The Speculist: Better All The Time #36


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Better All The Time #36

"I love this feature." Glenn Reynolds. (Thanks, man.)

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


A bionic woman, a cat with a keen sense of direction, and an atom-smasher that couldn't be bothered to bring about doomsday -- it must be time for another good news roundup!

Today's Good Stuff:



  Quote of the Day

First rule of killing memes is to not talk about the memes you want to kill.

Memes are like Obi-Wan; if you strike them down, they will only grow stronger

Mike D, Speculist reader



Item 1
Anything into Oil

The smell is a mélange of midsummer corpse with fried-liver overtones and a distinct fecal note. It comes from the worst stuff in the world—turkey slaughterhouse waste. Rotting heads, gnarled feet, slimy intestines, and lungs swollen with putrid gases have been trucked here from a local Butterball packager and dumped into an 80-foot-long hopper with a sickening glorp. In about 20 minutes, the awful mess disappears into the workings of the thermal conversion process plant in Carthage, Missouri.

Two hours later a much cleaner truck—an oil carrier—pulls up to the other end of the plant, and the driver attaches a hose to the truck's intake valve. One hundred fifty barrels of fuel oil, worth $12,600 wholesale, gush into the truck, headed for an oil company that will blend it with heavier fossil-fuel oils to upgrade the stock. Three tanker trucks arrive here on peak production days, loading up with 500 barrels of oil made from 270 tons of turkey guts and 20 tons of pig fat. Most of what cannot be converted into fuel oil becomes high-grade fertilizer; the rest is water clean enough to discharge into a municipal wastewater system.

For Brian Appel—and, maybe, for an energy-hungry world—it's a dream come true, better than turning straw into gold. The thermal conversion process can take material more plentiful and troublesome than straw—slaughterhouse waste, municipal sewage, old tires, mixed plastics, virtually all the wretched detritus of modern life—and make it something the world needs much more than gold: high-quality oil.

The Good News:

An idea that addresses both our energy problems and our waste-disposal problems at the same time has got to be a good one.

My expectation is that we won't be terribly reliant on oil for energy a couple or three decades from now; however, a process such as this might still prove valuable even in a world where we don't need oil to power our vehicles. For one thing, aircraft will probably be slower to adopt alternative fueling strategies than cars and trucks (which doesn't mean that alternatives aren't being discussed.)

In any case, I like a scenario that relies on human beings continuing to produce waste. Sounds like a safe bet, doesn't it?



Item 2
Large Hadron Collider "Actually Worked"

The world's largest atom smasher's first experiment went off today without a hitch, paving the way toward the recreation of post-big bang conditions.

The Large Hadron Collider fired a beam of protons inside a circular, 17-mile (27-kilometer) long tunnel underneath villages and cow pastures at the French-Swiss border.

Inside the control room, physicists and engineers cautiously shot the beam down part of the tunnel, stopping it before it went all the way around.

"Oh, we made it through!" one person cried as the beam made it through a further section of the tunnel.

One hour after starting up, on the first attempt to send the beam circling all the way around the tunnel, it completed the trip successfully—bringing raucous applause.

The Good News

This is a banner day for science. The Large Hadron Collider will bring us to new levels of understanding of the intricate workings of the universe.


Hey, did you notice? The world didn't end! We get so used to the world not ending that sometimes we take it for granted. But in honor of our not being sucked into a giant black hole or blasted back in time to when our entire universe was nothing but diffuse particles, the Times Online has compiled a list of 30 other time the world didn't end.

If you like that sort of list, keep this in mind: those thirty days are just a tiny, tiny subset of the total number of days in which the world has not ended. In fact, we are (and I hope I don't jinx it or anything by pointing this out) batting a perfect 1000 on that score.

Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking says that the LHC is vital to our survival.



Item 3
Humans Have Astonishing Memories, Study Finds

If human memory were truly digital, it would have just received an upgrade from something like the capacity of a floppy disk to that of a flash drive. A new study found the brain can remember a lot more than previously believed.

In a recent experiment, people who viewed pictures of thousands of objects over five hours were able to remember astonishing details afterward about most of the objects.

Though previous studies have never measured such astounding feats of memory, it may be simply because no one really tried.

In the experiment, 14 people ranging from age 18 to 40 viewed nearly 3,000 images, one at a time, for three seconds each. Afterwards, they were shown pairs of images and asked to select the exact image they had seen earlier.

The test pairs fell into three categories: two completely different objects, an object and a different example of the same type of object (such as two different remote controls), and an object along with a slightly altered version of the same object (such as a cup full and another cup half-full).

Stunningly, participants on average chose the correct image 92 percent, 88 percent and 87 percent of the time, in each of the three pairing categories respectively. Though 14 subjects may not sound like a huge sample, the fact that they each recalled the objects with very similar rates of success suggests the results are not a fluke.

The good news...

What intrigues me most about this story is that it was a test that had simply never been tried before. We still have a lot to learn about what human beings truly are capable of doing, and we may well be surprised -- again and again -- to learn that we can do more than we thought we could.



Item 4
Lost cat returned home after nine years

LONDON (Reuters) - A couple have been reunited with their missing cat after nine years, the RSPCA said Wednesday.

Dixie, a 15-year-old ginger cat, disappeared in 1999 and her owners thought she had been killed by a car.

She was found less than half a mile from her home in Birmingham after a concerned resident rang the animal charity to report a thin and disheveled cat who had been in the area for a couple of months.

RSPCA Animal Collection Officer Alan Pittaway checked her microchip and confirmed it was Dixie. She was returned to her owners, Alan and Gilly Delaney, within half an hour.

The Good News:

Dixie has to get a lot of credit in this story for managing to stay alive as long as she did and for presumably finding her way back to the old 'hood. True, she might have been there all along, but it seems likely in that case that she would have found her own way home at some point over those nine years.

But the real hero of this story has got to be the microchip. Turned over to the RSPCA, what are the chances that an un-chipped Dixie would have ever traversed that final half mile?

Anyway, if you want even more pet-related good news, check out this headline:

Dogs And Cats Can Live In Perfect Harmony In The Home, If Introduced The Right Way

Whoa. Dogs and together.



Item 5
Where Sweat Equals Electricity

It sounds like something you'd only see on the Discovery Channel: people pedaling ferociously to create enough energy to power the television, stereo and lights.

Launched last week, his "human-powered" gym is one of few fitness centers in the world that runs on power generated by people working out, Boesel said.

As members pedal on stationary bicycles, a small motor connected to the stations charges batteries that power the gym's television and stereo system.

Boesel said he doesn't yet have a way to quantify the output but knows that at the moment it's relatively small. However, this is just the beginning, he said.

"Our goal is to someday create 100 percent of the electricity we use in the gym," Boesel said. "The short-term goal is to get all of the electricity we can out of the machines."

The good news:

What a great business model -- requiring your gym patrons to pay you for the privilege of generating the electricity you need to run your gym. Of course, it sounds like Boesel has a long way to go before this activity is really "running" his gym. He needs to get some elliptical and stair-climbing machines into the mix.

Also, this raises an interesting hypothetical: what kind of physical condition would we all be in if we were required to generate, through our own activity, say 5% (or even 1%) of the total electricity we use?



Item 6
Nerve Surgery Leaves Woman With Feeling in an Arm That Isn't There

Claudia Mitchell may look like your average 20-something college student. She is anything but.

As a result of an experimental surgery, Mitchell has become the first real "Bionic Woman": part human, part computer.

The "targeted reinnervation" surgery was developed by Dr. Todd Kuiken of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. It was a radical idea: a robotic arm controlled not by a patient's stump or shoulder, but by a patient's thoughts.

Mitchell, a U.S. Marine, was ready to try anything to have a second functioning arm. She volunteered for the surgery.

During the six-hour procedure in 2006, doctors took the severed and dormant nerves in Mitchell's shoulder, nerves that are used to control the movement of her arm, and put them under the muscle in her chest.

They wanted the nerves to reawaken and work her chest muscle. The doctors eventually used the electrical nerve signals from that chest muscle to power a new bionic arm.

The good news:

The linked article goes on to tell how Mitchell is learning to operate her arm via her rewired nerves. She can now perform everyday tasks such as folding clothes and chopping vegetables. And, in a development that only deepens the mystery of how the human nervous system works -- but promises to help us understand it better one day -- sensation has returned to Mitchell's "hand." That is, she can feel temperature, pressure, and other sensations in a hand that is no longer there, or -- if you prefer -- in a mechanical hand that can't possibly experience such feelings.

We've all heard of the amputees who feel a twitch or an ache in a long-absent limb. Maybe we should no longer view the ability to experience such sensations as some kind of sensory mistake, but rather as evidence of the robustness of the human nervous system. Of course, there is plenty of evidence of that robustness to be found in this young woman's ability to move her robotic arm via thought -- essentially the same way she moves her biological arm. This story offers tremendous hope not only to amputees but to victims of paralysis who hope one day to experience the basic sensation of touch.

In a related development, scientists are developing a working bionic eye which they say will be ready in five years or so. We may not yet understand the human body, but our ability to replicate its functionality is growing



Item 7
Daydream achiever

ON A SUNDAY morning in 1974, Arthur Fry sat in the front pews of a Presbyterian church in north St. Paul, Minn. An engineer at 3M, Fry was also a singer in the church choir. He had gotten into the habit of inserting little scraps of paper into his choir book, so that he could quickly find the right hymns during the service. The problem, however, was that the papers would often fall out, causing Fry to lose his place.

But then, while listening to the Sunday sermon, Fry started to daydream. Instead of focusing on the pastor's words, he began to mull over his bookmark problem. "It was during the sermon," Fry remembers, "that I first thought, 'What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.' " That errant thought - the byproduct of a wandering mind - would later become the yellow Post-it note, one of the most successful office products of all time.

Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings - such as the message of a church sermon - the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we're able to imagine things that don't actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

The good news:

On the most recent FastForward Radio, we talked about a meme that we think is well worth spreading: the notion that creativity is as important as literacy in dealing with our multi-faceted, rapidly changing world. Daydreams, it would seem, are one of the best tools we have to develop creativity. The research shows that there are two kinds of daydreams, the ones that you fall into without realizing it and the ones you enter more or less as a conscious choice. It's this latter kind that promotes creativity.

So let's start building a better future, people. Let's get going on some intentional, deliberate daydreaming.



Item 8

Long-life gene that triples chance of living to 100 found

Men who have two copies of a "long life gene" triple their odds of living nearly a century, according to a study published today.

The advantage is all down to having two "letters" of the six billion letter human genetic code that are the same and the scientists who report the find believe that this kind of understanding could have important implications for living longer and lowering the risk for age-related disease and disability.

The gene linked with better health and a longer life is called FOXO3A and although similar genes have been shown to prolong life span in other species, this is the first time that FOXO has been linked directly to longevity in humans.

The Good News:

The genetic "cure" for aging has a lot of promise for later generations of humanity. Once we get comfortable with sequencing heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer out of our offspring's genetic code, nothing will be more natural than wanting to protect them from the suffering that aging brings about.

We're still a step or two away from gene therapies that could help people who are already born avoid aging. But this is certainly an encouraging step in that direction.




Item 9

Massive floating generators, or 'eco-rigs', to provide power and food to Japan

Battered by soaring energy costs and aghast at dwindling fish stocks, Japanese scientists think they have found the answer: filling the seas with giant “eco-rigs” as powerful as nuclear power stations.

The project, which could result in village-sized platforms peppering the Japanese coastline within a decade, reflects a growing panic in the country over how it will meet its future resource needs.

The floating eco-rig generators which measure 1.2 miles by 0.5 miles (2km by 800m) are intended to harness the energy of the Sun and wind. They are each expected to produce about 300 megawatt hours of power.

The Good News:

These rigs will not just supply much-needed power to the Japanese mainland, they will be nurseries for coral and plankton, and may ultimately help to rebuild Japanese fisheries. Plus, I think there's a fair chance that these rigs -- once implemented -- would become interesting communities. Bigger than a ship, smaller than an island. Tourism might ultimately become a side business. I know I wouldn't mind spending some time on one.




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


With regard to item #3, Humans have astonishing memories, it's just not true to say that the Brady et al. study (PNAS 2008) is the first study of its kind. Indeed, Brady describes on the first page of his paper a number of similar studies done 35 years ago or more.

Standing (1973) showed people 10,000 photographs for 5 seconds each. In forced choice recognition, they were on average 86% correct on first test, and dropped only 11% at a test 2 days later. Standing, Conezio, & Haber (1970) showed a similar result with 2560 stimuli - up to 90% recognition accuracy even after 3 days.

While Standing (1973) has been criticized for having forced choice recognition pairs that were relatively easily distinguishable, Standing et al. (1970) used distractors that were mirror-reversals of the targets. They also reduced stimulus exposure time to as little as 1 second per item with no real effect on recognition accuracy.

Shepard (1967) started this approach with a study using 612 stimuli. So, it's just not accurate to say that no-one ever thought of doing this sort of thing before. Brady has improved on the paradigm, certainly, but his results are not the least bit surprising to anyone with any background in memory research.

Shepard, R.N. (1967). Recognition memory for words, sentences, and pictures. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 156�163.

Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10,000 pictures. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Vol. 25(2), 207-222.

Standing, L., Conezio, J., & Haber, R.N. (1970). Perception and memory for pictures: Single trial learning of 2500 visual stimuli. Psychonomic Science, 19, 73�74.

Changing World Technologies has actually been around for a couple of years. I try and keep an eye on them because they've got a useful technology that I'd love to see more widespread. They also have a competitor that uses a different process to do exactly the same thing.

Patrick --

Now that's what I call a well-documented blog comment!

Actually, I was just going on what Brady said in the linked article:

"People had never tested whether people could remember this much detail about this many objects," said researcher Timothy Brady, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT. "Nobody actually pushed it this far."

But either way -- if such capabilities were known and understood before this particular research, the amazing part is that we (or at least I) never heard much about it.

Something that is missing from your Postit Note story is that 3M has a policy of requiring its senior people to spend 15% of their work time working on projects that are not their usual job. In other words 3M encourages daydreaming and working on outside projects.

The Post-It note has an amusing side-bar. Fry made several hundred prototype pads of Post-It notes and distributed them among senior management secretaries for evaluation. When they ran out they came to him for more and found out there were no more. It drove them crazy because they had become so handy.

This story was documented 10 years ago in a tv program called (if my memory serves) "In Search of Excellence"

That memory trick could be an alternative to passwords for logging in to sites. After you had been trained on the picture set, the site could show you a bunch of choices, and if you're 90% accurate it only needs to give you a dozen or so in order to authenticate you. Questions include, how long after the training can the testing be done, i.e. how permanent is the memory? What about repeated testing, will exposure to false alternative pictures eventually contaminate the originals because the alternatives will look familiar too? And how do they find people willing to spend hours and hours being trained on 3000 pictures at 3 seconds each (let alone 10000 at 5 seconds!)?

How many subliminals are we remembering (and acting upon) at a rate of 1 frame-full 30 times a second for">N hours per day?

Whatever attenuation is caused by the short interval is certainly compensated by repetition; either within the same 20-something second ad, or the ad itself is repeated (sometimes more than once within a given barrage of adds)

I would really like to know if there is an emergent pattern that arises among all the advertisers fighting for mindshare; something like Game of Life glider-guns or oscillators for example.

The story of the glue used for the Post-it Note is interesting too.

IN 1968 3M chemist Spencer Silver invented a glue that didn't stick very well.

"Pessimists would have called this a failure; Silver viewed it as a challenging puzzle. What could an underachieving adhesive be useful for? Silver pondered this question, and he posed it to his 3M colleagues as well. But while many people found the adhesive scientifically interesting, no one proposed any practical applications for it. In time, Silver decided one potential product was a bulletin board, and in the early seventies, 3M introduced a product called the Post-it Bulletin Board. �It was literally a piece of paper that had a photograph of a cork bulletin board on it,� recalls Pat Gaudio Edwards, a former 3M marketing coordinator. The photograph was covered with a layer of Silver�s glue, so you could stick a document to it without using a thumbtack.

Sales were disappointing, however. Part of the problem was that it wasn�t just documents that stuck to the board�s surface; dust did, too. Perhaps more importantly, there just wasn�t much demand for a better bulletin board. To create a truly great product, you need a truly great problem, and the truth was, traditional bulletin boards worked fine for most people. Thumbtacks weren�t that costly, and who cared if they left a hole in, say, the flyer announcing the annual company picnic? For super-fussy collectors of corporate communications ephemera, the Post-it Bulletin Board was a dream product. For everyone else, it was just a linty photo of a genuine cork bulletin board.

Still, Silver continued to believe in his unusual adhesive, and he continued to evangelize about it to his 3M colleagues. At every in-house 3M seminar where there was an available slot, Silver demonstrated his discovery, and it was at one of these seminars that Fry�s golfing partner first heard about the substance. Intrigued, Fry attended one of Silver�s presentations, too. But like everyone else who�d seen the glue, a potential use for it stumped him.

And then one day, in the North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul, inspiration struck..."

...[what Phil said]


I believe this is the next step on the way to the development of nanotech cell repair mechanisms. With this kind of detail, developers will know exactly what environment the nanobots will be dealing with:

"We have shown that at ultrasonic frequencies, intracellular nanomaterial causes sufficient wave scattering that a probe outside the cell can detect it," said Ali Passian of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "This provides a non-invasive way of looking inside a cell, so eliminating the need to cut up the cell or inject artificial light-emitting molecules into it to find out whether or not a certain type of nanoparticle is present."

Nanoparticles show great promise for medical applications, such as drug delivery, but their toxic effects need to be investigated. Scientists would therefore like to visualize nanoparticles inside cell structures to see how the particles enter and interact with cells.

The team, which includes researchers from the University of Tennessee and Northwestern University in Illinois, exposed mice to single-walled carbon nanohorn particles. The researchers killed the mice a few days later and isolated macrophages from the animals' lungs and red blood cells. They placed the cells on a substrate that they vibrated at ultrasonic frequencies of around 4 MHz.

Travelling vibrations
As the vibrations travel through the cells, different delays or phase shifts are created depending on the cell's composition. By measuring these phase shifts, Passian and colleagues were able to build up a map of the cell interior (see figure). Analysis of the maps revealed nanoparticles between about 70 and 110 nm in size inside lung macrophages and blood cells.

"Our method provides an alternative way to study a cell under ambient conditions without the need to place it in a vacuum, coat it with metal, bombard it with electrons or insert other molecules into it," explained Passian. "This is not the case with other techniques, such as electron microscopy or fluorescence tagging."

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