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Better All The Time #23

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


Take the Better All the Time Challenge! We're so convinced that you're going to like reading good news for a change that we don't even have to ask you to read it all. Just read the first two news stories in this week's Better All the Time. Those two stories on their own can offset 80% (or more!) of the gloom found in virtually all MSM reporting.

And if you like what you find in those first two stories, go ahead and read the rest of the good news we've compiled for you at no additional charge. Yes, you read that right. How can we offer such an incredible deal? The answer is simple -- volume. There's more good news every day, and we've got plenty to spare.

Today's Good Stuff:


    Quote of the Day
  1. Conflict in Decline
  2. Productivity is Up
  3. Stevie Wonder to Regain Sight?
  4. Space Elevator Prize
  5. Clean Water
  6. World's Smallest Car
  7. The (Two) Million Dollar Mouse
  8. Smart Drugs on the Way
  9. Transparent Aluminum to the Rescue
hoist.goingup.jpg glass_of_water.jpg nanocar.jpg

Quote of the Day

I voted then, for Saddam, of course, because I was afraid. But this time, I came here by my own choice. I am not afraid anymore. I am a free man.

-- Jabar Ahmed Ismail

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Item 1
War is, like, so mid-20th century

peace.jpgAccording to the first Human Security Report released by the Canadian organisation Human Security Centre, armed conflicts, genocide and politicide have declined sharply since the early nineties. Also in a fifty year time span, the number of war casualties, coups and other war-statistics have gone down, often dramatically.

The good news:

Just read over this list and see if you find anything you like:

The number of armed conflicts are down more than 40%.
There were 25 ongoing armed secessionist conflicts, the lowest number since 1976.
The number of refugees in the world dropped by 45% between 1992 and 2003.
The post WWII peace period between major powers is the longest in several hundred years.
The average number of deaths per conflict fell 98% between 1950 and 2002 (from 38,000 people to 600 people).

Important disclaimers:

These numbers are good through 2003 and don't include the Iraq war or the conflict in Darfur. And of course, there are still terrible things going on in the world. Nor do the numbers in and of themselves give us any particular reason to expect that these trends will continue.

However, they also don't give us any reason to think they won't continue...


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money-stacked.jpgItem 2
More productive all the time

Economist Arnold Kling has some provocative thoughts about accelerating technological change and economic growth:

Technological innovation is what drives productivity growth.... [T]he rate of technological innovation is doubling every decade, which to me would imply that the rate of productivity growth will double every decade. If annual productivity growth was 3.5 percent in the decade ending in 2005, then it will be 7 percent in the decade ending in 2015 and 14 percent in the decade ending in 2025. By that time, productivity would be more than 7 times what it is today. Thus, if average income per person is $35,000 today, then it will be over $250,000 per person (in today's purchasing power) in 2025.

The good news...?

Maybe this all sounds a little too good to be true. Is it possible that Kling is just letting himself get carried away? Sure, it's possible. But on the other hand, he appears to be taking a relatively conservative view. Contrast Kling's scenario, above, with a possibility that George Mason university economist Robin Hanson has raised:

If it is possible for the economy to again transition to a faster mode, and if modes are comparable in terms of how much the economy grows when they dominate and how much faster new modes are, then within the next century we may see a transition to a growth mode where the doubling time is measured in weeks, not years.

(Emphasis added.)

The downside:

With that kind of spare cash floating around, school districts all over the country will probably have to cancel their proms.

On the other hand...

Maybe we'll think of something really important we can do with all that "wretched excess."


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Item 3
stevie.JPGIsn't she lovely?

Stevie Wonder has been tested for pioneering surgery which uses a microchip to restore sight to the blind.

The 55-year-old singer, who has been blind since shortly after birth, is in talks with a leading surgeon who has developed a technique to implant a solar-powered microchip at the back of his eye.

The Good News:

A man who has spent virtually his entire life without eyesight may see for the first time. Kind of speaks for itself.

The Downside:

If successful, the sight recovery would be limited and he would not be able to see the faces of his wife and children, but he would be able to perceive simple forms and shapes.

But then again...

This is a new procedure. A technique that yields simple forms and shapes in its first iteration may be able to show more of the world in later versions.


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hoist.goingup.jpgItem 4
Space Elevator Competition

This weekend in Mountain View, California NASA will host the first Space Elevator Games. The games consist of two contests each with a $50,000 prize: the beam power challenge, and the tether challenge. The beam power challenge will have seven teams racing climbers up a 16-story ribbon. Climbers must maintain a meter per second climbing rate or be disqualified. And here's the kicker - they will be powered by a beam of light. The interesting thing is that a couple of teams are going with an unorthodox solution. Instead of using photoelectric cells like the other five teams, two teams are using Stirling engines that will run off of the beam's heat. Four teams are competing in the tether challenge.

UPDATE: This source has the team count at 12 climber teams and 5 tether teams.

In this competition, $50,000 would go to the team whose tether outlasts the others in a pulling machine that Schwager called "a tether torture chamber." To make sure the winning tether really represents a technological leap, it will have to show a 50 percent improvement in breaking force over commercially available products.

Good News:

The event manager Marc Schwager of the Spaceward Foundation says that that these tethers are incredibly strong. A thread of the size of a hair could pick up a human. Some sociologist or economist should do a paper on the leveraging power of prize money. The ten million dollar X-prize has finally given us a private space program.

It gets better:

We now expect a 50% leap in materials technology for a $50,000 prize? What a bargain!


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Item 5
Go ahead -- drink the water

You know how you're always hearing that too many people worlwide don 't have clean drinking water, and that a shortage of drinking water might eventually lead to a global crisis? Wow, wouldn't it be nice if somebody was doing something about that?

Well, check out these excellent plans for making wholesome drinking water available to everybody:

LifeStraw: It sucks—and that’s good
At 2 dollar U.S., LifeStraw is unusually affordable. Modeled after the simple drinking straw we all know, it has the advantage of being small (25 cm long or 10 inches) and easy to use. [T]he LifeStraw relies on suction to force water through textile filters, which catch sediment. The water is then exposed to bacteria-killing agents like iodine and sent through active carbon, which catches all remaining parasites. One LifeStraw can purify 700 litres, the personal water supply of one person for a year.

Solar Pasteurization Unit: Letting the sun do the work
Developed in Denmark, the Solar Pasteurization Unit looks like a slide projector, tilted to reflect sunlight onto a black cylinder containing a 1.5 litre bottle, which heats up to over 100 degrees Celsius. To kill all pathogenic bacteria, the first batch of water requires one and a half hours; consecutive batches require 30 minutes. The unit can also be used to pasteurize AIDS-infected breast milk, cook food or sterilize surgical instruments.

OPV Personal Water Cleaner: Water, water everywhere
The Organic Molecular Photovoltaic (OPV) Personal Water Cleaner...is designed for regions beset by monsoons or frequent flooding. [It] can provide a family with enough potable water to survive until the waters recede or help arrives.
The device looks like an old-fashioned canteen, consisting of a “bellows” and an internal filtration system. Like the LifeStraw, the OPV relies on the force of suction to set the purifying process in motion. The whole unit can be easily carried.

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Item 6
Coming soon: the Mini Micro Nano Cooper

Researchers at Rice University have created a "nanocar" measuring just 4 x 3 nanometers. It is slightly wider than a strand of DNA -- a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick. The car has a chassis, axles and a pivoting suspension. The wheels are buckyballs, spheres of pure carbon containing 60 atoms apiece.

nanocar.jpg Good News:

As Glenn Reynolds put it:

So much for those who claimed that such precise nanoscale structures weren't possible.

A car that small doesn't sound like it would be good for much, but what we're seeing here is the first-generation ancestor of machines that will one day:


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Item 7

Support your local long-lived mouse

Word has it that, thanks to more than $250,000 in cash donations in the past 30 days, the Methuselah Mouse Prize is nearing the $2 million mark. For those of you unfamiliar with the prize:

The Methuselah Mouse Prize...is being offered to the scientific research team who develops the longest living Mus musculus, the breed of mouse most commonly used in scientific research. Developing interventions which work in mice are a critical precursor to the development of human anti-aging techniques, for once it is demonstrated that aging in mice can be effectively delayed or reversed, popular attitudes towards aging as 'inevitable' will no longer be possible. When aging in mice is shown to be 'treatable' the funding necessary for a full-line assault on the aging process will be made available. This is the true power of the Methuselah Mouse Prize, to demonstrate a proof of principle, and give hope to the world that decline in function and age-related disease are no longer guarantees, for us, or for future generations, if we work together now.

Good News:

Read it again carefully: When aging in mice is shown to be 'treatable' the funding necessary for a full-line assault on the aging process will be made available. That means that right now there is almost $2 million in prize money waiting to be awarded to the scientist who figures out the best way to make you live longer.

The Kicker:

They aren't quite there yet. That means that somebody reading this -- and once again that means you, friend -- could be the one to put the Methuselah Mouse Prize over the top. What are you waiting for?

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Item 8
Take two smart pills and stop calling me

Enhancing intelligence is not science fiction. Many "smart" drugs are in clinical trials and could be on the market in less than five years. Some medications currently available to patients with memory disorders may also increase intelligence in the healthy population. Likewise, few people would lament the use of such aids to ameliorate the forgetfulness that aging brings. Drugs that counter these deficits would be adopted gratefully by millions of people.

First the Downside:

Of course, there are serious potential risks associated with tampering with the brain's function, event if we're trying to bring about a good end.

A Suggestion:

Owing to the important role that intelligence enhancing medications might eventually play, it's important that we start testing them right away. Ideally, we want to find a group to test them on who:

  1. Would provide the most immediate benefit to society from a boost in intelligence
  2. Are otherwise expendable

Well, "expendable" is such a harsh term. Let's say "replaceable" instead. Now who would best fit this profile? For some reason, we keep coming back to one group. Or, if you want to break it down, we might call it three groups.



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Item 9
Admiral...there be whales here!

Engineers here are testing a new kind of transparent armor -- stronger and lighter than traditional materials -- that could stop armor-piercing weapons from penetrating vehicle windows.

The Air Force Research Laboratory's materials and manufacturing directorate is testing aluminum oxynitride -- ALONtm -- as a replacement for the traditional multi-layered glass transparencies now used in existing ground and air armored vehicles.

The good news:

With this option in place, soldiers will be a lot less vulnerable to armor-piercing weaponsand they'll still be able to see what's going on. Excellent.

The good news for Star Trek Fans:

The transparent aluminum paradox has been resolved. For those unfamiliar with this vexing conundrum, Wikipedia provides an explanation Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't seen Star Trek IV:

humpbac.jpg The chemical formula for transparent aluminum plays a key role in the plot of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In the movie, the formula is traded for Plexiglas sheets thick enough to create water tanks suitable for transporting two humpback whales through time, from the 20th century to the 23rd century, inside a Klingon Bird of Prey. Since the crew was temporarily stranded in the past without money appropriate to the period, they had to barter with the owner of the Plexicorp company (a fictional manufacturer of Plexiglas). Scotty trades the chemical formula for transparent aluminum for enough of the material to build the tanks.

As a result of this paradox, transparent aluminum is never actually invented by anyone. It was "invented" by the owner of Plexicorp, Dr. Nichols, in the 20th century after he got the formula from Scotty; Scotty then learned the formula from his knowledge of 23rd century engineering that built on Dr. Nichols's 20th century invention. No one ever actually invented transparent aluminum from scratch.

Well now we know. It looks like the Air Force was working on it in parallel. What a relief.


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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 latest FastForward Radio and the Carnival of Tomorrow.

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