The Speculist: Better All The Time #30


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Better All The Time #30

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


Thanksgiving is an excellent time to take a look at the wold around us and ponder a few of the more positive developments. So here's your chance to do just that. 

Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. Talk Yourself Smart
  2. 300 MPG 
  3. The Cancer Bubble
  4. The Cancer-Proof Mouse
  5. What's New
  6. DNA Personalized
  7. Stem Cells from Skin Cells
  8. Big Fish
  9. Chocolate Saves the World



  Quote of the Day

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

John F. Kennedy



Item 1
Chat Your Way to a Smarter You

The gift of gab could boost brainpower, new research suggests.

A U.S. team found that talking to another person for 10 minutes a day improves memory and test scores.

They found that "socializing was just as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise in boosting memory and intellectual performance," lead author Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, said in a prepared statement.

In one investigation, they analyzed data on 3,610 people, ages 24 to 96.

They found that the higher their level of social interaction, the better their cognitive functioning. Social interaction included getting together or having phone chats with relatives, friends and neighbors.

The good news:

We shouldn't be surprised to learn that interacting with others makes us smarter. As pleasant as having a chat with a friend or co-worker may be, there is serious mental heavy lifting taking place every time we do it. Assuming we have a standard set of social skills in place, we are constantly checking in to see if the other party is still paying attention, is following what we're saying, is not offended by what we're saying, etc. Just sitting around and thinking — even thinking about some very challenging subject — could be relatively easy by comparison.

So we no longer have to worry that enjoying a chat is somehow a waste of time. It is mental time well spent.


These findings have profound implications for office life. Now when the boss catches you and your buddies standing around the coffee machine chewing the fat and orders you to get back to work, you have the perfect response: "Ease up, there, Chief — we're just sharpening our wits for the rest of the day's work!"


Here is proof (if you ever needed it) that you should not just listen to FastForward Radio. You should definitely call in.




Item 2
300 MPG...

...but only when you feel like burning gas at all:

Aptera announced today that it would be producing both an all-electric and hybrid version of the 300 MPG prototype we told you about in July. The Aptera Typ-1 plug-in hybrid uses an all-electric drive train coupled to a small diesel gas engine and will achieve 300 MPG, while the all-electric version has a total range of 120 miles. The company claims that the car (categorized as a motorcycle by the Dept. of Transportation) in either form will be available for under $30,000! Aptera is Greek for "Wingless Flight," so let's hope this isn't a flight-of-fancy. The company will take a $500 reservation deposit if you live in Southern California (and has taken 400 already)...

The good news:

I've been arguing for a long time that motorcycles are a great alternative to cars when you consider them from the standpoint of fuel consumption, and that somebody ought to design a stable one with a hard covering that can be driven like a car. I always thought this would involve making a three-wheeled bike, but apparently not. The Aptera looks like it pulls it off with two wheels in tandem. So it's a motorcycle that looks kind of like a spaceship, and did we mention that it gets (at the worst) 33 miles to the gallon? Sweet.



Item 3
Cooking Cancer with Bubbles

As we reported earlier this week:

An Oxford University team is developing a new cancer fighting technique that is noninvasive, does not use toxic chemicals, or radioactivity. It is called Hifu - High Intensity Focused Ultrasound.

This is the same principle behind burning leaves with a magnifying glass. But here, instead of focusing light, they are focusing ultrasound. When the ultrasound focuses, bubbles are generated within the body. When the bubbles pop, sufficient heat is released to kill surrounding cells - which, hopefully, are cancer cells.

The good news:

An innovative and non-destructive way of dealing with cancer. We need to see a lot more of that. Take the next item, for example.



Item 4
The Cancer-Proof Mouse

Speaking of the aformentioned, The Speculist has featured some other good news on the cancer front in the form of both out print and audio interviews with Dr. Zheng Cui, the discoverer of the cancer-proof mouse.

In 1999, my lab encountered a mouse that was expected to die upon a lethal injection of cancer cells that uniformly killed all other normal mice we tested before, several dozens or even several hundreds. But he didn’t. In the following years, we came to realize that the ability of survival from lethal cancer challenges was a genetic trait that can be passed on to 40% of offspring if one parent was cancer-resistant.

The good news:

The good news is that a tendency towards being cancer-proof exists in human beings as well as mice, and Dr. Cui will soon be performing a trial with human subjects to see if cancer immunity is something that can be shared.


Item 5
There's 96 More Where this one Came From

Popular Science has published their annual gadget round-up, the Best of What's New. The best of the best is the Nano-Solar Panel:


Imagine a solar panel without the panel. Just a coating, thin as a layer of paint, that takes light and converts it to electricity. From there, you can picture roof shingles with solar cells built inside and window coatings that seem to suck power from the air. Consider solar-powered buildings stretching not just across sunny Southern California, but through China and India and Kenya as well, because even in those countries, going solar will be cheaper than burning coal. That’s the promise of thin-film solar cells: solar power that’s ubiquitous because it’s cheap. The basic technology has been around for decades, but this year, Silicon Valley–based Nanosolar created the manufacturing technology that could make that promise a reality. The company produces its PowerSheet solar cells with printing-press-style machines that set down a layer of solar-absorbing nano-ink onto metal sheets as thin as aluminum foil, so the panels can be made for about a tenth of what current panels cost and at a rate of several hundred feet per minute. With backing from Google’s founders and $20 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, Nanosolar’s first commercial cells rolled off the presses this year.

The good news:

These panels bring the cost of implementing solar energy down, while bringing efficiency way up. Solar energy lessens our dependence on fossil fuels, which is good for the environment, and probably good for the planet in lots of other ways as well.



Item 6
Personal Gene Sequencing

"Yesterday, deCODE genetics announced the launch of their $985 personal genotyping product, deCODEme (video), beating their competitors to market. Perhaps not coincidentally, 23andMe's website is suddenly much more informative today, and the New York Times features a preview of 23andMe's $999 offering. deCODEme and 23andMe will scan about a million and 600,000 sites across the genome, respectively and assess your risk for common diseases, along with providing information about ancestry, physical traits, and the ability to compare genes with friends and family."

The good news:

It's not that long ago that sequencing a single human genome seemed a project beyond the reach of technology; now everyone's individual sequence is available. And the more we learn about the human genome overall, the more useful individual gene sequencing will be for treating disease and overcoming other health problems.



Item 7
Stem Cells from Skin Cells

As reported this week as The Speculist:

Scientists have made ordinary human skin cells take on the chameleon-like powers of embryonic stem cells, a startling breakthrough that might someday deliver the medical payoffs of embryo cloning without the controversy.

Laboratory teams on two continents report success in a pair of landmark papers released Tuesday. It's a neck-and-neck finish to a race that made headlines five months ago, when scientists announced that the feat had been accomplished in mice.


"People didn't know it would be this easy," Thomson said. "Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow.


The good news:

Pluripotent stem cells are the Holy Grail of stem cell research. Up to now, these cells have been harvested from human embryos. But if these cells can be made from skin cells, we can eliminate the need to destroy embryos in order to create stem cells -- quelling a good deal of the ethical debate about stem cells. This approach also eliminates the need for a human egg to be involved in stem cell production, which is another great simplifier. Plus, since stem cells can be made from a patient's own skin cells, they will be an exact DNA match. And that is bound to help!




Item 8
The One That Didn't Get Away

Until they let it go, that is:

Captured just before midnight on November 13 by fishers in Cambodia, this Mekong giant catfish is 8 feet long (2.4 meters long) ands weighs 450 pounds (204 kilograms).

"This is the only giant catfish that has been caught this year so far, making it the worst year on record for catch of giant fish species," said Zeb Hogan (far right), a fisheries biologist at the University of Reno in Nevada.

After collecting data on the fish, Hogan released it unharmed.


The real thing:

Growing up in western Kentucky, I heard my share of stories about fish like these, and even bigger ones. Rumor had it that there were enormous bottom-feeding catfish living in the deep waters next to Kentucky Dam and Barkley Dam -- some were said to be as big as Volkswagens! Those fish were persistent in legend, but we never saw any photos of them such as the one shown above.

The National Geographic story goes on to report that population levels of the Mekong giant catfish have declined as much as 99% over the past century. The good news here is that now, when these magnificent fish are caught, they are returned to the wild.



Item 9

Let's All Do Our Part

Many people agree that chocolate is good for the soul, and researchers are finding that chocolate can be good for the body, too. But the environment? How could chocolate help with global climate change?

The answer is found in a little piece of paradise, a patch of rainforest in eastern Brazil. Everywhere you look, something is growing. Orchids nestle in the crooks of trees. There are hundreds of shades of green, and the forest is loud with birds and insects.

Some areas have been thinned out and planted with cacao trees — the source of chocolate. The pods contain the magical beans that Aztecs counted like gold. The cultivated cacao trees grow just a bit higher than a man can reach, and rainforest trees tower over them like something out of Dr. Seuss — some round like lollipops, some flat like a plate.

And here's the climate connection. Rainforest trees and plants store massive amounts of carbon — keeping it from getting into the air as carbon dioxide.


Step up, people.

Finally, an easy and proactive step we can all take to help nurture the environment. So don't be shy, folks. Support the chocolate industry. Support your planet. Have that second chocolate bar.



Better All The Time was compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. A very happy Thanksgiving to all. Oh, and lest we forget...

Live to see it!


The Aptera looks like it pulls it off with two wheels in tandem.

Nope, it is a three wheeled vehicle. The single rear wheel is the drive wheel.

From here:

What emerged, after much designing, conceptualizing, and constructing, was a prototype two-seat, three-wheeled vehicle.

Glad to see you brought back this feature.

Andrew --

Well, that does make a lot more sense, I guess, but it seems less cool somehow.

The Chad --

Thanks for reading!

I'm all for social conversation- I love the Aptera and scrubbing bubbles are good. But how does the cancer proof mouse end up 4th? Do I detect some skepticism here. Like - "c'mon, that mouse is not cancer proof ...if it was it would be on the front page of the

At long last I will reveal the secret methodology behind how the stories are ordered for BATT. Basically, I put the thumbnail photos in the graphic table of contents in an order I find visually appealing, and the stories are ordered accordingly. It has nothing to do with the size of the story. Dr. Cui just looked good down there in the second row, so his story got 4th position.

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