a much different country than we live in now, but we would create another eccentric success.

North America, on the other hand, would become the same economic and intellectual pit that Arabia is now. Peters' seven failure factors would travel with the population:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  2. The subjugation of women.
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion.
  6. A low valuation of education.
  7. Low prestige assigned to work.

Many Muslims seem to believe that we succeed in order to humilate them. That we might pursue happiness independent of our feelings of the Muslim world has apparently not occurred to them.

We succeed because we carry with us certain "commonly accepted values and restraints" that cull for success. A good example comes from one of our worst leaders – Nixon.

Nixon fought the release of his tapes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing Presidential privilege. The court's final decision was that such a privilege does exist, but found that Nixon's tapes fell within an exception to the privilege. In discussing his options with his attorneys it is said that Nixon was reminded that he had command of the military, and that the court has no army.

As weird and as corrupt as he was, Nixon didn't go there. His decision to dutifully obey the Court's order and turn over the incriminating tapes may have been the best and most important thing Nixon did as President. Whether he had a pardon deal with Ford or not, he still felt the "values and restraints" of our history.

Another Nixon anecdote: at some point after the crime one of the Watergate burglars, G. Gordon Liddy, reported that he went to the President and told him that he was Catholic and would, therefore, have to tell the truth if placed under oath and was also unable to commit suicide. He would, however, follow the President's order to be at a particular place at a particular time if need be. Nixon's response, according to Liddy, was "we'll not do that."

If this really happened like Liddy recounts, Nixon's response might have been closer to, "get out of my office you melodramatic kook." I guess we'll never know. Can you imagine this scene being repeated in Saddam's Iraq? "Why thank you Mr. Liddy. Does right now work for you?" BAMM!

RE COMMENTS: The spam in the comments has really gotten out of hand. If you'd like to comment to this post, please email me. If it's on topic and not spam, I'll reprint it here. Thanks.

COMMENTS:

Phil comments:

Very interesting. I have a feeling that it might take more than 10 years for America to get back on its feet if we were to be transplanted to such an environment -- not for lack of resources, but for lack of infrastructure. We're several generations in now on expecting clean water and electricity to be givens. Throw us into the wilds and the path from point A to point B might not be as easy as it once was.

I guess I'm saying we're spoiled. But we would turn it around in time.


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August 14, 2004

I'm Back

Spent Sunday afternoon through last night on the road (business) and found not one spare minute in all that time for blogging. It was pretty intense. Denver to Chicago to Toronto to New York to DC and then back to Denver. An all-day training session in every city (two in DC). Every flight was delayed. Plus I somehow had to do my regular job in spite of the fact that I was delivering training. Moroever, each city offered a unique opportunity to check in on projects that I normally have access to only over the phone. So I couldn't pass that up.

It was quite a week.

Anyhow, I'm back now and will resume blogging (I know I'm way behind on publishing chapters of Stillness, plus we need to get a new Better All the Time going) but first I need to clean out 458 porn spam messages.

Nothing says "welcome home" quite like those.

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August 13, 2004

Nanobotic Evolution

Kurzweil AI points to two stories this morning that are especially interesting when considered together:

Protein-Based Nanoactuators

Protein-based nanoactuators can now be controlled rapidly and reversibly by thermoelectric signals. In a living creature, contracting or relaxing of muscle tissue is carried out by motor proteins called actomyosin. Scientists designing nano-scale devices would naturally like to emulate the efficiency and compactness of the muscle-moving molecules. A key issue is the controlled rapid activation of the protein motors through simple means.

And that's what researchers at Florida State University have done. They have set up a flow cell in which motor molecules (which can remain viable for days when refrigerated) can be thermally activated into motion in a controllable and reversible way using only input wires which provide a controlled amount of heat.

And…

When Machines Breed

Paul Layzell is a specialist in the budding field of evolvable hardware. Simply put, he helps machines design themselves, using principles borrowed directly from biological evolution.

Layzell once used genetic algorithms to build an oscillator circuit. Some of the solutions were textbook, but one unusual run designed a circuit to take advantage of the radiated hum of the computer he was working on.

In other words, it cheated. The circuit had hacked the system by becoming a radio.

Evolutionary processes have been used in software design since the 1960s.

What is new, however, is the application of evolutionary processes in the hardware realm. Thanks to reconfigurable devices such as the field programmable gate array (FPGA) -- the microchip designer's equivalent of an Etch A Sketch -- and increasing computational power, researchers who once performed simulations of new circuits with an eye on the clock are suddenly free to let their designs evolve for a while just to see what happens. One might not be sure that one understands how a given circuit achieves what it is supposed to, but if it works, is that really a problem?

This is a huge paradigm shift. We don't have to understand our machines anymore. How long until some enterprising researcher programs a simulation of certain tools that we have at our disposal – protein-based nanoactuators could be one such tool – and then lets the computer evolve a plan for a self-assembling nanobot?

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Stem Cells – What's All The Fuss About?

If you are wondering how a subject as arcane as stem cells has become so politically energized in the last couple of weeks, make sure to catch the analysis over at FightAging.org:

1) The aim of stem cell research is to produce a biological repair kit, tools that will allow age- and illness-damaged tissue to be repaired or replaced. These tools, coupled with effective cancer therapies, will greatly extend our healthy life spans and bring cures for all the most common degenerative diseases.

2) It is probably the case that scientists would eventually make as much progress using only adult stem cells - several extra intervening steps would be required, but it is conceptually possible. It is widely agreed that progress towards a full biological repair kit would be much faster due to embryonic stem cell research.

3) Time matters a great deal. More than 100,000 lives are lost worldwide each and every day precisely because we don't have a biological repair kit complete with therapies for the most common age-related conditions.

Read the whole thing.

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August 11, 2004

UK Grants "License To Clone"


Spurred on by South Korea's achievement last February, today the United Kingdom granted a license to Newcastle University to clone a human being.

Researchers at Newcastle hope to extract embryonic stem cell from the clone and then create insulin-producing cells to be transplanted into diabetics.

"Therapeutic cloning will in the immediate future be a vital tool in harnessing the power of stem cells to treat some of the major diseases which threaten humankind," John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said after the license was announced. "This decision is a signal of our society's compassion and concern for those threatened by disease."
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I'm Too Sexy For My Name…

If you ever feel like a rat in a maze while cruising the Internet, you might be right. Amy Perfors of MIT experimented on Internet users at a website she called "Hot or Not."

She posted pictures of men and women along with a fake first name and asked users to rank their attractiveness.

She found that men labelled with names including “front vowels,” such as the “aaa” sound in Matt were rated as more attractive by website viewers than photos labeled with “back vowel” names, such as the “aw” sound in Paul. The opposite was true for women’s names.

Cool. St"eee"phen is a front vowel name. But why are front vowels more attractive?

Front vowels, those produced in the front of the mouth, are often perceived as smaller than back vowels, those produced in the back of the mouth.

It may seem counterintuitive that men named with the smaller-sounding front vowel are rated as more attractive. But other studies have shown that men with slightly feminine features are considered more desirable, says Perfors. “Maybe women are subconsciously looking for more sensitive or gentle men,” she says.

So, Stephen is a good name because it sounds small and sensitive. I'm not sure how to take that. Why don't I just start calling myself "Sue?"

…having too feminine a name could backfire for men – as those labelled with women’s names were rated least attractive. However, having a man’s name – such as Bob – had no negative effect on a woman’s attractiveness to website viewers.

A girl named Charlie is going to do better than the boy named Sue. That seems intuitive. But what if an attractive guy has an unattractive name? I've always thought that a charismatic attractive person could make any name work.

“An attractive person with a bad vowel name is still more attractive than an unattractive person with a good vowel name,” says Perfors.
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August 10, 2004

Hubble Has Lost UV

Although it isn't blind yet, Hubble has lost a significant instrument that allowed it to see the UV spectrum. The UV module - STIS - lasted two years longer than it was designed to. But it is a major loss because much of the UV spectrum is blocked by our atmosphere. Being able to see UV is a part of the justification for a space telescope.

A new spectrograph for Hubble called "the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph" is ready to be installed but has been mothballed along with the Shuttle fleet. This new spectrograph is ten times as sensitive as STIS was.

The primary science objectives of the [Cosmic Origins Spectrograph] are the study of the origins of large scale structure in the universe, the formation and evolution of galaxies, and the origin of stellar and planetary systems and the cold interstellar medium.

Last month we reported that an expert panel advised NASA to "take no actions that would preclude a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope." Whatever the risk/benefit analysis was then, one variable has changed. The scientific cost of not going just went up.

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August 06, 2004

The Council, #4

Patricia Bedford gasped for air. Her skin tingled. As the room re-solidified around her, someone grasped her shoulder. She looked up at the intruder.

“Here, you must drink this,” he said, forcing a small plastic pouch into her hand before turning to Randall Drayton and guiding him to a chair.

“I didn’t believe it,” Drayton said. “I didn’t think it was really possible!” He gulped the contents of his pouch. “Patricia, drink!”

Patricia sputtered in protest, but the man, whose name she didn’t even know, was guiding her hand to her mouth.

“It’s an electrolyte solution,” he explained. “It will help you adjust to the effects of teleporting."

“Teleporting?” What was he talking about? Patricia looked around. They were still standing in Dr. Drayton’s kitchen. There was the dinette with its faux granite surface, the rustic, white spindle-backed chairs, and the window where the bird had been sitting on the sill until the intruder startled it…

The window… It was hard to see through its thick, dark glass. Outside, a distorted, barren landscape stretched like a forgotten shoreline meeting a black sea of sky. A hand’s breadth above the horizon hung a blue-green, cloud-laced orb, huge and impossible to fathom, its lower hemisphere submerged in the bottomless darkness.

“Why don’t you sit down, Patricia?” the stranger said. “You’ll be more comfortable.”

Numb, Patricia reached for a chair that looked just like the one she’d used a few moments before. That chair was now almost 385,000 kilometers away. On Earth. She drank from the pouch. “Why? Why the moon?” she asked her captor when her tongue was clear of the salty, metallic-tasting gel. “Why recreate Dr. Drayton’s house?”

“I can’t tell you why we’re keeping you on the moon,” the man answered. “That wasn’t my call. As for the house, why not?” He spread his hands. “If I must keep you here, why not make the surroundings comfortable?” He looked toward the window. “Sorry about the view. Even we lack the resources to make the moon look like Dr. Drayton’s garden.”

“I don’t remember you,” Drayton said abruptly, pointing a long finger.

The man smiled. “We’ve never met. I know you only by your considerable reputation. I wasn’t even born when you went before the Council.”

Drayton squinted and pursed his lips. “Born? You were born into the Council?”

“Why do you find that odd?”

“I thought… I was under the misapprehension that…” Drayton’s voice trailed off.

The man pulled up a chair and sat down next to Drayton. “That to be a member of the Council, one must have participated in and survived the Regression of ’45?” He looked at the ceiling and laughed. “Even we have to reproduce. Did you think that we’re immortal?”

Drayton didn’t answer.

Do you think that the Council members are immortal?” he asked, more pointedly. “Not quite. We still have a few bugs to work out. Our gene pool could use a little refining, too.” He turned and smiled engagingly at Patricia. “Right, Dr. Bedford?”

Patricia averted her eyes. His were too intense. His mouth was too perfect and his cheekbones were too high and she was still getting her bearings.

“My name is Asimov Liu,” he said. “Does the name Asimov mean anything to you?”

Drayton chuckled dryly and clasped his hands around his knees. “A little quaint, don’t you think?”

“I think so too, but I had no choice in the matter.”

“What are you?” Drayton asked.

“What do think I am?”

“You are a genetically engineered, enhanced human,” Drayton said.

“I am.” Asimov said, leaning in toward Drayton. “You can spout those words, Dr. Drayton, but you have no idea what they really mean.”

Patricia wondered if she was imagining the bitterness in Asimov’s tone.

“I am a member of the Council because that is my design.” He shrugged. “I can take no credit for it. My specialty is, of course,” and he gave them a stiff smile, “robotics.”

Jim walked toward Asimov, although no one had commanded him to move.

“See? Jim is drawn to me.” Asimov tipped his head to Jim and the robot reciprocated. “Did you know that robots have body language?” Asimov reached for Jim’s data port. When he faced Drayton and Patricia again, his eyes were dark and stern. “I have brought you here for safekeeping until your hearing, Dr. Bedford. But my real concern is your robot. It is urgent that I bring Colter into custody. I must leave you in Jim’s care,” Asimov said.

Jim stepped away from Asimov and put his hands gently on Dr. Drayton’s shoulders.

"But, first, Dr. Bedford, I require your digipass,” Asimov said.

Patricia hesitated.

“Dr. Bedford, I know this is all very disconcerting. Custody implies safe-keeping, not merely arrest and confinement.”

“Are you asking me to trust you?” Patricia snapped, annoyed with herself as she handed the digipass to Asimov.

He brushed his fingertips over the digipass and then returned it to Patricia with a dazzling smile. “Trust me? Of course not.” His body began to slip into the fabric of the room. “Dr. Drayton, talk to her. She should know better than to trust anyone on the Council.” And Asimov disappeared.

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August 05, 2004

I Keep Going And Going….

Mobile phones, MP3 players and other small devices that are "wearable" might soon be powered by the human body.

researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) are working on a project to see how the body can generate electricity to run mobile devices.

…one of the ways to turn the human body into an energy generator is to fix some piezo-electric material, in this case ceramic, on the soles of a pair of shoes.

Wearing these shoes, they claim, will produce the electricity required for transferring data from one person to another via the skin, says Cheok.

For instance, a handshake can mean an automatic exchange of business cards electronically between the handheld computers of both persons.

Shades of The Matrix aside, this is pretty cool. For these small devices we might leapfrog fuel cells and go straight to personal power.

Via KurzweilAI
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August 04, 2004

In the Future -- Special Blogiversary* Edition

Let’s see . . .

Cake . . . Check!
Ice Cream . . . Check!
Balloons . . . Check!
Party Hats . . . Check!

Looks like we’re ready. “Happy Blogiversary !!”


Continue reading "In the Future -- Special Blogiversary* Edition"


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August 03, 2004

I.T. And Your M.D.

We are about to witness a new race in diagnostic testing. Two companies, Ciphergen and Correlogic, are championing similar but competing methods of testing blood proteins for cancer.

The first step is to use a mass spectrometer to identify a protein profile in the blood. The complex pattern produced by the spectrometer has until recently proved impractical for cancer diagnosis. There was just too much information to process. But now, both Ciphergen and Correlogic hope to extract useful information from this data by applying pattern recognition algorithms borrowed from AI research.

[The Correlogic test] correctly identified 50 out of 50 women with cancer and correctly scored negative for 63 out of 66 unaffected women. Later given the name OvaCheck, it promised to be the first blood test accurate enough to be used for general ovarian-cancer screening…

Meanwhile, Wright's group [Ciphergen] in Virginia was also pushing ahead. Using a different algorithm, Wright and Eastern Virginia molecular biologist John Semmes showed that a protein pattern could distinguish prostate cancer from a common noncancerous condition, benign prostatic hypertrophy, in 25 out of 30 cases. The PSA test [the current state of the art], by contrast, is unable to distinguish the two conditions.

The goal is early detection. If a routine blood test can diagnose cancer while it is in its earliest stages, cancer survival rates could skyrocket.

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August 02, 2004

The Story of a Rock

I don't know what's harder to believe — that these things make their way here (and somebody actually finds them), or that we're able to figure out so much about precisely where they came from.

The rock left the Moon no more than 340,000 years ago, carved out of the Imbrium Basin -- the right eye of the "Man in the Moon" -- by an asteroid impact. Lured by gravity, the fist-sized object arrived on Earth sometime within the past 9,700 years.

Gnos even thinks he might know the exact crater on the Moon from whence the rock came.

Reading this, I can't help but ponder the fact that that the planet we're on has also had it's share of meteor impacts over the years, including one that led to the end of the dinosaurs. What did we shoot out into space with those impacts? Just rocks? Is it possible that there are portions of tree trunks, dinosaur bones — maybe even a T. Rex carcass? — in orbit around the sun, just waiting for an eventual near encounter with one of the planets?

It's fun to consider.

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July 31, 2004

ITF #145

In the Future...

......sheep will learn to make rudimentary tools, and then we're screwed.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.

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July 30, 2004

The Council, Installment #3

The bird on Dr. Randall Drayton’s windowsill chirped in alarm and flapped out the open window. Patricia turned to see what had startled it.

The room seemed out of focus. She rubbed her eyes.

There was a man’s head in the middle of air in the kitchen. Patricia opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. A body followed, as if the man was stepping through a slit in the fabric of the room. Dressed in a long gray tunic and trousers, he was so tall that Patricia had to crane her neck to look up at him. His long, black hair was brushed off his high, golden forehead and tied back. Standing very still, he surveyed the room with large, dark, canted eyes.

Patricia struggled to make sense of him. The fact that he was Oriental tempted her to believe that he was real. She wouldn’t have been inventive enough to conjure him.

Randall gripped Patricia’s hands, staring at the intruder, but his gaze was fixed on the man’s chest and not his face.

Patricia saw it, then. The 3 Score and 10 logo was emblazoned on the front of the gray tunic.

“Dr. Drayton,” the man said in a voice that smoothed the ragged places in Patricia’s nerves, “for Dr. Bedford’s sake, please do not resist.”

Randall released his grip on Patricia’s hands. “You’re taking me?”

The man’s eyes narrowed, but his voice remained gentle. “Under the circumstances, you both require our protection until Dr. Bedford’s hearing.” He turned to Jim. “We’ll need to take your house robot, too.”

Jim blinked and then moved closer to Patricia and Randall.

“All of you, step this way,” the man said.

And Patricia felt a brief, weightless euphoria as the room disappeared.

*** *** ***

At the street level, humans clogged the walkways despite the efforts of civil officers and robots to direct traffic. They jostled and shoved Colter but he managed to make forward progress.

He felt a tug on his shirt and turned to see a female robot.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Colter tried to answer, but his programming blocked a response to the question. He stared into her large, blue eyes.

“You can’t pass through the Gauntlet,” she said, blocking his path.

Colter had no response. The word was not in his data banks.

“I know who you are,” the robot whispered. “They’re looking for you. I can help.”

“I must keep moving.”

“Yes, of course you must. But you’ll be intercepted.”

“I must--”

“You must beam with me.”

Colter felt her hands on his data port. He blinked as his buffers automatically prepared for the possibility of a power surge, and braced himself for a moment of disorientation. The ragged-scalped, hazel-eyed male robot staring back at him looked vaguely familiar, but he turned and slipped into the crowd before Colter could name him.

The urge to keep moving was strong, but the melee of pedestrians thickened, impeding his progress as he neared the train platform. His body felt light and quick, but his processors seemed sluggish, as if they were laboring through unfamiliar layers of programming. It wasn’t until he reached the train platform that he realized he was using some of his higher order functions.

It wasn’t until he submitted to the first security scan that he remembered what the Gauntlet was.

And it wasn’t until he cleared the scan and boarded the train that he realized his body proportions had changed.

Colter didn’t have time to examine himself; the passengers packed into the train, sweeping him along in a press of human bodies. The seats were all taken so Colter grabbed a hand bar. His unfamiliar body was squeezed between two men who locked eyes with each other and then gawked at Colter’s chest, grinning at him. He felt a weak response in some of his neural pathways, but the signal was confusing and illogical. He looked down.

He was wearing a blue blouse of soft fabric that crisscrossed between ... breasts.

Colter struggled to find a thread of logic and continuity. He didn't remember being female.

The train was moving slowly, well below its normal speed, and the passengers shouted their frustration. After a few minutes, it lurched to a halt.

“What the --” bellowed one of the men standing next to Colter. “This is no damn place to stop!”

The passengers gasped in unison as the interior lights flickered and died. Colter’s vision tracked a boarding troupe of officers and robots. In the murky darkness, the entourage turned their intimidating search beams on the passengers, scanning human retinas and robotic signatures.

Colter stood very still as a robot confronted him with the beam. A sluggish thought made its way to his consciousness. It tripped a flag, and like a train switching tracks, a safer thought popped up in its place. “I am late for an important function,” he said to the naked-faced robot, shifting his weight so that his hip jutted out at an awkward angle.

“Inconsequential,” The androgynous robot replied and then moved on.

The thought wormed its way up to through layers of Colter’s awareness again. “I must get through the Gauntlet,” he acknowledged. The command had no reference, but it was the number one priority at the moment. He queried his reference banks again. They were not in order. Especially disordered were the ones that identified him as Colter. “On the surface, I am Lyra,” he discovered.

Lyra. The female robot. He queried Lyra's function.

As if to answer, Lyra-on-the-surface smiled at the man next to her. The man stopped cursing and muttering, and straightened his clothes, smiling sheepishly back at her.

“I am Colter underneath,” Colter asserted. Deep inside, Colter observed Lyra and wondered if she was just as confused to be in his body.


Continue reading "The Council, Installment #3"


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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?


- - - - -

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


- - - - -


Quote of the Day I


We've discovered the secret of life.

-- Francis Crick

via BrainyQuote


Top

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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.

Top

- - - - -

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.

Top

- - - - -

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 (0) | TrackBack (1)


July 29, 2004

Francis Crick has Died

Dr. Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of the double-helix structure of DNA, has died at age 88.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


July 28, 2004

Still Number One!

For the past 10 months, Stillness has been the blogosphere's number one serialized novel of mystery, intrigue and suspense.

Here's what some of the readers are saying:


Continue reading "Still Number One!"


Posted by Phil at 07:32 PM | TrackBack (0)


Stillness, Chapter 43

Part IV

Chapter 43

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

It was a bit past two when we reached my shop. Reuben looked tired and discouraged.

As well he might be.

We departed Michel’s company about half way back from the town with the incomplete tower. Our paths branched at that point; I could make out a quicker route home than returning to his world. To tell you the truth, I kept seeing better approaches to where Monsieur was taking us throughout the morning. I would have had us there in half the time, sparing Reuben a fair amount of wear and tear.

But it isn’t good form to second-guess one’s navigator. Moreover, the Congrigatio being a concern which values and honors tradition above all, it is considered especially impudent to question the technique of one’s elders. And it doesn’t do to allow Michel to work himself into a snit. We had come dangerously close to that more than once as it was. It doesn’t help that he is rather a thin-skinned creature who thinks nothing of becoming enraged at the drop of un chapeau. Moreover, it was a classic confrontation: Michel’s refinement versus Reuben’s abruptness; the Frenchman’s arrogance versus the American’s puppy-dog sincerity.

To be honest, they both get on my nerves. Rather.


Continue reading "Stillness, Chapter 43"


Posted by Phil at 07:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


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.)

Posted by Phil at 02:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


July 27, 2004

Seven Questions with Major Robert Blackington, USAF

El Jefe Grande submits another in his infrequent but interesting dispatches, this time from somewhere in southeastern Colorado.

Recently I had the pleasure of lunch and a brief interview with Major Robert Blackington of the United States Air Force Space Warfare Center’s Space Battlelab. Major Blackington (who came to my attention by name via an article on MSNBC.com titled: “Airship groomed for flight to edge of space” – 21 May, 2004 by Alan Boyle) is the Battlelab’s program manager for its Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle (NSMV) initiative This initiative is aimed at examining the possible use of lighter-than-air craft (aerostats or airships, commonly known as blimps, dirigibles, and zeppelins), at altitudes above those commonly used by conventional (aerodynamic) aircraft, to answer some of the needs of air, sea, and ground commanders for what is termed “responsive spacelift” or the ability to place payloads, particularly sensors, in locations of advantage, beyond an opponent’s reach and / or having a superior field of view. Practically speaking, the Battlelab is working with John Powell and his associates at JP Aerospace on demonstrating that their “Ascender” ‘v-airship’ can “reach an altitude of 120,000 ft. with a 100 lb. payload, navigate 200 NM, loiter for 5 days, and safely return.”

Holder of a Master’s Degree in Economics from Rutgers University, Major Blackington’s 19-year Air Force career has covered each of the primary missions the service has tackled over time, from “steel-on-target” air-to-ground operations in the AC-130 gunship, to Special Operations transportation, aerial refueling, and logistics in the MC-130 “Combat Talon”, to Information Operations (which, the good Major has taught me, is a collective discipline encompassing such concepts as; computer network attack and defense [CAN/CND, what might be referred to in less serious circles as ‘cyberwarfare’] electronic warfare, psychological operations, military deception, operations security, physical attack, public affairs, and civil affairs.) [1] , to his current work developing space (and “near-space”) hardware and doctrine.

Given his breadth of experience and his current assignment, I found it unsurprising that he is, overall, optimistic about the future as you may see in his responses to the Speculist’s traditional Seven Questions:


Continue reading "Seven Questions with Major Robert Blackington, USAF"


Posted by Michael S. Sargent at 09:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


Frozen Ark

This is an excellent idea:

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.

This 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.

(via Kurzweil AI)

Posted by Phil at 04:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


Lung Cancer Gene?

Researchers may have isolated (or may be close to isolating) the gene that determines susceptibility to lung cancer:

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.

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.

Sure, 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.

Additionally, 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.

Hat tip: M104 member and co-blogger Kathy Hanson

Posted by Phil at 03:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)