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Better All The Time #22


Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world

#22
10/04/05

We're back!

After an 11-month hiatus, Better All The Time returns to accompany the Carnival of Tomorrow, FastForward Radio, and our day-to-day offerings aimed at keeping you up to date on what we call the Spiral of Progress. Sure, the news is as chock-full of horrible, depressing, and terrifying developments as it ever was and, no, we don't deny any of it. Oh, wait. This is a blog. To be honest, we take issue with a fair amount of what's reported in the mainstream media. But that's beside the point. The point is this: There may be a lot of bad news. Heck, there may be even more bad news than there used to be. But what we're about here is the good news, which is not only increasing, but beginning to "add up" to point us in some wonderful new directions. Let's have a look.

Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Wearable Computers
  2. Successful Space Elevator Test
  3. The Singularity is Near
  4. Oil from Shale
  5. Self-Assembling Robots
  6. Regenerating Mice
  7. Free Wi-Fi Citywide
  8. Pomegranate Juice!
  9. Identity 2.0
  10. Learning Like Children
  11. A New Hope For Avian Flu
  12. Losing the Lampreys

Quote of the Day

In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

-- Eric Hoffer
(via Wisdom Quotes)

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Item 1
Surely no one will think this is geeky...

TummyPCuse.jpg

The Tummy PC is my name for a lightweight (1.8 lbs) wearable, J-class clamshell handheld personal computer (HPC), worn like a "tummy pack," with nylon fabric covering the case. When the clamshell is open, the screen sits out in space, approximately 4" from the waistline of the wearer, for comfortable touchscreen navigation (picture right). When it is closed the fabric case cover makes the mini-PC look like a tummy pack (second picture right), and includes a pouch for a second battery (always helpful on the road).

The good news:

This is a first step -- maybe not the step we were looking for, but a step nonetheless -- towards true wearable computers. A few years from now, when we have real-time feeds directly into our optic nervesand the ability to pipe iTunes straight into our brains, will we even remember pioneers such as Tummy PC user shown here? Stalwart individuals unshaken by the the narrow worldviews of others or the stigma surrounding the term fanny pack.

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Item 2
Successful Space Elevator Test

A private group has taken one small step toward the prospect of building a futuristic space elevator.

LiftPort Group Inc., of Bremerton, Wash., has successfully tested a robot climber — a novel piece of hardware that reeled itself up and down a lengthy ribbon dangling from a high-altitude balloo

The good news:

Space elevators will deliver on the promise of frequent, safe, and inexpensive transportation of people and goods into low Earth orbit. As Bradley Carl Edwards explained it recently in IEE Spectrum Online:

It all boils down to dollars and cents, of course. It now costs about US $20 000 per kilogram to put objects into orbit. Contrast that rate with the results of a study I recently performed for NASA, which concluded that a single space elevator could reduce the cost of orbiting payloads to a remarkably low $200 a kilogram and that multiple elevators could ultimately push costs down below $10 a kilogram. With space elevators we could eventually make putting people and cargo into space as cheap, kilogram for kilogram, as airlifting them across the Pacific.

The implications of such a dramatic reduction in the cost of getting to Earth orbit are startling. It's a good bet that new industries would blossom as the resources of the solar system became accessible as never before. Take solar power: the idea of building giant collectors in orbit to soak up some of the sun's vast power and beam it back to Earth via microwaves has been around for decades. But the huge size of the collectors has made the idea economically unfeasible with launch technologies based on chemical rockets. With a space elevator's much cheaper launch costs, however, the economics of space-based solar power start looking good.

The downside:

This test is nice as far as it goes, but that isn't very far. One could argue that, of all the huge obstacles that need to be overcome in order to build the world's first space elevator, this is the easiest.

On the other hand...

It's said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A thousand-foot climb is a very tiny step indeed in the space elevator scale, but it is a step.

Arthur C. Clarke recently observed:

As its most enthusiastic promoter, I am often asked when I think the first space elevator might be built. My answer has always been: about 50 years after everyone has stopped laughing. Maybe I should now revise it to 25 years.

Glenn Reynolds notes that the laughter has pretty much stopped.

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Item 3
The Singularity is Near

The singularity is a future period in which technological progress becomes so rapid that it radically transforms humankind. To picture the singularity imagine computers trillions of times smarter than Newton, Einstein and Edison inventing new technologies while continually enhancing their own abilities. Ray Kurzweil argues that the Singularity will occur around 2045.

The Good News:

It is reported that Ray Kurzweil's book is now #14 on the New York Times bestseller list. A whole new segment of the population is being introduced to fundamental ideas about accelerating change.

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Item 4
Playing a Shale Game

MEEKER, Colo. - Out in sagebrush country, Kenneth Brown is standing over part of the world's most concentrated energy resource, land that holds up to 1 million barrels of oil per acre.

The Downside:

Too bad it's locked up in layers of rock in some places hundreds of feet underground.

On the other hand...

Shell Exploration & Production Co. has been out here for nine years, trying to bake shale oil from the ground by using heating rods drilled into layers of rock.

"Things have progressed well in the last two years, which makes us feel good," said Brown, operations manager for Shell's closely guarded test in the middle of desolate Rio Blanco County, about 60 miles from tiny Meeker, the nearest town.

Shale will be, at best, a stop-gap measure along the way to more elegant energy solutions. But it's nice to know that there's a solution waiting in the wings to deal with the Peak Oil problem, should it rear its ugly head. Or that is to say, if it isn't doing so already.

Added Bonus:

The shale is here in Colorado. Oil boom, anyone?

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Item 5
Robots that Build Themselves

Inspired by biological systems, scientists have developed miniature robots that can self-assemble using parts that float randomly in their environments. The robots also know when something is amiss and can correct their own mistakes.

Scientists have long been fascinated by how living cells are able to replicate DNA using building blocks floating randomly inside the cell’s nucleus. The interior of the nucleus is filled with a gel-like liquid known as nucleoplasm. The DNA building blocks, known as nucleotides, float around in this liquid like ingredients in a molecular soup. Also present in the nucleoplasm are proteins known as polymerases, which pluck nucleotides from the soup as needed when copying DNA.

The good news:

Self-assembling robots, particularly on the nanoscale, will play an important role in providing cures for virtually all diseases in the near future. And that's just one of their applications.

Consider this:

Self-assembly is a huge prerequisite for what J. Stoors Hall has dubbed utility fog:

Nanotechnology is based on the concept of tiny, self-replicating robots. The Utility Fog is a very simple extension of the idea: Suppose, instead of building the object you want atom by atom, the tiny robots linked their arms together to form a solid mass in the shape of the object you wanted? Then, when you got tired of that avant-garde coffeetable, the robots could simply shift around a little and you'd have an elegant Queen Anne piece instead.

You may as well make your car of Utility Fog, too; then you can have a "new" one every day. But better than that, the *interior* of the car is filled with robots as well as its shell. You'll need to wear holographic "eyephones" to see, but the Fog will hold them up in front of your eyes and they'll feel and look as if they weren't there. Although heavier than air, the Fog is programmed to simulate its physical properties, so you can't feel it: when you move your arm, it flows out of the way. Except when there's a crash! Then it forms an instant form-fitting "seatbelt" protecting every inch of your body. You can take a 100-mph impact without messing your hair.

The downside:

Of course, self-assembly is also the basis of the gray goo scenario, although that may not prove to be as big a threat as was once feared.



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Item 6
Mice that (Re)Build Themselves

SCIENTISTS have created "miracle mice" that can regenerate amputated limbs or damaged vital organs, making them able to recover from injuries that would kill or permanently disable normal animals.

The experimental animals are unique among mammals in their ability to regrow their heart, toes, joints and tail.

And when cells from the test mouse are injected into ordinary mice, they too acquire the ability to regenerate, the US-based researchers say.

The Good News:

The research leader, Ellen Heber-Katz, professor of immunology at the Wistar Institute, a US biomedical research centre, said the ability of the mice at her laboratory to regenerate organs appeared to be controlled by about a dozen genes.

Professor Heber-Katz says she is still researching the genes' exact functions, but it seems almost certain humans have comparable genes.

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Item 7
The San Francisco Treat

sanfran2.jpg

Google Inc. has offered to blanket San Francisco with free wireless Internet access at no cost to the city, placing a marquee name behind Mayor Gavin Newsom's effort to get all residents online whether they are at home, in a park or in a cafe.

The offer by the popular Mountain View search engine was one of more than a dozen competing bids received by the city before its deadline Friday. Officials will review the submissions and decide which, if any, of the candidates gets the green light to build the so called Wi-Fi service, which would be free or inexpensive for users.

The good news:

Today San Francisco; tomorrow the world.

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Item 8
Juice is the Answer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pomegranate juice, a deep red juice becoming popular as a health drink, works against prostate cancer cells in lab dishes and in mice, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.

Prostate tumors shrank in mice infected with human prostate tumors who drank pomegranate juice, the researchers report in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Good News:

Prostate cancer is the second most common form of cancer among men in the United States (after skin cancer.) Everybody reading this ough to think about pouring a glass of pomegranate juice for their dad or grandfather.

And if that's not enough...

Check out these 50 or so new treatments/major breakthroughs in understanding of cancer that New Scientist has compiled. Encouraging stuff.

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Item 9
Identity 2.0

Check out Dick Hardt's keynote address on the future of electronic identity from the recent OSCON 2005. The good news here is that we can expect solutions to some of the most annoying online identity-related difficulties that we face. Moreover, as you follow the highly entertaining and informative presentation, ask yourself this: is it possible to deny that we are, indeed, living in an ear of acclerating change? How much of Hardt's presentation could you explain to your parents or grandparents? How much of it would have made sense to you ten years ago?

id2j.jpg

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Item 10
Learning Like Children

FF_144_preschool2_f.jpgJavier Movellan of UC San Diego is working to "create the world's first nondisappointing robot." Movellan is using two robots to teach and learn within the most chaotic of environments - preschool. His idea is to teach these learning and playing robots to interact with and relate to children much like children learn to relate with each other. Movellan realized the potential power of "affective computing" in 2002.

[Movellan] was working in Kyoto at ATR, the Japanese government's robot research lab, sinking deeper and deeper into the mathematics of machine perception, drifting in the intellectual tides and feeling uninspired by it all. "I was very skeptical. There was a robot there, and I didn't like it. It would say things like 'Hug me! Hug me!' It really irritated me." One day Movellan found himself using the robot to test an early version of the face-tracking program that he and Fasel developed here in La Jolla. "It worked really, really well. As I was testing it, I kept moving, and this robot kept looking at me, and his eyes moved in a particular way, and I got close, and this robot kept looking at me. And then it hugged me. And it completely got me." Movellan was shocked by the strength of his own response. "I said, 'What's happening here? I know this thing is dead. I mean, it's not alive. But I would swear that this thing is alive.'"

The good news:

If it is our destiny to share the planet with a new form of intelligence, it would be beneficial to find common ground. Growing up starts with socialization.

However...

It's just a baby step. Robots have a long way to go before they can hope to live up to the Hollywood hype.

Coming soon to a bookstore near you:

"All My Robot Needed to Know It Learned in Kindergarten."


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Item 11
A New Hope For Avian Flu

Recently Stephen published a rather pessimistic (for him) assessment of the Avian Flu threat. Part of the problem is that we currently have few tools to fight this disease if it becomes a pandemic.

Hopefully, this is about to change:

NanoViricides, Inc. announced today [September 20, 2005] that the Company is actively developing its first NanoViricide drug, "FluCide-I." The Company expects to commence studies in external laboratories within a matter of weeks to verify the drug's effectiveness and basic safety profile against the influenza virus. Animal studies as well as cell culture studies will be initiated...

A NanoViricide(tm) is a specially designed, flexible, nanomaterial that contains an encapsulated active pharmaceutical ingredient and targets it to a specific type of virus, like a guided missile. When a NanoViricide drug enters the patient's blood stream, each nanoscale micelle of the drug attacks and neutralizes circulating virus particles. Once this is done, the active pharmaceutical ingredient is injected into the virus particle by the NanoViricide micelle, destroying it completely. The company plans to develop novel NanoViricide drugs first against HIV and Influenza, and anticipates that it will license the products to major pharmaceutical companies.

The good news:

A true cure for the flu could save millions of lives in the next pandemic, and thousands of lives annually.

Beyond the flu, a viral silver bullet could end the AIDS epidemic. Could Malaria be far behind?

But...

It's just a press release from a start-up company and animal tests have not started.

Nevertheless...

This is bold new thinking on a problem that deserves more attention.



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Item 12
Alien Fish Thwarted?

Lampreys are eel-like, blood-sucking creatures that have devastated Great Lakes fish populations for decades. But scientists at the University of Minnesota have discovered a chemical sex attractant that draws adult lampreys to spawning streams, where the males can be caught and sterilized, the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press reported Monday.

The good news:

If you're reading news about alien fish , there's just no getting around it. Better All The Time is back!


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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. For more news on how our world is rapidly changing and improving, check out the Carnival of Tomorrow.

Live to see it!

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