The Speculist: Better All The Time #42


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Better All The Time #42

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


Take your pick -- either this is a lucky Friday the 13th edition of Better All the Time, or its the special Valentine's Day edition, one day early. Either way, the news is just as good.

Today's Good Stuff:



  Quote of the Day

In fact, the bottom line is that, historically, the problems that technology has addressed have gotten solved, and the ones that were dependent on politics and so forth have not.

J. Storrs Hall



Item 1
Wireless Electricity Is Here (Seriously)

This could be really huge:

But strap on your rubber boots; Tesla's dream has come true. After more than 100 years of dashed hopes, several companies are coming to market with technologies that can safely transmit power through the air -- a breakthrough that portends the literal and figurative untethering of our electronic age. Until this development, after all, the phrase "mobile electronics" has been a lie: How portable is your laptop if it has to feed every four hours, like an embryo, through a cord? How mobile is your phone if it shuts down after too long away from a plug? And how flexible is your business if your production area can't shift because you can't move the ceiling lights?

The world is about to be cured of its attachment disorder.


The Good News

Look at it this way: in Kentucky, some people have been without power since the first ice storm on January 27th. The number of folks suffering from the power outage was down to a "mere" 30,000 earlier this week (from a high of nearly nearly three quarters of a million) before wind storms knocked out some additional infrastructure, leaving more than 100,000 people in the state without power.

Why does the power keep going out? Because the cables keep breaking. Wireless power offers many promising possibilities -- including electric transportation without power cables or reliance on batteries -- and keeping electricity working even in the face of cable-breaking weather is an important one.


Item 2
Extinct ibex is resurrected by cloning

The Pyrenean ibex, a form of wild mountain goat, was officially declared extinct in 2000 when the last-known animal of its kind was found dead in northern Spain.

Shortly before its death, scientists preserved skin samples of the goat, a subspecies of the Spanish ibex that live in mountain ranges across the country, in liquid nitrogen.

The Good News

The scientists then placed genetic material from these skin samples into the eggs of domestic goats. The result? A newborn ibex.

If we can restore an extinct species, is there any reason to believe that we can't correct any of the damage that humanity has done to this planet's ecosystem? Bringing back an ibex is certainly an encouraging step, but it's far too early to say the species has been restored. The cloned ibex kid did not survive. But the next one might. And after that, who knows? A passenger pigeon? A dodo?

How about a species whose extinction can in no wise be laid at the feet of humanity.

A triceratops, perhaps?

(Just asking.)



Item 3
Vitamin D For Babies Boosts Growth, Cuts MS

Randall Parker reports:

Summer sunshine is suspected to cause taller children.

Those born in the late summer and early autumn are around half a centimetre taller and have wider bones than their peers born in winter and spring, an 18 year project found.

Expectant mothers lucky enough to be blooming in the hot months should get enough sun to boost their vitamin D levels just by walking around outside or even sunbathing.

But winter parents should consider taking vitamin supplements, researchers at Bristol University recommended.

At the same time, some carry a genetic variant that might make them more susceptible to multiple sclerosis when they do not get enough vitamin D before and after birth.

The Good News

There has been a lot of controversy of late as to what -- if any -- proven benefits can be linked with vitamins and other supplements. This kind of research helps to shed some much-needed light. And if it leads to even preventing a few children from getting MS, I think we can all agree that vitamin D is a wonderful thing.



Item 4
Waterproof Sand Could Green Deserts

Brian Wang reports in his blog, Next Big Future:

Waterproof sand – or as German scientist Helmut F. Schulze calls it – hydrophobic sand, a nanotechnology wonder seven years in the making.

By simply laying down a 10-centimetre blanket of DIME Hydrophobic Materials sand beneath typical desert topsoils, the new super sand stops water below the roots level of the plants and maintains a water table, giving greenery a constant water supply. 3000 tons/day is already being produced. 1 ton of silicate coated sand would probably be good for 10 square meters. 4 days of production to cover one square kilometer. More factories will be needed made to scale this up to address the water crisis in the Middle East, Africa, India and China.

With new hydrophobic sand in place, traditional watering of desert plants five or six times a day can be reduced to one watering, saving 75 per cent more water, a precious resource that is dwindling across the Arab Peninsula.

The Good News:

One day, humanity might take it upon itself to rebuild a planet (possibly Mars, possibly a planet not yet discovered) so that it's environment is hospitable for human life. This proposed ambitious technology is called terraforming.

So, yes, one day we might try to terraform another planet. In the mean time, isn't it wonderful that we are figuring out how to "terraform" parts of this planet?



Item 5
Better Than Theory Predicts

Classical Values provides a quick and very encouraging status report on the Polywell Fusion experiments

1. The machine is working way better than the usual theories predict
2. No one knows why (lots of suspicions floating around)
3. New instruments are being added
4. The current machine is called WB-7. WB 7.1 (no details) is in progress.

All this is very good news. It means what they have learned so far warrants further efforts.

And then goes on to ask an excellent question:

Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been funded by the Obama administration?

Of course, another great question would be why was it never funded by the Bush administration? But that doesn't have the same forward-looking appeal. There's still some hope that the current administration might choose to do so.

The Good News

Basically we're talking about easy, cheap, safe, clean, non-radioactive, limitless power. This is the Bussard concept for producing energy about which we have written previously. In reflecting on the above question, it's hard to imagine anything that would better stimulate our economy. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything that would have a bigger or more beneficial on our economic future.

Faster, please.



Item 6
New antibiotics would silence bugs, not kill them

In future, the most effective antibiotics might be those that don't kill any bacteria. Instead the drugs will simply prevent the bacteria from talking with one another.

Drug-resistant bugs are winning the war against standard antibiotics as they evolve resistance to even the most lethal drugs. It happens because a dose of antibiotics strongly selects for resistance by killing the most susceptible bacteria first.

If, however, researchers can identify antibiotics that neutralise dangerous bacteria without killing them, the pressure to evolve resistance can be reduced. One way to do that is to target the constant stream of chatter that passes between bacteria as molecular signals.

The Good News:

With this approach, we will stop breeding increasingly more powerful strains of bacteria with each new generation of antibiotic that is developed. We might at last get the upper hand!



Item 7
One more step for private Moon mission

A spectrometer meant to fly to Mars on a European mission in 2016 will get to the Moon first. The Dutch team that is building the instrument last week announced it would send a scaled-up version, dubbed MoonShot, to the lunar surface by 2011 with Odyssey Moon, a company headquartered in the Isle of Man, UK.

If it works, the private MoonOne lander and its successors could serve scientists much as a commercial trucking company serves wholesalers, providing a platform to ferry science instruments and other payloads to the lunar surface.

The Good News

Today, private unmanned craft landing on the moon. Tomorrow, commercial passenger service? One step at a time, folks.



Item 8

JAGUAR PICTURE: First Seen in Central Mexico Since 1900

February 11, 2009—The largest cat in the Americas is alive and well in the heart of Mexico, scientists say.

Three photographs of a male jaguar and exactly 132 poop samples (including the one above, released February 10) are the first known evidence of the predator since the early 1900s.

The big cat was snapped by a camera trap in the Sierra Nanchititla Natural Reserve.

The Good News

Welcome back, jaguar. You took a hundred years off and then decided to show up again? Good for you.

And no cloning required!




Item 9

Biggest Solar Deal Ever Announced — We're Talking Gigawatts

The largest series of solar installations in history, more than 1,300 megawatts, is planned for the desert outside Los Angeles, according to a new deal between the utility Southern California Edison and solar power plant maker, BrightSource.

The momentous deal will deliver more electricity than even the largest nuclear plant, spread out among seven facilities, the first of which will start up in 2013. When fully operational, the companies say the facility will provide enough electricity to power 845,000 homes — more than exist in San Francisco — though estimates like that are notoriously squirrely.

The technology isn't the familiar photovoltaics — the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity — but solar thermal power, which concentrates the sun's rays to create steam in a boiler and spin a turbine.

The Good News

Solar thermal energy is such a great idea. Photovoltaics may, in the end, prove to be the most efficient and productive means of turning the sun's energy into electricity, but isn't it amazing that we've had "solar power" for all these years and it's only recently that people have seriously looked to the sun as a power source...because of the heat it provides?

What will we think of next?




Better All The Time was compiled by Phil Bowermaster. May you have a perfectly mundane Friday the 13th and a Valentine's Day that is anything but. And don't forget to live to see it!


Of course, I hear we could generate about 1,210 megawatts from a bolt of lightning, if only we know where or when it was going to strike.

KR --

I don't know whether to say "Great Scott!" or "Save the Clock Tower!"

Solar thermal has been around for decades, maybe longer. It's nice that this project is finally getting off the ground. I had read that pseudo-environmental groups like the Sierra Club were blocking approval. Most estimates indicate solar thermal is cost effective and it provides power 24 hours a day

"Most estimates indicate solar thermal is cost effective and it provides power 24 hours a day"

OK, serious question: there's a night shift at the solar plant?

Re: extinct Ibex

I am sure it is not popular to say this, but is it possible that the Ibex went extinct for a reason? Why should we be bringing it back to life?

Hasn't about 99.9% of all extinct species become extinct before mankind was a factor?

WJ --

What kind of reason were you thinking of? If the reason is that the species wasn't viable due to predation, then I think we have the option of bringing it back -- but need to recognize that it is no more likely to survive in the wild than it did before. If you mean God's Will or Nature's Plan or something, how do you know that our bringing the species back is not a part of that plan? Why is it that God (and / or Nature) are always assumed to act independent of, and generally contrary to, what human beings do?

The data on vitamin D is very convincing. The Canadian Cancer Society now recommend that everyone takes 1000IU per day to prevent cancer. Take a look at for some very good summaries

I think the waterproof sand thing is the most interesting, particularly since they can produce so much in a short time.

Solar thermal is nothing new. In India, most homes use low-tech solar thermal (using mirrors) to heat their bathwater. This has been the case for decades.

WIll the shade created by the solar panels help make the land more fertile or less parched? Toss in some hydrophobic sand and maybe your solar farm becomes a traditional farm as well.

"... bottom line is that, historically, the problems that technology has addressed have gotten solved, and the ones that were dependent on politics and so forth have not."

Well- I think I get the point he's making and his frustration with the crush of humanity think. But this seems to be a vast overstatement - and in context of his article, I suggest the attitude behind this kind of overstatement will facilitate the take over by the robot overlords.

Political problems and solutions that had political resolution
- American revolution
- US Slavery
- spread of German Nazism
- universal public education
- the interstate highway system
- public libraries

First- we should blame everything on the Obama administration.
Then we should reconcile the CV position that the administration has anything to do with anything with JOSH's position that political solutions are a waste of time.

Then we could read the Navy explanation and assessment. It's possible- though no more likely than not -the Navy observers have no idea what they are looking at. In my experience those guys know their nuclear power. But this is fusion - and while I would whole heartedly support an expansion and acceleration of the Navy program to prove or kill the Bussard model- at least long enough to put a believable price on the R&D to production- I believe that the Navy would love to see this work sooner not later. We all would, even if we don't know it.

BTW- I don't see fusion as an either or with solar, pv or thermal. In fact, I think achieving critical mass in one will give us an easier path to the other. Not that you were suggesting otherwise.
I support a strong US global naval presence. And I can't imagine how they run the sibs on solar. Ships either- but subs are a more obvious example

MD --

>>I suggest the attitude behind this kind of overstatement will facilitate the take over by the robot overlords.

As long as they're friendly and competent!

Let's look at this list of problems that politics has solved:

American revolution -- As good a political solution as we're ever likely to get to anything, but it assumed the complete failure of the then-current political infrastructure and required no small amount of bloodshed.

US Slavery -- see above.

spread of German Nazism -- see above.

Using military means to achieve your goals can be highly effective, and I won't say that it is a misuse of the word "politics" to include this kind of activity, but I don't think that's how Josh was using the term.

universal public education -- Yes, that's a good one.

the interstate highway system -- Good one, although I would have to describe it as at least partially a technological solution.

public libraries -- Good one, but many of the most needed ones were established by private initiative, not through the political process.

So we will update Josh as follows:

"...the problems that technology has addressed have gotten solved, and the ones that were dependent on politics and so forth have not -- with the exception of going to war and kicking the other guy's butt. Also, sometimes government is good at dispensing knowledge and implementing the technological solutions we need."

Much better.

Also, government and politics aren't exactly the same thing (although they are of course pretty tightly linked.) The Apollo program was government in action -- also another great example of a technological solution being implemented. Dismantling the Apollo program was politics in action.

>>First- we should blame everything on the Obama administration.

Not attacking or blaming the president here, just suggesting that the US Government would do well to get behind fusion. Seems like I've heard you say something similar.

I knew I was taking a risk mentioning the president by name. (I once got some hyper-sensitive Bush fans all upset, too.) To balance things out, I have added the now-irrelevant question about the previous administration. Expect to see the letters "BDS" in a subsequent comment in this thread.

>>Then we should reconcile the CV position that the administration has anything to do with anything with JOSH's position that political solutions are a waste of time.

Or we can simply note that the three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar stimulus package just passed had a bunch of energy stuff in it, but nothing about nuclear fission technology (much less fusion) and see that Josh is pretty much vindicated.

Well- JOSH doesn't need vindication. He's wicked smart. And I'm confident he's just making another point that I'm not really addressing. I'm just tring to notice the path to robot overlords.

Military action is (and ought to be) an extension of political objectives by other means.

And I would have loved if this- or any prior - administration would have stepped up and committed to a working, commercializable fusion reactor with 10 years. I get why it hasn't happened- but if a candidate (Dennis Kucinich?) would have stepped up and said- end the war in Iraq, restore fiscal sanity, and working reactor in 10 years - that candidate would have had my support.

Especially if that candidate would have also committed to a cabinet level secretary of robot overlord relations.

Answers for solar: Solar at night is one of the few technological challenges left for solar thermal. Right now the favored technology is to store the excess heat produced during the day in molten salt and release the heat at night. There are also engineered ceramic ideas being developed that would circumvent the "whoops the molten salt got too cool now it's a block of salt" prblem.

I can't believe that no one mentioned that that fusion reactor TOTALLY looks JUST like Green Lantern's cosmic power battery ... if only it were green.

The Green Lantern Corps, man! Live to see it!

I think the waterproof sand thing is the most interesting, particularly since they can produce so much in a short time.

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