The Speculist: Better All the Time #37


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Better All the Time #37

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


In honor of FastForward Radio's one-year anniversary on Bog Talk Radio, we present these nine good news stories -- some of which were suggested by FastForward Radio Listeners!

Today's Good Stuff:



  Quote of the Day

All appears to change when we change.

Henri-Frédéric Amiel



Item 1
Stem Cells without Side Effects

Last year, researchers announced one of the most promising methods yet for creating ethically neutral stem cells: reprogramming adult human cells to act like embryonic stem cells. This involved using four transcription factor proteins to turn specific genes on and off. But the resulting cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells for their ability to develop into just about any tissue, have one huge flaw. They're made with a virus that embeds itself into the cells' DNA and, over time, can induce cancer. Now, scientists at Harvard University have found a way to effect the same reprogramming without using a harmful virus--a method that paves the way for tissue transplants made from a patient's own cells.

The Good News:

As we discussed on last week's FastForward Radio, recent advances in the technology of producing have been rapid and significant. The ability to convert mature cells into pluripotent stem cells solves a number of problems -- availability of embryonic cells, ethical issues associated with collecting them, and rejection issues resulting from the fact that embryonic cells are not a true genetic match to a patient receiving stem cell therapy. So the method for converting skin cells to stem cells initially developed, even with the problems that the virus transport mechanism raised, was a huge step forward.

Take away those problems, and we are now all the closer to widespread availability of stem cell treatments for a potentially huge variety of illnesses and injuries.



Item 2
Mobile Phone Adoption in Developing Countries

International Mobile phone adoption is a source of tremendous growth in wireless industry. Penetration rates for the U.S. cell phone market are greater than 75%, and in Western Europe, Japan and Hong Kong penetration has already exceeded 100 %(multiple cell phones per subscriber). Although there is still significant growth to be found in these markets, much of this growth will take the form of selling increasingly sophisticated services (e.g. video, GPS) to existing customers rather than growing the overall number of subscribers. Meanwhile developing countries/regions such as Brazil, India, China, Africa and Latin America have demonstrated blistering cell phone growth in recent years. As a result providing service and head set to developing countries has become a substantial source of profits for several major carriers and headset producers. Companies that manufacture chips for headsets also stand to benefit from this trend.

The Good News

The widespread adoption of mobile telephones is one of the most visible signs of economic development occurring at an unprecedented pace around the world. I was personally involved in bringing wireless phone service to parts of Russia and other Eastern Block countries in the early to mid 90's. In those countries, there was a fixed wireline network in place, but neither the infrastructure nor the operating practices of the previously state-owned-and-operated service providers were prepared to meet the demands of the emergent class of consumers and small businesses. These folks suddenly found that being connected was an essential aspect of their family, social, and professional lives. A few years later, I was doing the same thing in Southeast Asia, although the existing fixed network technologies there tended to be more up-to-date than anything found on the far side of the old Iron Curtain. Those markets were quick to adopt new new technologies in place of old new technologies -- which required that service providers be nimble and more adaptive than those operating in the west. When I returned from Malaysia to the US in 1999, I actually had to take a step down in the level of service and model of phone available to me.

In the intervening years, wireless phone service has continued to spread into more and more markets. The simpler and vastly more more economical infrastructure that wireless telephony requires, compared to land line, has made it not only possible, but logical, for many parts of the world that had no telephone service at all to leapfrog fixed line technology in favor of wireless. Wherever wireless service is introduced, it is accompanied by an economic boom. Cause? Effect? Enabler? There is probably an argument to be made for all three. But the correlation is undeniable.

Hat tip to FastForward Radio listener Okay David Ray for suggesting this story.




Item 3
Japan sets out plans for space elevator

A consortium of scientists and industrial firms has formulated a plan to build a 'space elevator' that would dramatically lower the cost of getting into orbit.

The Japan Space Elevator Association has published plans for the structure, which it estimates could be put in place for as little as $9bn.

The group believes that the project would revolutionise the cost of satellite communications systems, and make orbital manufacture economically feasible.

"Just like traveling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space," Shuichi Ono, chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association, told The Times.

The plan calls for the use of carbon nanotubes attached to a fixed platform in orbit and extending to a base station on Earth.

These would need to be about four times as strong as existing nanotubes but the strength of such materials has increased a hundredfold in the past five years.

The good news...

One of the great joys of living in this age is witnessing the speed at which ideas deemed "fantastic" and "impossible" begin to gain mainstream acceptance. For that reason, the space elevator has been one of our favorite topics at The Speculist and on FastForward Radio over the years. My first blog post on the subject was just a little over five years ago. Then, as now, the initial reaction that you will get from someone who has never heard of the idea is incredulity. Most people are still incredulous, but the (you'll pardon the expression) heavy lifting has been done in terms of creating a material strong enough to make the idea feasible. We aren't quite there yet, but we're on the home stretch.

Tensile strength is the main objection to the idea of the space elevator. It's not the only one, by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it the only big one. As mentioned on our most recent discussion on the subject on FFR, there are thousands of technical problems that will have to be solved in order to implement this technology. What is the car made of? How fast does it go? How big is the space station at the top? And there must be a number of ideas as to exactly how you would go about hooking the thing up in the first place. But the point is, if you have a material that's strong and light enough to make the cable, there is no theoretical reason why you can't have a space elevator. We're closing in on making something strong enough to do it, which is why the forward-looking Japanese are beginning to plan for how we can solve the rest of those problems.



Item 4
World’s First Commercial Wave Energy Farm Goes Live

Earlier this week, Portugal debuted the world’s first commercial wave energy farm. Wave energy at the Agucadoura station is converted into electricity with the use of three red “sea-snakes”, or cylindrical wave energy converters, that are attached to the seabed off Portugal’s northern coast. Energy captured by the sea-snakes is carried to an undersea cable station, where it is then fed into the electrical grid.

The devices will generate 2.25 MW of electricity— enough to power 1,500 homes. Ultimately, the wave power station will expand to produce up to 21 MW of power.


The Good News:

Wave energy is a great idea. The driver is primarily tidal forces, which means that we're tapping into the effect of the moon's gravity in order to generate power on Earth. As long as we have a moon moving water around on the surface of our planet,we might as well take advantage of it. Like solar power, it's free energy from space!

The Downside:

Unfortunately, wave power is not price competitive in Portugal at the moment. The €9m project was only made possible by the country’s feed-in tariff, which requires utilities to buy renewable energy from a wide range of producers. However, proponents of the farm believe that wave energy could be cost-efficient within 15 years.

So we might have to wait a while before wave power makes sense economically. But deployments such as this one can only help us understand the process better and make wave power more efficient and affordable.



Item 5
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Video games are reshaping how we perform and promote science.

The digital revolution now engulfing our world emerged from the events during and immediately after the Second World War, when intellectual titans such as Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, and Claude Shannon roamed the Earth. Many of the predictions they made for the future in those early days are now reality, or something close to it. Turing foresaw computers as artificial intelligences. Neumann imagined machines that could reproduce themselves. Wiener guessed at a merging of biology and technology, and Shannon predicted the primacy of pure information over physical matter. But were these "founding fathers" to somehow see the state of modern computer science, they might be surprised that some of their wildest dreams are being fulfilled not under the explicit auspice of research, but of recreation.

The good news:

So what examples of transformational games that are changing science does Seed provide?

Spore is teaching us about emergence and complexity.

Emotiv Systems Epoc Headset is teaching us about brain-machine interactions.

Foldit is teaching us about protein folding and how crowds can be mobilized to solve complex problems.

Immune Attack is teaching us how students learn about science.

3D Virtual Creature Evolution is teaching us about evolution.

I'm not surprised. Years ago, when I learned that a carpenter can make his way up a series of ramps and ladders while an angry gorilla hurls barrels at him as long as he jumps over those barrels, I knew we were on to something!



Item 6
New way to control protein activity could lead to cancer therapies

STANFORD, Calif. — Investigators at the Stanford University School of Medicine have found a way to quickly and reversibly fine-tune the activity of individual proteins in cells and living mammals, providing a powerful new laboratory tool for identifying — more precisely than ever before — the functions of different proteins.

The new technique also could help to speed the development of therapies in which cancer-fighting proteins are selectively delivered to tumors.

The good news:

There are a few small structures that hold the promise for huge potential capabilities as the separate fields of biotechnology and nanotechnology converge around the treatment of illness, injury, and aging. These include white blood cells (and other weapons in the body's immunity arsenal), viruses, and proteins. Viruses are considered to be one of the most powerful potential delivery mechanisms for cancer treatment because of their ability to reproduce rapidly. Of course, this volatility also means that there is considerable risk associated with using viruses.

Proteins. provide an alternate route. While there are still risks involved with using them as a delivery mechanism, this line of research provides for critical "tuning" capability for the treatment given. After completing their cancer-destroying tasks, the proteins. are encoded to begin to degrade. It's biotechnology that cleans up after itself.

Hat tip to FastForward Radio listener Matt Duing for suggesting this story.



Item 7
Plastic-Munching Bugs Turn Waste Bottles Into Cash

New Bacteria-Driven Process Could Make Recycling Plastic Bottles More Attractive

Newly discovered bacterial alchemists could help save billions of plastic bottles from landfills. The Pseudomonas strains can convert the low-grade PET plastic used in drinks bottles into a more valuable and biodegradable plastic called PHA.

Although billions of plastic bottles are made each year, few are ultimately recycled because the typical recycling process converts low value PET bottles into more PET.

PHA is already used in medical applications, from artery-supporting tubes called stents to wound dressings.

The plastic can be processed to have a range of physical properties. However, one of the barriers to PHA reaching wider use is the absence of a way to make it in large quantities.

The new bacteria-driven process – termed upcycling – could address that, and make recycling PET bottles more economically attractive.

The good news:

While viruses and proteins. offer potential medical breakthroughs, bacteria holds increasing promise for a variety of environmental solutions. Making plastic an easier and more attractive target for recycling is just the beginning. We've already noted that research is being done into developing strains of bacteria that eat garbage and excrete gasoline.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the development of a strain of bacteria that will make something useful out of grass clippings, dog doo, and other backyard waste. I'm not big on composting (and, yes, I know that you wouldn't put dog waste in a compost heap) primarily because it gives you soil -- there's only room for so much extra soil in my yard. What we need is for bacteria to convert that stuff into something consumable - fuel to run the lawn mower is one good idea, dog food is another.



Item 8

Rocket successfully launched from South Pacific

An Internet entrepreneur's latest effort to make space launch more affordable paid off Sunday when his commercial rocket carrying a dummy payload was lofted into orbit.

It was the fourth attempt by Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to launch its two-stage Falcon 1 rocket into orbit.

"Fourth time's a charm," said Elon Musk, the multimillionaire who started up SpaceX after making his fortune as the co-founder of PayPal Inc., the electronic payment system.

The rocket carried a 364-pound dummy payload designed and built by SpaceX for the launch.

"This really means a lot," Musk told a crowd of whooping employees. "There's only a handful of countries on earth that have done this. It's usually a country thing, not a company thing. We did it."

The Good News:

In addition to creating new capabilities, empowering human beings to do things that were never possible before, technological development works hand in hand with economic power to democratize and distribute power. I argued a while back that today's average joe is better off in just about every measurable way than a king in the middle ages. When Elon Musk points out that something that was once the exclusive domain of countries is now achievable by a company, he is tapping into that same idea.

If the trend continues, we will live to see a world in which the ability to pace objects (or ourselves) into orbit will work its way down to the individual level, either by way of cheaper and more efficient rockets or by some other means.




Item 9

Against all the odds, the world is becoming a happier place

Despite deepening economic gloom and impending climatic destruction* the world is becoming a happier place, according to an analysis of quarter of a century of data on well-being from 45 countries around the globe. The finding goes against the received wisdom that a country's economic advances do not translate into increased welding among its citizens.

The researchers who compiled the data believe increasing levels of happiness were not picked up until now because studies have tended to focus on rich countries where increases in wealth make little difference to their citizens' satisfaction with life.

The Good News:

We've just passed or five-year anniversary at The Speculist, and we've been doing FastForward Radio for more than three years. Today marks the one-year anniversary of FastForward Radio as a weekly show at BlogTalk Radio.

The story quoted above just about perfectly encapsulates why we do what we do. The rapid increase in human happiness, and more importantly the potential for greater human happiness, is the most ridiculously under-reported news story in history. It's interesting that we can at least see the change occurring in the developing world. People in those parts of the world aren't just getting new cell phones and computers - they're getting new choices for their lives. Here in the west and elsewhere in the world where technology and economic development have already worked together to give us a lifestyle unimaginable a generation or two ago, we tend not to notice how good we have it and -- more importantly -- how good we might just have it down the road if we take advantage of opportunities that are opening up to us.





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

* I would have been more inclined to add the word predicted or feared or even expected to "impending climatic destruction," but then, hey, that's just how I am.


Re: Item 5. Any twelve year old (and, uh, me) could tell you that Mario is a plumber, not a carpenter.

I mean, come ON.

Jim --

I'm so ashamed. I can't decide whether I should retract the entire post or simply give up blogging altogether.

Maybe you're simply younger than I, but I can recall the novelty of Pong and actually paying to play it. Then there was Space Invaders, but it wasn't until Pac Man--colors, less predictable gameplay, rewarded with many quarters--that I realized video games were here to stay.

Eventually I decided to try to make my own video game on my family's Commodore 64 (it had sprites!), but at age 10-12, I couldn't get the hang of the peek and poke commands, which put me off. Oh, and using the audio cassette tape drive for storage--shudder!--that ended my early coding interest.

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