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Better All The Time #29

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


We're a bit overdue on getting this edition out. But that's what you've got to love about good news -- it always arrives at the right time.


Today's Good Stuff:


    Quote of the Day
  1. Hybrid 2.0
  2. The Bug Eyes 
  3. Return of the Ibis
  4. Flying Carpet
  5. Star Wars
  6. The Future and its Friends
asteroid.jpg photo170w.jpg


Quote of the Day

Sometimes I think we're alone. Sometimes I think we're not. In either case, the thought is staggering.

-- Buckminster Fuller


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Item 1
Not Your Father's Old Hybrid-Mobile


GM, DaimlerChrysler and the BMW Group have developed a flexible hybrid and four gear system that will challenge the current hybrids from Toyota, Honda and others.

The new technology, which all three manufacturers will integrate into multiple vehicles starting next year, can optimize the combination of the electric motor and ICE for low and high speeds as well as for towing.

The companies say this will enable greater fuel efficiency and power than the current of generation of hybrids, which have similar fuel efficiency ratings for city and highway travel. The trio will reduce the cost of introducing the technology by sharing components and suppliers.

If the technology works as labeled, this could be "the empire strikes back" at the Japanese automakers. Hopefully hybrid diesels will be in the mix, meaning we could see 70 mpg cars.

The good news:

Well, improvements in hybrid technology can only be a good thing. And you have to love this idea of the US and Japan getting into a "war" over who can squeeze the most MPG out of a hybrid vehicle!



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bugeyes.jpgItem 2
Scientists Finally Make Something Useful

It's about time::

LOS ANGELES, April 27 (Xinhua)-- Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, said on Thursday that they have created anew mechanical eye, which looks and works like an insect's eye.

The eye's many lenses and curved shape give it a wide field of view, as well as super-fast motion detection and image recognition, the researchers reported in the April 28 issue of the journal Science.

Minute cameras and motion sensors with these types of lenses could have medical, industrial and military applications, according to the researchers.

The good news:

An artificial insect eye will have tons of applications, especially in conjunction with very small robots that will probably emulate insect flying. In the near future, we'll probably all take a swarm with us wherever we go.

On the other hand:

Not everybody thinks the whole swarm thing is necessarily a good idea.

But that's okay:

Bug-eyed flying robots are an important step along the way towards utility fog. Everyone should be able to agree that we have to have that.



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Item 3
A Rare Bird

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A flock of one of the world's most endangered birds — the white-shouldered ibis — has been discovered in a remote province in northeast Cambodia, a conservationist said Monday.

A flock of between 20 and 30 white-shouldered ibis, a critically endangered species with only 250 existing in the wild, was found in a protected wetland in Stung Treng province, said ecological adviser Kong Kimsreng of the Mekong Wetland Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use project.

The Good News:

Unless you've got some kind of personal problem with the white-shouldered ibis, this one pretty much speaks for itself.




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aladdin_jasmine_carpet.jpg Item 4
I've Got Some Good News, and I've Got Some Dumb News

First things first, the good news:

A GIANT flexible solar panel that is unfurled into space like a carpet could one day make long-haul space flight possible without using nuclear propulsion. Space scientist Rudolf Meyer at the University of California, Los Angeles, has designed a "flying carpet" formed of a solar-electric membrane. The membrane would supply power to an array of ion engines, in which xenon ions are attracted to a high-voltage grid and pushed out of a nozzle.

So far so good. Sounds like a pretty neat idea.

And now the dumb news:

The proposed design will require significant advances in solar panel technology before it becomes a reality. If successful, it could provide an alternative to nuclear-powered spacecraft such as NASA's planned Prometheus mission to Jupiter and its moons. Nuclear power is considered undesirable because an accident, or the dumping of crippled or spent spacecraft, would pollute interplanetary space with radioactive material.

Er, right. Well, we certainly would want to introduce any dangerous radiation into the otherwise pristine environment of outer space, now would we?




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Item 5
Fighting Fire with Fire

As we reported just yesterday on the blog, this might actually work:

It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. A potentially deadly asteroid is heading for Earth, and scientists mount a mission to intercept it – using another asteroid. But that is exactly what two French researchers propose in a plan to capture and "park" a small asteroid near the Earth for just such emergencies.

Good News:

Not only will we be saved from a doomsday scenario; our friend Michael Anissimov reports that a captured asteroid would probably yield trillions of dollars -- yes, that's trillions with a t -- in natural resources. Nice!




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Item 6

Consistently Inspirational

Earlier this week, Virginia Postrel provided an update on how her friend Sally Satel is doing in her recovery from kidney transplant surgery.

Virginia has been a major influence and a consistent source of inspiration for us at The Speculist. Her books The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style have important things to say about how the world is changing, who is driving those changes, and what the emerging world might look like. Her ideas have been featured in virtually every edition of the Carnival of Tomorrow that we have hosted. Plus, we just end up linking and/or referring to her quite a bit. (Here's an example. Here's another. Here's yet another. Here's one more.)

What we like best about Virginia is that she is the genuine article. Let's face it -- everybody wants to "make a better world." But to what lengths are most of us willing to go? Are we ready to put our money where our mouths are? How about something more precious than money?

The good news:

Unless people like Leon Kass get their way, someday patients with failing kidneys will be able to get made-to-order replacements that are exact genetic matches, either through therapeutic cloning or some now-unknown future technology. Now, however, if your kidneys stop working, you have three options: die, go on dialysis (regularly described as "living hell" by dialysis patients and their loved ones), or find a donor kidney. And donor kidneys are in short supply, made shorter by legal restrictions and social taboos.

Last fall, my friend Sally Satel wrote about the issue in general and her own search for a kidney donor. Between the time she wrote the article and the time it appeared in the NYT, I heard about her situation and volunteered as a donor. Our tissues turned out to be unusually compatible for nonrelatives and, when her Internet donor dropped out, I moved from backup to actual donor. We have our surgeries tomorrow morning.

As surgeries go, the procedure is safe and straightforward--far more so than people think. A donor can live a completely normal life with one kidney. The recipientis not so lucky, since a foreign organ requires a lifetime of immunosuppressant drugs. But that's a lot better than the alternative.

Updates on the successful procedure can be found here and here.

Meanwhile, here's the latest on efforts to produce organs artificially in the lab. We're closing in on it.

It would be so easy for those of us who believe that a radically different future is on the way to use that as some kind of excuse for inaction (or "delayed" action) in the here and now. Not Viriginia Postrel. In coming to the aid of her friend, she affirms those qualities that we need most both in today's world and in the world that's coming -- friendship, compassion, and courage.

Virginia, we salute you.




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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster, Stephen Gordon, and Michael Sargent.

Live to see it!


"super-fast motion detection and image recognition"

I'll believe it when I see it. There is nothing easy about object recognition, and we're painfully far from getting a good system.

This work is excellent, but far from universal

"pollute interplanetary space with radioactive material"

Makes you wonder what they think is going on with that big, round, yellow thing that rises each morning ...

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