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Better All The Time #27

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


Welcome to the Christmas List edition of Better All the Time. These halls are just about as decked as they are going to get, the shopping is pretty much wrapped up (both figuratively and literally) and some very tempting aromas are beginning to emanate from the kitchen. Sure, there's plenty left to do, but the big rush is over. While you prepare yourselves for the festivities to come, take a moment to review a different kind of Christmas list. This list is made up not of things we hope for some day, but that are here now, improving our world and promising an even brighter tomorrow. 

Today's Good Stuff:


    Quote of the Day
  1. Foods Rich in Vitamin D
  2. Video Games 
  3. Big-Ticket Manufactured Goods
  4. Flexible Electronics
  5. New Neurons
  6. More Time
  7. Tenth Planet
  8. Tiny Gadgets
  9. Dry Firewood

  Quote of the Day

Humanity is going through some very, very important kind of transition into some kind of new relationship to the Universe, I'd say, the kind of acceleration that would occur after the child has been formed in the womb, taking the nine months, and suddenly begins to issue from the womb out into an entirely new world.

Buckminster Fuller



Item 1
Vitamin D for Lung Health


Vitamin D may play a role in keeping our lungs healthy, with greater concentrations of vitamin D resulting in greater lung health benefits. A study in the December issue of CHEST, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP), shows that patients with higher concentrations of vitamin D had significantly better lung function, compared with patients with lower concentrations of vitamin D.

"Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer," said lead author Peter Black, MB, ChB, Department of Medicine, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand. "Our research shows that vitamin D may also have a strong influence on lung health, with greater levels of vitamin D associated with greater and more positive effects on lung function."

The good news:

Amazingly, these studies show that poor lung health is more closely correlated with low levels of vitamin D than it is with smoking. If these findings are confirmed, it would be difficult to overtsate the importance of keeping up healthy levels of vitamin D. FuturePundit Randall Parker has been tracking research in this area for some time. Related blog posts he has authored on the subject include:

Vitamin D Could Decrease Overall Cancer Risk 30%

Higher Vitamin D Reduces Aging Bone Fracture Risks

Both are highly recommended reading. Also check out this summary, with good information on foods that contain vitamin D as well as the risks associated with taking too much.

Everything in moderation, after all.


Item 2
Video Games Are Okay

Well, it turns out that they don't turn players into anti-social, trigger-happy zombies after all. In fact, a few of them might actually tend in the other direction:

The Sims designer Will Wright argues that games are perhaps the only medium that allows us to experience guilt over the actions of fictional characters. In a movie, one can always pull back and condemn the character or the artist when they cross certain social boundaries. But in playing a game, we choose what happens to the characters. In the right circumstances, we can be encouraged to examine our own values by seeing how we behave within virtual space.

The good news:

So maybe we can all lighten up. Have some fun. Let our kids have some fun. Granted, a six-hour stretch of World of Warcraft doesn't provide the same benefits as working through some difficult math problems or going out for a brisk bike ride. But then, weren't we just saying something about moderation?     





Item 3
Big-Ticket Manufactured Goods

231005_Hybrid_Car.jpgWASHINGTON - Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods jumped by the largest amount in six months, reflecting soaring demand for commercial aircraft.

The Commerce Department reported that orders for durable goods were up 4.4 percent to a record $223 billion last month, following a 3 percent gain in October.

The 4.4 percent advance was far above the 1.1 percent increase that Wall Street analysts had been expecting. The strength was led by a 133.8 percent surge in orders for commercial aircraft and parts, which jumped to $25.9 billion from $11.1 billion the previous month.

The good news:

Looks like a lot of folks put airplane parts on their Christmas wish lists. Who would have expected that? Anyhow, while we'll take good economic news any time, it seems especially appropriate here at the end of the year. And then there's this:

The U.S. economy grew at the fastest pace in 1 1/2 years in the summer as booming auto sales offset the adverse effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But the year is expected to end with much slower growth.

The U.S. Commerce Department reported Wednesday that the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic health, grew at a 4.1 per cent annual rate from July through September.

Hmm, maybe we should have shown a car in addition to an airplane.

And not to pile on or anything, but it appears that investor confidence has hit a 17-month high. Anybody care to throw a Bah, Humbug! on all this good economic news?

No? We didn't think so.


Item 4
Stretchable Electronics

The next wave in electronics could be wavy electronics.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a fully stretchable form of single-crystal silicon with micron-sized, wave-like geometries that can be used to build high-performance electronic devices on rubber substrates.

“Stretchable silicon offers different capabilities than can be achieved with standard silicon chips,” said John Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering and co-author of a paper to appear in the journal Science, as part of the Science Express Web site, on Dec 15.

Functional, stretchable and bendable electronics could be used in applications such as sensors and drive electronics for integration into artificial muscles or biological tissues, structural monitors wrapped around aircraft wings, and conformable skins for integrated robotic sensors, said Rogers, who is also a Founder Professor of Engineering, a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and a member of the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory.

The good news:

The age of the wearable computer draws nearer. Here's a good explanation of the concept for the unitiated:

A wearable computer is a very personal computer. It should be worn like a piece of clothing, as unobtrusive as possible. A user should interact with the computer based upon context. It could be a communications device (immediate or store and forward), a recorder (visual, audio, other sensors) or a reference device (local or remote resources).

There's no question that we will have wearable computers sooner or later. The only issue is whether they will look more like this:


Or like this:

lycra top.jpg

Obviously, we're hoping for the latter. And stretchable silicon could go a long way towards getting us there.


Item 5
New Neurons


Scientists from Johns Hopkins' Institute for Cell Engineering have discovered the steps required to integrate new neurons into the brain's existing operations. "GABA is important during fetal development, but most scientists thought it would have the same role it has with adult neurons, which is to inhibit the cells' signals," says Hongjun Song, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Neuroregeneration and Repair Program within ICE. "We've shown that GABA instead excites new neurons and that this is the first step toward their integration into the adult brain." Song added that their discovery might help efforts to increase neuron regeneration in the brain or to make transplanted stem cells form connections more efficiently.

The good news:

The ability to augment our brains could lead to tremendous breakthroughs in the treatment of the degenerative diseases of aging, and may very well also give us the ability to make ourselves smarter.



Item 6
More Time

All the uproar over "Cyber Monday" -- the Monday after Thanksgiving, when people supposedly rushed online at work to do holiday shopping -- both about how it was a PR invention, and then that the actual date simply got screwed up has obscured the real truth about online holiday shopping: that it lets people procrastinate. A study says that people spent 29 percent more online last week than they did in the same week last year, spurred on by last-minute promotions and cheaper, faster shipping.

The good news:

Of course, the flip side of "procrastination" is that -- rather than shopping -- people were able to do things they needed or wanted to do more. Online shopping gives us freedom that we never had before, but it can't change certain basic human functions, such as putting off shopping until the last possible moment. The online option merely changes the parameters!


Item 7
10th Planet

We may have it:

On Dec. 13, another group said they’d found an object half the mass of Pluto orbiting twice as far from the Sun as Neptune. The object’s path has them puzzled.

The faraway world is catalogued as 2004 XR 190 and known temporarily as Buffy. It was discovered as part of the Legacy Survey on the Canada France Hawaii Telescope.

"It was quite bright compared to the usual Kuiper Belt Objects we find," said the University of British Columbia’s Lynne Allen, who was part of the international discovery team. "But what was more interesting was how far away it was."

Buffy never gets closer than 52 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, or 52 times the distance from Earth to the Sun. Neptune is 30 AU from the Sun. Pluto ranges from 30 to 50 AU.

What makes Buffy special is its nearly circular path, which extends out to just 62 AU.

The good news:

Welcoming a new member into our exclusive little solar system club is always cause for celebration. We aren't quite there yet, but stay tuned.

About that name...

We kind of hope it sticks. We're going to run out mythological names before we've named 1% of the objects in the Kuiper belt, anyhow. TV characters seems like the logical next step. One day, a tour ship of the outer solar system might include stops at such locales as Fonzie, Frazier, and Floyd the Barber. And that's just the F's!




nano_gear.jpgItem 8
Tiny Gadgets

You may not have noticed, but the smallest revolution in world history is under way. Laboratories and factories have begun to make medical sensors and computer-chip components smaller than a single blood cell or the periods on this page.

Viruses are among the most important causes of human diseases and are of increasing concern as agents of bioterrorism. Nanoscale silicon wires could be fashioned into chip arrays capable of sensing thousands of different viruses, ushering in a new era for quick response to viral outbreaks.

Lieber and his colleagues have also built a cracker-size detector for cancer. Someday, such sensors might be used to test people for cancers in doctors' offices.

Other potential nanodevices being looked at may help doctors detect whether cancer has spread, or is shrinking in response to treatments. In the future, nanoparticles might travel through human bodies and deliver cargoes of drugs to malignant tumors, eliminating the need for surgery or greatly reducing the side effects of chemotherapy.

And no one doubts that nanodevices and techniques will make possible many types of smaller, faster computers, medical instruments, and personal gadgets that bring increased convenience and pleasure.

The good news:

The good news pretty much speaks for itself, here. Plus, you can fit a lot of these gizmos into the typical Christmas stocking.





Item 9

Plenty of Dry Firewood

On Saturday evening, the Mississippi River in bayou country will look much as it has in more than a century of Christmas Eves — with miles of massive bonfires on the levee tops showing Papa Noel, the south Louisiana Santa Claus, the way to children's homes.

For hurricane evacuees like Rhonda Derenbecker, who lost her home, her office, two cars and nearly every other possession, the sight of something so spectacularly enduring will be more than welcome.

Watching locals work on one of the roughly 100 tepee-shaped structures set up along historic River Road, the Bay St. Louis, Miss., attorney said she was grateful she and her 12-year-old son found comfort with family and newfound friends in such a unique part of the world.

A thought:

Of course, our thoughts and best wishes are with all the folks in the Gulf Coast as they continue on the long road of recovery from the devastation earlier this year. Their bonfires for Papa Noel should be an example for us all. May the lights burn bright for each of us this holiday season, guiding peace, joy, and all our dreams swiftly along their way home.



Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster, Stephen Gordon, and Michael Sargent. A very Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanza, Joyous Festivus, Sublime Solstice, or just plain pleasant wrap-up for the month of December to each of you, as appropriate. Oh, lest we forget...

Live to see it!

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