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Better All The Time #19

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


Welcome to a new and improved Better All The Time. We've got the same same upbeat philosophy, a snappy new look, and more good news than ever. So what are we waiting for? Let's get started.

Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. The Eagle Flies
  2. SpaceshipOne Takes the Prize
  3. Man's Best Friend, Indeed!
  4. Fastest Computer
  5. Popcorn Gets Poppier
  6. More Good News from Mars
  7. Smart Cells
  8. Just Like Home
  9. Little Robots in Your... Intestines
  10. Caffeinated Beer?

Quote of the Day

The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I was a part — perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there . . . It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. Far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined!

-- Richard Feynman

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Item 1
Bald Eagles Rebound

An icon of conservationists, the bald eagle was on the brink of extinction in America's lower 48 states four decades ago, when its numbers stood at just 417 nesting pairs.

Anti-poaching measures, a reduction in the use of lethal pesticides and the transfer of eagles from Canada have seen its numbers rise in the lower 48 to several thousand. Washington now says that some of the bird's safeguards can be loosened.

The good news:

Bald eagles were first categorized endangered in 1978. In 1995, their status was downgraded (upgraded?) to threatened. Today, officials are recommending removing them from the endangered species list altogether.

The downside:

Other winged predators are not so lucky and conservationists say that the bald eagle's success should not lead to a false sense of complacency regarding its feathered kin.

BirdLife International has classified about a quarter of the planet's roughly 305 known raptor species as threatened.

There's plenty of work left to be done to protect the world's birds of prey.


Eagles are strong, proud, beautiful creatures. We've preserved a symbol of our nation, and guaranteed that future generations will get to enjoy the sight of a bald eagle in flight.

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Item 2
SpaceShipOne captures X Prize

SpaceShipOne achieved its most spectacular flight yet, climbing to an altitude of 377,591 feet (71 1/2 miles) to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Monday.

X Prize officials said it set an altitude record exceeding the military X-15's top altitude of 354,200 feet (67 miles) set on August 22, 1963.

The good news:

On the 47th anniversary of Sputnik, Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill and company have demonstrated that the manned exploration of space is no longer a government monopoly. Space now belongs to anybody possessing the guts and perseverance (not to mention money) to get there.

We covered the first of the two historic flights here, and the second one here.

The downside:

Let's get back to the subject of money for a moment. In an exciting related development, entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson announced plans to establish Virgin Galactic, which will provide commercial flights into space to as many as 3,000 people in the coming decade. The price tag for such a flight?

About $200,000.


But wait, think about it...

Before Branson's announcement, nobody ever even thought about getting into space for less than a million dollars. And even for those willing to pay, there were darned few opportunities. Branson is cutting the cost of going into space by at least 80%, while providing several orders of magnitude more opportunities to get there. And that's without any competition.


Within 20 years, the price of a sub-orbital flight such as Branson is promising to offer via Virgin Galactic will be comparable to (or less than) a first-class around the world fare on any of the major airlines.

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Item 3
Cancer Sniffing Dogs

A study from UK researches has shown that dogs could be used to help diagnose urinary tract cancer. As if dogs had anything more to prove in terms of loyalty and kindness towards their human friends, we get this news:

The authors trained six dogs of different breeds for 7 months to discriminate between urine from patients with bladder cancer and urine from those without cancer…

After training, each dog was offered seven urine samples--one bladder cancer sample and six comparison samples from individuals of the same sex…

The good news:

Commenting on the paper, statistician Tim Cole from the Institute of Child Health in London notes that the study was carefully designed. "On balance the results are unambiguous," he writes in an accompanying commentary. "Dogs can be trained to recognize and flag an unusual smell in the urine of bladder cancer patients."


Now that it has been proven that urinary cancer can be detected with dogs, can a medical version of the "dog-on-a-chip" be far behind?

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Item 4
IBM Sets a Record for Speed

What a comeback! Last May we reported that the United States was poised to regain the title of "World's Fastest Supercomputer."

It's happened. On Tuesday IBM announced that it's Blue Gene/L system beat the Earth Simulator's maximum sustained speed of 35.86 teraflops with a sustained speed of 36.01 teraflops.

A Model of Blue Gene

The good news:

That speed differential is less than one-half of one percent. And how IBM did it is even more impressive:

BlueGene/ L is one-hundredth the physical size of the Earth Simulator and consumes one twenty-eighth the power per computation, IBM said...

"It's again an exciting time to be involved in high-performance computing," said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who ranks the 500 fastest computers. "For some computational scientists, it's like a Hubble telescope."

Of course:

The world's other computer speed competitors aren't going to take this lying down. Plans to beat BlueGene/L are no doubt already underway.

And so...

The race goes on.

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Item 5
Popcorn Gets Poppier

Well, it just doesn't get any better than this:

Next time you go to the movies, look out. If the popcorn vendors have read this article, your cup of popcorn might contain fewer pieces than it used to. That's because the pieces could each be up to twice the volume they were previously.

The good news:

Popcorn kernels twice the size of what we're used to. Paul Quinn of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and Joseph Both of the Stanford School of Medicine in California have figured out that cooking popcorn under lower pressure can make it pop up twice as big. Whatever those fine institutions are paying these two scholarly gentlemen, they ought to double it.

The downside:

Okay, technically, we are getting less popcorn for the money.

On the other hand...

Doesn't that leave more room for butter?

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Item 6
More Good News From Mars

Both Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still going strong having survived the Martian winter and a 12 day communications black-out.

With both vehicles showing "few signs of aging" NASA has approved six more months of funding. Way to go, you hard-working astro-droids!

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Item 7
Researchers Manipulate Cell Recognition Mechanism

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have developed a technique to change the type of molecule that activates a cell's nuclear receptors, where the activated receptor in turn initiates gene expression.

With this technique, cells could be programmed to signal the presence of specific molecules in their environment. These modified cells could be used in sensor arrays, gene therapy for cancer or as research tools.

The good news:

These smart cells may pay a big roll in treating cancer and other degenerative diseases, and may prove useful in the fight against aging overall.

Speaking of which...

Don't miss this profile of Ray Kurzweil, one of the patron saints of accelerating change.

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Item 8
In search of the Earth mark II

It's only a matter of time before we discover an earth-like planet somewhere out in space. So far, fewer than 150 planets have been located outside the solar system, but that's about to change:

COROT, a French satellite scheduled to be launched in 2006, is designed to discover planets photometrically. Kepler, a similar American mission, is scheduled for launch in October 2007. And another American satellite, the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), which will use astrometry, is planned for 2009. The SIM will measure the positions of between 10,000 and 30,000 stars, and to do so a hundred times more precisely than they are now known.


If neither of these missions come up with Class M paydirt, there are two others on the drawing boards that probably will:

America's Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) and Europe's Darwin are friendly rivals. The TPF and Darwin will both look at relatively nearby stars—within 50-75 light years of Earth. But there are so many stars within that sphere that it is reasonable to expect plenty of planets to turn up. The reason for that expectation is that enough exoplanets have been discovered already for statistically meaningful inferences to be made about what other planets are out there, and where they are. Two facts stand out. Of sun-like stars that have been closely investigated for any length of time, 15% have planets. And within the range of detectable planets, lower-mass bodies are exponentially more common than higher-mass ones. Put these facts together and it seems likely that small, rocky planets might be very common indeed.

Whether alternative Earths, complete with oceans and life, are common is a different question—but it is one that spectroscopy should be able to answer. When the data from the TPF and Darwin start rolling in, they may provide a definitive answer to that old, nagging question: “is there anybody out there?” How long that answer would take to become commonplace, though, is anybody's guess.


Let's say we discover an earth-like planet within 75 light-years of Earth. Once we know it's there, we point everything we have at it. We quickly determine that it is not sending out any radio signals (thus chances are that there is no resident civilization) but we do confirm that the atmosphere is rich in oxygen. So there is almost certainly life on that planet. Would we start trying to figure out how to get there?


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Item 9
Robotic Capsule to Crawl Through Intestines

Researchers have developed a prototype robotic capsule designed to crawl though a patient's stomach, enabling doctors to view and even treat an internal ailment remotely.

Current endoscopies require a patient to swallow a capsule equipped with a camera that transmits images back outside the body. The prototype capsule has legs, made of a shape memory alloy, that can move the capsule across intestinal tissues without damaging the tissue.

Unlike current capsules, the robotic capsule could be guided to particular spots in the intestinal system.

The good news:

The robot camera will be able to produce more precise and accurate information on a patient's condition, greatly increasing the effectiveness of treatments applied. Moreover, depending on its size and shape, the robot camera is likely to be a lot more comfortable and less intrusive than current methods of performing this procedure.

Implications for Futurists:

A while back there was a flap (or was it a kerfuffle?) about how nanotechnology was bringing on the age of little robots in your pants. It looks as though these researchers have taken that idea to its logical extreme.


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Item 10
Sweet! Caffeinated, ginseng beer

Brewer Anheuser-Busch says it will introduce a caffeinated, sweet-flavored beer for twentysomething club goers to compete with the flavored rums and vodkas gaining ground on the dance floor.

The new beer B(E) -- read as "B to the E power" -- will roll out in several phases starting in November.

The good news:

Well, it's...er...okay. You've got us. What exactly is the good news here?


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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 don't miss the latest round-up of positive developments in the Islamic world by Arthur Chrenkoff.

Say, are you tired of just reading about the future? Maybe ready to actually do something about? Why not consider attending The Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology?

Live to see it!


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Better All The Time #19:

» B TO THE E from chiasm.blog-city.com
Hey, those geeked out (and I mean that in the best possible way!) optimists over at The Speculist are back with their "Better All The Time" roundup of 10 recent 'gee-whiz!' science articles that are guanteed to make you smile. Especially no [Read More]


Regarding Item #8--I have an unearthly interest (and so do the characters in my novel) in everyone's ideas for what would be a compelling reason to visit another planet. At what point would you consider it worth the risk to send a "peopled" mission rather than robots or probes?

On the Foresight Exchange, there are a number of weird claims that don't get a lot of attention. One of these claims, "Sorb" is based on whether suborbital flights carry more cargo than "high-mach" (faster than mach 2.5) flights by 2020. Currently, it's trading at 46-47%. I had thought that suborbital would be trumped by high-mach, but the claim creator, Jim Bowery thought differently. Looks like he will be right.

On number 8: I think we would begin to get ready for such a trip.

I see five broad possibilities for making the trip.

1. Faster than light travel. It appears impossible now. We can hope for a miracle I guess.

2. A huge ship that makes the journey tolerable for humans - perhaps a hollowed-out asteroid. This is also not likely. To have a ship big enough means more mass to move and therefore more fuel needed to move it.

3. Cryonics for humans with robotic maintenance of the ship during the trip. A little more likely, but obviously we have a LONG way to go before cryonics is safe enough that people would submit to it for a trip rather than as a last resort for the dead or dying.

4. Uploaded human intelligence with robotic maintenance of the ship during the trip. At the end of the trip, these uploaded humans could be downloaded into constructed bodies. This method would not require significant resources to house it's human cargo. A very small ship could potentially transfer many, many people.

5. Forget humans, send robots.

With all these options the ship could potentially serve as an ark for our entire genome simply by carrying DNA information.


If stellar exploration is being done by a government entity, the logical approach is to send robotic probes due to the safety and expense issues you mentioned. However, if star travel itself falls into the hands of the private sector, people will go. I wrote about this a while back. (See Ken Layne's quote. If I could talk Suraya into it, I'd be there, too.)


What falls into the categpry of sub-orbital? All commercial aviation is "sub-orbital," but I assume they don't mean that. I've seen a good deal about using sub-orbital for carrying passenegers, but there hasn't been much on the commercial aspects of hauling cargo that way. Is anybody talking about setting sub-orbital flights up as a shipping business? Talk about your "when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight."


In spite of what I wrote to Kathy, above, I think 5 is the likely answer. We could be sending out miniaturized robotic probes that travel up to 0.1C within a few decades. If you send such a probe to a star 50 light years away, you'll start getting data back in 550 years. Kind of a long wait. But if you sent it to, say, Alphs Centauri, you'd start getting data in less than 50 years.

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