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Better All The Time #20

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


A question we're often asked — how can the world possibly be "getting better" when the bad news consistently outweighs the good? This is a common misunderstanding. The reality is that good news so far outweighs bad that the former isn't considered noteworthy. A high school student robs a convenience store. Meanwhile, at the school a few blocks away, 400 of his peers are recognized for their academic achievements in an Honors Night ceremony. Which of those two stories would be considered noteworthy? Which would be picked up by the local media? Even if some enlightened media outlet treated the stories equally (which would be a stretch), they aren't equal. The good news is 400 times greater than the bad.

That might not be a bad ratio to work with. Better All The Time isn't about donning rose-colored glasses and pretending that serious problems don't exist. It's about remembering, if only for a moment, that the problems aren't the whole picture, and that — every day, for every problem that we are forced to contemplate — hundreds of positive developments go unheralded. Usually even unnoticed.

So here, for your edification and enjoyment, are ten news stories that show how the future might be better. Each one reflects a development so positive that even the mainstream media couldn't pass it up.

Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Let the Robot Do It
  2. Democracy in Space
  3. Death to Take a Dive?
  4. Gadget-Busting Gadgets
  5. A Tasty Slice of Pi
  6. Turning Cancer Off
  7. Portable Library of Congress
  8. More Chances to Win Big!
  9. Mars the Fast Way
  10. Alien Fish Neutralized

Quote of the Day

We can no longer pretend that we know so little about how to cure aging that the timing of this advance will be determined overwhelmingly by future serendipitous discoveries: we are in the home straight already.

-- Aubrey de Grey

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Item 1
U.N. Sees Coming Surge in Domestic Robots

GENEVA — The use of robots around the home to mow lawns, vacuum floors, pull guard duty and perform other chores is set to surge sevenfold by 2007, says a new U.N. survey, which credits dropping prices for the robot boom.

By the end of 2007, some 4.1 million domestic robots will likely be in use, the study says. Vacuum cleaners will still make up the majority, but sales of window-washing and pool-cleaning robots are also set to take off, it predicts.

The good news:

Very soon we'll have robots to perform all or most of our household tasks, freeing us to do more work or spend more time on leisure activities. We are really going to come to appreciate these efficient, tireless helpers.

With that in mind:

This announcement would appear to be very much in order:

Five robots from science and science fiction, representing the highest accomplishments in robotic achievement and creativity were inducted into Carnegie Mellon University's Robot Hall of Fame: ASIMO, ASTRO BOY, C-3PO, Shakey, and Robby, the Robot.

Representatives of each robot accepted the honors on behalf of the inductees before an appreciative audience of scientists, researchers, admirers, and friends. The Robot Hall of Fame is an educational outreach activity of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science, in partnership with the Robotics Institute and the Entertainment Technology Center.


If robot household servants become commonplace, can flying cars be far behind?

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Item 2
Astronaut to e-Vote from Space

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) -- The space station's newest astronaut will cast his ballot in the presidential election from 225 miles (360 kilometers) up, with NASA's help.

Leroy Chiao said Monday that the space agency has worked hard with local and federal authorities to make it possible for him to vote from the orbiting complex, his home until spring.

The good news:

One more normal everyday activity gets added to the list of confirmed activites which have taken place in space.

The downside:

This is very bad news indeed for Darth Vader, the Emperor Ming, and any other galactic overlord hoping to hedge off the advance of democracy into the final frontier.


Remember the great Space Race of the 20th century, the one that pitted the USA against the Soviet Union? It wasn't just a race to the moon, it was a contest of the viability of capitalism vs. communism, of freedom vs. oppression. Although that race is long over, the triumph of SpaceShipOne earlier this month was heralded as a reminder of our victory. Astronaut Chiao's vote is another excellent reminder of the same.

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Item 3
The Conquest of Death

The Immortality Institute has published its first book, “The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans.”

About the Book:

The book is a collection of essays divided into two parts: Science and Perspectives. The Science half of the book is written by scientists well-known to life extension enthusiasts: Aubrey de Grey, Michael West, Robert Freitas, Ray Kurzweil, and Marvin Minsky to name a few. These authors work in different fields but share a vision of a future where degenerative aging is a choice - and a rather unpopular choice. For most of these scientists, it‘s not so much a question of "if," but "when." As we quoted above:

We can no longer pretend that we know so little about how to cure aging that the timing of this advance will be determined overwhelmingly by future serendipitous discoveries: we are in the home straight already.

-Aubrey de Grey

The Issues:

While the authors of the Science section outline potential paths to the goal, the Perspective authors ask whether the goal is worthy. Will we be plagued by overpopulation or lethargy if death is removed from the picture?

The objections [to eternal youth] can be divided into two different categories: practical and philosophical. Practical worries might include: the population problem, the problem of scarce resources and environmental pollution, eternal youth that is only available to the wealthy, the accumulation of too much wealth and power by an elite group of immortals…

A philosophical objection to life extension is the worry that the longer we lived, the less we would value our time. After all, a basic economic principle is that the value of a resource tends to increase the more scarce it is. Would we somehow value each moment less if we lived longer? Another worry that people may have is that a desire for life extension is somehow selfish. Perhaps budding immortals would become really self-centered and narcissistic?

-Marc Geddes

To its credit the Immortality Institute allowed debate on these issues. Several of the Perspective essayists are quite critical of the goal of life extension. But if the authors of the Science portion the book are correct that radical life extension is coming, any philosophical arguments against life extension will ring hollow when it arrives. The Perspectives section is of greater value when it debates how to adapt our society to life extension, rather than whether we should pursue it. The publication of this book is certainly a landmark for the Immortality Institute. The Institute should be proud of this accomplishment. More importantly, this book is a milestone in the quest for life extension. The depth of the bench here, the willingness of respected scientists to contribute to such a book, is an important development. These contributors and others that follow can now investigate the possibility of radical life extension without the fear of being thought unserious. This alone could make all the difference.


“The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans,” will be available within the next couple of weeks at Amazon.com. Click here for the Table of Contents, introductions for both the Science and Perspective portions of the book, biographical sketches of the authors, and additional resources.

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Item 4
Gadget-Busting Gadgets

The BBC reports:

The infuriating ring of someone else's mobile blights many a night out at the cinema or theatre. France has decided to jam phone signals to allow audiences to enjoy shows in silence - could the UK follow suit?

A Model of Blue Gene

The good news:

Technology giveth and — in this case — taketh away, annoyance.

More Good News:

Jamming cell phones is just the beginning. What about those annoying TVs blaring away in public places even though no one is watching them?

Altman's key-chain fob was a TV-B-Gone, a new universal remote that turns off almost any television. The device, which looks like an automobile remote, has just one button. When activated, it spends over a minute flashing out 209 different codes to turn off televisions, the most popular brands first.

For Altman, founder of Silicon Valley data-storage maker 3ware, the TV-B-Gone is all about freeing people from the attention-sapping hold of omnipresent television programming. The device is also providing hours of entertainment for its inventor.

And so...

The interminible wait in the airport boarding lounge may not get any shorter, but it just might get quieter.

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Item 5
Amazing Numbers

Mathematician Steven Pincus has made some interesting discoveries when looking at the randomness of the first 280,000 digits of Pi, the square root of 2, and several other irrational numbers. It turns out that some of these numbers have higher levels of entropy (randomness) than others. When Pincus started looking for the same characteristic of entropy in real-world strings of numbers, such as you might get from tracking, say, the stock market, he discovered that the stock market hits its highest level of entropy right before a crash.

The good news:

We're always looking for ways to better understand the workings of the financial markets. Pincus observes that entropy

appears to be a potentially useful marker of system stability, with rapid increases possibly foreshadowing significant changes in a financial variable.

He goes on to conclude:

Independent of whether one chooses technical analysis, fundamental analysis, or model building, a technology to directly quantify subtle changes in serial structure has considerable real-world utility, allowing an edge to be gained... And this applies whether the market is driven by earnings or by perceptions, for both sort- and long-term investments.

The downside:

Expect to hear a lot more about entropy and financial markets in the near future. Along with legitimate analysis, a good deal of mathematical snake oil will no doubt be pushed.


Number are interesting, aren't they?

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Item 6
Gene Switch Can 'Turn off Cancer'

Scientists have shown they can turn off a cancer-causing gene in mice, offering hope of new treatments for cancer patients.

The Stanford University team used a common antibiotic to turn off a gene called Myc, which is known to trigger cancer.

Mice remained cancer free for as long as they took the drug. The drug also turned cancer cells back to normal.

The Good News:

That part about turning cancer cells back to normal is especially exciting. And it is worth noting that this research, which had its focus on liver cancer, may have some positive implications for the treatment of breast, bowel, and prostate cancer, all of which originate in the epithelial cells.

Some of the "normal" cells turned back to a cancerous state after the antibiotic treatment was stopped. This may help to account for the return of cancer which often occurs to those who have received chemotherapy.

Dr Elaine Vickers, science information officer for Cancer Research UK, said: "The Myc gene is known to be overactive in many types of cancer.

"Estimates suggest that the gene may contribute to as many as one in seven cancer deaths.

So we may could be looking at potential treatments that will help one in seven cancer patients. Very encouraging, indeed.

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Item 7
The Ultimate Portable Library

Universal access to all human knowledge could be had for around $260m, a conference about the web's future has been told.

The idea of access for all was put forward by visionary Brewster Kahle, who suggested starting by digitally scanning all 26 million books in the US Library of Congress.

The good news:

This is a tremendous idea; and the cost of doing it is only going to go down. The initial scanning work is the only part of the plan that's likely to present much of an expense factor. According to Moore's Law, that $60,000 price tag for storage should be somewhere around $2,000 eight years from now. If the estimate for the robot scanner is accurate, and it follows a less robust drop in price — say halving once every four years — we would be looking at a price tag of around $65 million in the same period of time. Sounds pretty doable.


By 2018, the storage for a copy of the entire Library of Congress online will cost less than $1000; even the cost of creating the archive would be $15 million or less. We could put the entire Library of Congress in every school in America.

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Item 8
New X Prize Sets Sights on Science, Technology and Social Solutions

The X Prize Foundation and the World Technology Network announced today the formation of a joint venture to launch a series of technology incentive prizes to help spur innovation and breakthroughs in a range of scientific arenas.

The creation of new X Prize awards follows the success of the twin SpaceShipOne flights that snagged the $10 million Ansari X Prize purse. However, these are focused on other arenas, such as medicine, environment, energy, nanotechnology, and informatics.

The Good News:

Of course, there have always been rich financial rewards associated with helping to bring about the next stage of technological development. But there does seem to be something especially effective about putting a prize in place and encouraging teams to try to be the first to achieve some milestone. As we saw in the example set by the X Prize, there are no losers. Even the teams who don't win the prize stand to reap substantial rewards.

Talk about a win-win.

Get in on the Act:

Bloggers are collecting suggestions on the kinds of accomplishments these prizes may be used to recognize. Got a good idea? Suggest it!

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Item 9
New Propulsion Concept Could Make 90-day Mars Round Trip Possible

A new means of propelling spacecraft being developed at the University of Washington could dramatically cut the time needed for astronauts to travel to and from Mars and could make humans a permanent fixture in space.

In fact, with magnetized-beam plasma propulsion, or mag-beam, quick trips to distant parts of the solar system could become routine, said Robert Winglee, a UW Earth and space sciences professor who is leading the project.

Currently, using conventional technology and adjusting for the orbits of both the Earth and Mars around the sun, it would take astronauts about 2.5 years to travel to Mars, conduct their scientific mission and return.

"We're trying to get to Mars and back in 90 days," Winglee said. "Our philosophy is that, if it's going to take two-and-a-half years, the chances of a successful mission are pretty low."

The good news:

The team that came up with this innovative idea received a paltry $75,000 in funding from NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts. The idea is to push a spaceship equipped with a sail with a mag-beam shot from a space station. This would, in theory, be able to propel the ship to incredible velocities – 26,000 miles per hour. At that speed a trip to Mars would take about 80 days. However, designer Robert Winglee thinks he can do better even than that, with the 90-day round-trip as his goal.

Where might this lead?

Magnetic beam stations could eventually provide a system of highways between the solar system, allowing high-speed travel between the planets and eventual settlements in the asteroid belt.


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Item 10
No More Alien Snakeheads Found in Chicago Harbor

CHICAGO - An anxious search yesterday of a Chicago harbor turned up no more northern snakeheads, a voracious alien fish that can devastate freshwater ecosystems by gobbling up food and native fish.

"This is a good sign that we didn't catch any," said Philip Willink, a fish biologist with Chicago's Field Museum who checked six traps and nets in Burnham Harbor.

The good news:

Chicago fisheries are safe from a disruptive, potentially dangerous predator.

The real reason we ran this story:

Come on, who are we kidding? Alien snakeheads. Awesome!


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

For more good news, try the Good News Broadcast. And there's always Good News Saturdays on Winds of Change. Plus, don't miss the latest round-up of positive developments in Afghanistan by Arthur Chrenkoff. Moreover, if you're tired of just reading the good news, and feel like you're ready to help make some, here's your big chance.

Live to see it!


Test. Just trying to figure out why this entry cuts off at the wrong place.

On Item 8:

There are many contests that could be set up involving carbon nanotubes. Prizes could be awarded for any of the following:

1. For the first logic circuit constructed entirely from carbon nanotubes to do some prescribed mathematical chore like calculate pi to a certain digit.

2. For the first carbon nanotube to reach a certain length.

3. For the first carbon nanotube that exhibits a certain strength.

4. For the invention of a process that lowers the cost of carbon nanotube production to a certain price per a certain length.

5. For the production of a cable made entirely of carbon nanotubes of a certain diameter and a certain length and a certain strength.

6. For the use of carbon nanotubes in quantum computing.

7. For the use of carbon nanotubes in targeted drug delivery.

8. The use of carbon nanotubes in a bulletproof jacket of a certain thinness, with the ability to stop a projectile of certain density, shape, and speed.


A very nice antidote to the "if it bleeds, it leads" news.

Thank you!

My philosophy is that 98% of the people in the world are honest, hard working, freedom loving and have a respect for their fellow humans and their property. The remaining 2% are the ones that fill the newspapers and broadcasts.

Good news is not reported simply because it does not sell papers or ad time on TV. Look at the local paper - the column inches of local, national and international news is but a tiny fraction compared to the population of your community, your nation or the world. Optimism breeds positive results.

"Remember the great Space Race of the 20th century, the one that pitted the USA against the Soviet Union? It wasn't just a race to the moon, it was a contest of the viability of capitalism vs. communism, of freedom vs. oppression."

Um .. capitalism vs. communism ? actually .. not exactly. Both behemots handed the task to their socialist state enterprises. US did not invoke the power of free market forces, and thus up to the flight of SS1 we were stuck in the world where spaceflight belonged to governments alone.
Well, luckily, many decades later, this mistake is being corrected.

Kert -

You're right. Our moon project was a government entity from start to finish. However, our efforts in the space race were seen as the fruits of a capitalist system, just as the Soviets' efforts were seen as the fruits of a socialist system.

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