The Speculist: Better All The Time #31


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Better All The Time #31

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


This edition of Better All The Time presents a wide selection of good news delights: ham radio operators, sexy girls, nerds, tiger cubs, musical robots, geeks, baby gorillas, LED light solutions, sexy girls with tattoos (yes, of course it's a separate category), yummy seafood, coral reefs, and miniature nuclear power plants. Enjoy!

Today's Good Stuff:



  Quote of the Day

Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.

Mark Twain 



Item 1
Officials: Ham Radio Operators Are Storm's 'Unsung Heroes'

When parts of Oregon were overwhelmed by wind and water during the recent storm, vital communication often was lacking, with trees down and across phone lines and cell coverage limited.

Even the state police had difficulty in reaching some of their own troops.

But ham radio worked.

In fact, amateur radio operators were heralded by state emergency officials as heroes. Ham radio is more than just a hobby to some. It can set up networks for government and emergency officials to communicate when other communication services fail.

The Good News:

And in this case, that's exactly how it worked out:

A network of at least 60 volunteer amateur radio operators working along the coast and inland helped from keep crucial systems such as 911 calls, American Red Cross and hospital services connected. They relayed information about patient care and relayed lists of supplies needed in areas cut off by water.

In addition to getting an FCC license to operate, certain groups of operators are cleared by the federal government to work as emergency responders.

"Amateurs in name only"...indeed. Way to go, hams!




Item 2
Tattoos Could Replace Needle Sticks For Diabetics

A diabetes "tattoo" might be just the thing to relieve diabetes sufferers of the constant pain of needle sticks. Most glucose-monitoring methods require that a blood sample be taken using a needle; researchers have long sought a non-invasive test method. Finding a less painful way of monitoring blood sugar could make a real difference to the 6.7 percent of Americans who have diabetes.

Gerard Cote, biomedical engineering professor in the Dwight Look College of Engineering, is testing an experimental system using fluorescent polymer microbeads implanted just under a patient's skin. Glucose levels affect how much light the beads emit when exposed to laser light; the blood glucose level could be measured with a wristwatch-like monitor.

When injected under the skin, the microbeads cannot enter cells - unlike tattooing, in which cells absorb the pigment. The beads remain in the spaces between the cells; these interstitial spaces are filled with water and glucose molecules. According to Dr. Cote, the level of glucose in interstitial fluid is directly related to the blood glucose level measured by the traditional needle-stick method.

The good news:

Speaking as someone who has to take daily injections (for a different condition, not diabetes) I know how much pain and trouble is involved. This technique may help significantly reduce both for a lot of folks who have to deal with diabetes. So here's hoping.


There is no word yet on the aesthetic aspects...



Item 3
Robot Plays the Violin

The race to produce the first practical home robots has heated up with Toyota's new range - including one that plays the violin.

In a demonstration of the new robots' achievements, Toyota brought out a 152 cm (5 ft), two-legged robot dextrous enough to play a few stanzas -- complete with vibrato sound -- from Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance", a popular tune at graduation ceremonies.

Toyota said it planned to further advance the robot's dexterity to enable it to use tools and assist with domestic duties and nursing and medical care. The robot has 17 joints in both of its hands and arms now.

The good news...

...isn't that we've got a new mechanical/electronic means of reproducing music. This is a lot of trouble to go to for that, totally cool though it may be. No, the good news is that we now have robots taking on very sophisticated manual tasks, implying that they will be able to perform more practical functions requiring precision and manual dexterity.

On the other hand, teach him a few more numbers and he might be kind of fun for parties.


Item 4
Compact Nukes -- The Good Kind

How about a portable, safe nuclear power plant?

Often referred to as a “cartridge” reactor or “nuclear battery,” the Hyperion hydride reactor is self- regulating with no moving parts to break down or corrode. The inherent properties of uranium hydride serve as both fuel and moderator providing unparalleled safety among nuclear reactors.

Sealed at the factory, the module is not opened until it is time for the unit to be “refueled,” approximately every five years or so by the manufacturer. This containment, along with the strategy of completely burying the module at the operating site, protects against the possibility of human incompetence, or hostile tampering and proliferation.

One of the largest problems in the energy industry today is the transmission of power from large generating facilities to distant locations. Currently, enormous infrastructure costs, reliability and loss issues plague this effort.

The good news:

It's a nuclear reactor that can fit in a rail car. Non-greenhouse-gas emitting, and -- according to Hyperion -- free from any danger of meltdown, or other nasty radiation incident.


One of the initial applications proposed for the generator is to power the recovery of oil from shale fields. So maybe we'll use an alternative energy source to acquire an alternative energy source! Sounds like a good idea.



Item 5
Gorillas at Large

A couple of positive developments where gorillas are concerned:

In the first story, a pair of reintroduced Western Gorillas have given birth to a baby named Okeli in Gabon. The birth marks the first time reintroduced gorillas have had a baby in the wild in Gabon.

Okeli’s parents Marco and Lekedi were both orphans. They were born in the wild in Gabon, but poachers killed their entire families. A wildlife conservation group rescued them and sent them to a rehab and reintroduction center run by the Aspinall Foundation.

The Aspinall Foundation has reintroduced 14 gorillas into Gabon since 2002. They aim to re-establish a healthy population in the region as part of an effort to save the critically endangered Western gorilla from extinction.

The second story involves a group of Western Lowland gorillas known as the Taiping Four. The three female and one male gorillas were sent to the Taiping zoo in Malaysia in 2002 and branded as gorillas from a breeding program in Nigeria.

However, officials quickly realized that the gorillas, all juveniles at the time, were born in the wild and most likely orphaned by bush meat hunters. This would mean the gorillas had been smuggled into Nigeria by poachers.

The gorillas’ plight has become a cause celebre. Many people felt the gorillas should be returned to the wild rather than face the rest of their life in a zoo. Red-faced Malaysian authorities sent the animals to a South African zoo in 2004. The gorillas had arrived on a South African Airlines flight, so the Malaysian officials decided it was a South African problem.

Finally, the arrangements for the return of the gorillas to the wild have been finalized. The animals were flown to Cameroon before being trucked to the country’s Limbe Nature Preserve in the southwest.
Hyperion is small and portable enough to be transported by railcar, ship or truck and offers the long-awaited answer to the need for cost-efficient, practical power sources in rural or remote locations; from oil fields to water purification.

The good news:

The photo above says it all -- mother and child. There's room enough on this planet both for us and our powerful, forest-dwelling cousins.



Item 6
Tiger cub may hold future in his paws

If the preceding wasn't enough good cute-endangered-wildlife-baby news for you, don't worry. There's more:

With his eyes open for little more than a day, an 11-day old cub, the newest addition to one of the world's rarest cat species, the South China tiger, was revealed at his birthplace in South Africa.

The birth of the exceptionally rare tiger has generated huge interest from around the world as he is the first of his species to be born in captivity outside of China.

"There has been humongous (massive) interest in this little baby," said Li Quan, founder of the Save China's Tigers Organisation, of the male tiger who was born on November 23 at Laohu Valley Reserve in the Free State Province.

"It is the first time a South China tiger is born into a project and born outside China. Because of their highly endangered state there are only about 60 to 70 left (in captivity) and between 10 and 30 in the wild," she told AFP.

"They are highly precious, there are so few of them."

The cub, who has not yet been named, was the first born to mother Cathay and father TigerWoods, who have been successfully returned to the wild in South Africa.

The cub is being hand-reared after unseasonally cold weather meant he had to be removed from his mother to prevent him from dying from exposure.

"Our first priority is to have the mother rearing cub, but we had to take into account the weather and the fact that the mother could reject the cub."

Quan said the goal would be to return the cub to the wild as well, for eventual return to China. This rehabilitation process could start as early as when he is a month old when he will be taken to see his mother and other tigers.

"So he will know he is a tiger and not a human being," said Quan.

The good news:

With so much going on in China, and with concern for the environment being a relatively recent priority there, it's very encouraging to see this kind of progress being made. Hang in there, tiger.



Item 7

Breakthrough On World's Most Efficient LEDs

LED Lighting Fixtures of Morrisville, North Carolina will announce today that it has made a technology breakthrough that will dramatically lower the cost of LEDs (light emitting diodes).

CEO Neal Hunter told the Raleigh News and Observer that his company is developing a lamp that uses less energy than its current LED fixtures but emits the same amount of light. He said a just-released federal study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology confirms that the product is the most efficient in the world. It uses 5.8 watts of power, compared with 60 watts for an equally bright incandescent bulb.

According to the National Institute report, the new fixture uses less than 9 percent of the energy consumed by common bulbs and less than 30 percent of that consumed by fluorescent lights. LLF's best existing product consumes 15 percent of the energy used by an incandescent bulb and 50 percent of that used by fluorescents.

The good news:

If this pans out, we can save money, save the planet, and not have to light our homes with those wonderful (yet some would argue cold and uninviting) compact fluorescent bulbs


Of course, I currently do use CFs in my garage and basement. And I'm looking forward to a good alternative to the incandescent bulb for lighting my home. Maybe this is it?


Item 8
Gently Trawling Along

TASTY species live at the bottom of the sea. Plucking these morsels from their habitat, however, is often a violent affair that destroys other denizens of the deep. Now researchers have developed a more benign way to fish.

Trawling is the most widespread form of fishing. But bottom trawling is brutal. It uses an enormous, toothed bar mounted on a device called a dredge to scrape the seabed. Dredging throws the intended catch up into a cloud that is captured by a net trailing behind. Unfortunately, the cloud contains a lot of other stuff. Anything at or just below the surface of the seabed—the benthic zone, in fishery parlance—gets dragged up. The result is that a lot of other types of fish, crustaceans and molluscs are caught unintentionally.

More worryingly, sponges, seaweeds and centuries-old coral are destroyed. This is serious because such sessile creatures are not merely part of the ecosystem. In a sense, they are the ecosystem—in the way that it is plants rather than animals that define a forest. Indeed, trawling has been compared to clear-cutting trees. And from a practical point of view, this destruction of habitat contributes to the dwindling of fish stocks worldwide.

However, in one case—scallop trawling—Cliff Goudey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reckons he has a solution. He and his team have designed a dredge that can dislodge scallops without touching the seafloor.

The dredge has several hemispheric scoops in place of the toothed bar. As it is pulled along, the scoops direct water downward. That creates a series of gentle jets that can shuffle the scallops from their resting places—but the streams of water are not powerful enough to damage the benthic zone's long-term tenants. And the scoops swivel out of the way if they encounter anything solid, so the dredge does not destroy such protuberances. Best of all, from the fisherman's point of view, it takes less effort to float a dredge on water jets than it does to drag it across the uneven surface of the seabed. That makes Dr Goudey's new device a more fuel-efficient way to fish than the traditional method.

The good news:


Plus we can have them and still have this:





Item 9

Triumph of the Nerds Geeks

On the most recent edition of FastForward Radio, Stephen and I chatted with guest PJ Manney on a number of topics, including the age-old question, "Why are geeks so nerdy?"


A quick overview for those not familiar with the way we're using these terms:

A nerd is a person with a keen interest in and mastery of a wide variety of subjects, including Star Trek, physics, Dungeons and Dragons, COBOL, Worlds of Warcraft, C++, Dr. Who, Ham Radio, Linux, -- and the list goes on and on -- who is possessed of a curiously underdeveloped set of social skills.

A geek is a person with a keen interest in and mastery of a wide variety of subjects, including Star Trek, physics, Dungeons and Dragons, COBOL, Worlds of Warcraft, C++, Dr. Who, Ham Radio, Linux, --and the list goes on and on -- who is possessed of a somewhat more robust -- though by no means "normal" -- set of social skills.

For the record, Stephen and I self-identify as geeks. But that doesn't stop us from closely identifying with this scenario. Painful. The clip is from the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, in which several nerds strive for geekdom, generally not too successfully. (But they keep trying.)

The figurative pot of gold at the end at the end of the rainbow for our hero, Leonard -- the lest nerdy member of the gang, although it's a subtle distinction -- would be the love of the girl next door, Penny (Kaley Cuoco). She's the pretty girl who left.


The good news:

So as the three of us chatted about Leonard and his plight, and the plight of all the Leonards we have known and/or been over the years, it occurred to us that maybe we've already found our pot of gold. After all, isn't it amazing that a show like this can feature four such characters not as the annoying neighbors or as the object of derision or pity of the real heroes of the show? These guys are the heroes. In a world made new by the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, there may still be no guarantee that our hero will get the girl -- was there ever?

But there is no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, who we're rooting for.



Better All The Time was compiled by Phil Bowermaster. Live to see it!


Portable nuclear power? Does it look like a Mr Coffee coffee maker? I mean, will it fit in a car.

And the really amazing thing is they named their baby Okeli.

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