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Better All The Time #25

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


Just in time for Turkey Day, we've got some great news for you. No, we haven't just saved a lot of money on our car insurance. It's much better than that! Check it out.

Today's Good Stuff:


    Quote of the Day
  1. New Life for Old Spaceship
  2. Exercise Makes You Live Longer 
  3. Webcams Save Lives
  4. Universal Translator Update
  5. Biodiesel Coming
  6. Trickier than We Thought (1)
  7. Trickier than We Thought (2)
  8. Closing in on Earthquake Prediction
  9. Education that Works
  10. Ain't no Sunshine  



Quote of the Day

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

Abraham Lincoln  

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Item 1
The Retro Rocket

A private company wants to sell NASA trips into orbit on a shuttle-like spaceship that the agency itself designed two decades ago.

SpaceDev, an aerospace company based in California, US, has announced plans to build a spacecraft that will carry both tourists and astronauts into orbit.

The good news:


Didn't the airline business really get its start after WWII when there were all these airplanes lying around that needed to be used for something? Granted, the HL-20 Dream Chaser was never actually built, but the fact that private developers are looking to repurpose its design commercially is a very encouraging development.

The company says it could begin flying four-person suborbital flights in 2008 if it receives about $20 million in funding. It could then launch six-person missions to the International Space Station by around 2010 for an additional $100 million, it claims.

More good news:

Unlike the shuttle's launch rockets, Dream Chaser’s launcher will not use cryogenic fuel, which must be insulated with foam. This will avoid the problem of falling foam on take-off that ultimately destroyed the shuttle Columbia in 2003. The trouble recurred in Discovery's most recent flight, though to no ill effect.

Seeing as this design is "only" 20 years old, it will actually represent a technological leap forward from the existing shuttle. It's also (arguably) a more advanced design than what the Chinese are currently using for their capsule-based space program or that NASA has proposed for its Crew Exploration Vehicle.

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Item 2
Live Long and Sweat 

Sorry, couch potatoes -- the verdict is in: People who exercise regularly really do live longer.

In fact, people who get a good workout almost daily can add nearly four years to their life spans, according to the first study to quantify the impact of physical activity this way.

The good news:

If you exercise regularly you will not only live longer, you'll look and feel better while doing it. The best approach is to find a form of exercise you really enjoy. Then you can add pleasure to your day while adding years to your life. And you'll reduce stress, too.

This excellent news comes by way of FuturePundit, who suggests that pet ownsership might be a good approach. (The stress-reducing health benefits of pet ownership have been widely established.) Randall puts it like this:

This result strikes me as an argument for getting a dog that is big enough to run as fast as you can. Those little pint-sized dogs just can't keep up to a human running at full gait. Dogs are great personal trainers, coming to you every day trying to get you to take them for a walk or run.

Good advice, but perhaps a bit too limiting. Some pint-size dogs are pretty quick, while some humans -- even at full gait -- are fairly slow. Plus, who hasn't seen big dogs literally dragging their dimminutive owners down the path? It seems the dragging would cut into the exercise that the human is getting. Besides, any pet can assist in a daily exercise rotuine if the pet owner is creative enough. For example, a tropical fish enthusiast might decide to take the little darlings along on a walk. Carrying the fish tank would provide an excellent upper-body workout, and trying not to slosh all the water on the sidewalk would be good for overall balance and coordination.


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Item 3
On All the Time 

A web camera in a Norwegian artist's living room in California allowed her sons in Norway and the Philippines to see that she had collapsed and call for help, one of the sons said Friday.

webcam.jpgThe good news:

A lot of folks are worried about how the world will change as cameras continue to get smaller and more ubiquitous. And there may, indeed, be plenty to worry about. But for every news story that suggests we're all heading for a life sentence in the panopticon, there is another to suggest that transparency will be a tremendous benefit to the most vulnerable members of society.

Or as Glenn Reynolds put it -- "The Internet: If it saves just one life, it's worth it!"

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arabic.gifItem 4
Babel Fish Drafted

We wrote about exciting developments in real-time translation technology in the last Better All The Time . Now here's a real-world application:

The risky business of battle-zone translation could get a technological boost, however, as researchers prepare to test a system that instantly translates spoken conversations to and from English and Iraqi Arabic.

Funded by Darpa, the system would allow troops to communicate in Arabic through a laptop computer equipped with voice recognition and translation software. Troops could speak in English and have their words instantly translated into Iraqi Arabic, "spoken" by a computerized man's voice. The program also translates Arabic into English.

The good news:

The job of translator has been a hard one for the US to fill in Iraq, and where personnel have been found to fill this vital position, it has been difficult to ensure their saftey. This system will help to compensate for that shortage.


It's easy to imagine that the system will get used in a lot of scenarios where the presence of a formal translator was never even proposed. The troops should get a tremendous boost from being able to make themselves understood -- and to understand the folks around them -- in dozens of day-to-day situations where misunderstandings regularly occur.

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Item 5
Putting the Bio in Biodiesel

kfcjeep.jpgDaimlerChrysler, the world's fifth-biggest carmaker, pledged on Thursday to help promote the use of biofuels by developing engines that can run on higher mixtures of the alternative energy sources.

It also promised it would work with other automakers and oil companies to lobby for adjusting fuel standards and creating incentives to promote biofuels.

Biofuels based on such common commodities as rapeseed oil and sugar cane are growing in popularity in Europe as countries try to cut greenhouse gas emissions -- blamed for global warming -- and crude oil import bills.

The good news:

Biofuels may not be the be-all and end-all solution to our energy problems, but it looks like they will have a role to play. Anyhow, they certainly have an interesting side to them.


Brazil is making a big push to be the Saudi Arabia of biofuels.

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Item 6
Full Mouse / Hungry Mouse

In 1999 Japanese scientists discovered the "ghrelin" hormone.  And in 2000 American researches discovered that this hormone drives appetite.

Ghrelin is still the only hormone known to directly affect appetite this way.  With the developed world getting fatter every year, scientists rushed to learn everything they could about the hormone.

They were able to track the hormone back to a gene, and then they produced a mouse without the ghrelin gene.  They expected to have a skinny, emaciated mouse.  But the mouse appeared normal.

This remained a mystery until yesterday's announcement by a group of scientists at Stanford.  These scientists have discovered another hormone, obestatin, that sends out a signal to eat less or stop eating.  It is the anti-ghrelin.  But, amazingly, it is coded by the same gene as ghrelin.

So when they knocked out the gene for the hunger hormone ghrelin, they were also knocking out the fullness hormone obestatin.  The net effect was an apparently normal mouse.

The good news:

Scientists are excited about these discoveries, in part, because both hormones are produced in the stomach instead of some more problematic area like the brain.  It is thought that an oral medication could be developed to either inhibit ghrelin or boost obestatin (or do both). 

The tricky part:

Part of the ghrelin/obestatin mystery remains:

[Dr. Rudolph Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University] said having two hormones with opposite effects embedded in the same molecule was like driving with one foot on the brake and one on the gas.

On the other hand:

We have now located both the brake and the gas. Plus, with holidays coming up, millions of people worlwide will be experimenting with their obestatin levels over the next few weeks. Let the research continue!

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Item 7
Slow-Acting Yeast

biotech4.jpg By deleting a gene that has been linked to longevity in previous studies, scientists have produced one of the longest recorded life-span extensions in any organism, and opened a new door for anti-aging research in humans.

The good news:

Obviously, any discovery that opens a new door for human anti-aging research is a good thing. The organism in question got a lifespan boost of six times over normal. The same level boost for human beings would produce a lifespan of about 450 years. Yes, there's a big difference between yeast and human beings, but this is a very encouraging development.

The tricky part:

The scientists in question made this breakthrough by removing a gene that was formerly thought to be one of the biggest helpers in increasing longevity. (We waxed enthusiastic about the SIR2 gene here and, before that, here .) This is a bit like figuring out that airplanes will fly much better if we just remove the wings. It only goes to show that the more we learn, the more surprises we are likely to encounter.

Hat-tip: Fight Aging!

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Item 8
Can you feel it coming?

WITH refugees still huddling in tents across Kashmir after tens of thousands died in October's earthquake there, the need for earthquake prediction systems is once again thrown into stark relief. Knowing that the geologically restless Himalayas will produce more, stronger quakes is no use: what people need to know is when and where a quake will strike next.

Prior to some recent quakes, scientists have detected electromagnetic pulses emanating from the ground and electromagnetic disturbances in the ionosphere, the planet's tenuous envelope of charged particles extending from about 80 to 1000 kilometres up. "There are definitely hints of something [electromagnetic] happening in the region of earthquakes before the earth moves," says Colin Price, a geophysicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Some research groups are already tunnelling underground to pick up radio pulses in the ULF range, while others are using sensor-stuffed satellites to measure radio disturbances in the ionosphere above quake-prone regions.

The good news:

Imagine the lives that could be saved if we could pinpoint the occurence of a major earthquake to within a window of a one or two days and a geographic area of, say, 100 square miles -- especially if we get a week or so of advanced notice.

Important disclaimer:

Because there have been many false dawns in earthquake prediction, Price is cautious. "But if the chances are one in a hundred that we succeed, the huge benefits of success make this research worth continuing," he says.

We will certainly second that thought.


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Item 9

  A Revolutionary Approach to Education

ourschool.jpgOur School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds (Palgrave Macmillan) tells the story of a San Jose charter school that prepares students who are "failing but not in jail"  for four-year colleges.  

It really is an inspiring story. The average Downtown College Prep student comes from a Mexican immigrant family and enters ninth grade reading at a fifth grade level; 100 percent of graduates have been accepted at four-year colleges and 97 percent are on track to earn a bachelor's degree.  DCP now scores well above the state average on the Academic Performance Index, ranking in the top third compared to all high schools, including affluent suburban schools.  DCP follows what I call the work-your-butt-off philosophy of education. Its leaders analyze what's not working, adapt quickly and waste no time on esteem inflation or excuses.

The good news:

Hmmm...this "work your butt off" thing sounds highly radical and controversial. But there could be something there.

A random thought:

Any chance the organizers of Downtown College Prep might end up running their local school board?

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Item 10
Here Comes the Sun

The sun has stopped shining in Rattenberg. But with the aid of a few mirrors, the winter darkness that grips this small town could soon be brightened up with pockets of sunshine.

That's because sun is plentiful less than 10 minutes' walk from the town and from Rat Mountain, the 3,000-foot hill that blocks its sunlight between November and February each year.

The solution: 30 heliostats, essentially rotating mirrors, mounted on a hillside to grab sunshine off reflectors from the neighboring village of Kramsach.

The good news:

Not only will the town be a little brighter with the reflected sunlight, the additional light will help to ward off depression and will probably be good for business.

Other thoughts:

This is a good test run for manipulating the sun's power. More ambitious efforts will come later.

And isn't it interesting that, although mirrors have been around for a long time, this kind of approach has never been tried before? The people of Rattenburg have this idea that technology can and should be used to improve their world. That idea is as important as the technology itself.

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

Live to see it!


I live on the other side of the mountains from Utah's main population centers. It's hard to get decent radio reception here. We have a few translator stations, but they obviously can't cover every station. I've wondered for years if there were something like an rf mirror that would do something like this for radio signals.

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