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July 31, 2006

The L2si Report #2

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All this week we'll be celebrating the 3rd blogiversary of the Speculist, starting here on L2si with the second edition of our new podcast, the L2si Report.

The new edition includes:

A different kind of auto race

Making fire from ice

Text messaging to the rescue

and

Extending the shelf life of blood

Plus, the return of the five-cent cigar

That's a lot of good news for a mere ten minutes (or so) of your time!

Click here to download or play the Podcast.

Here's the feed, for those interested in subscribing:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/L2si

Or you can find it on iTunes!

July 30, 2006

A Good Time to be Born

Via InstaPundit, we have this very encouraging assessment of health and longevity as generational phenomona from the New York Times:

nytgraph.gif New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”

The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

Even the human mind seems improved. The average I.Q. has been increasing for decades, and at least one study found that a person’s chances of having dementia in old age appeared to have fallen in recent years.

It turns out that the obvious answers as to why this is happening -- better nutrition, better sanitation, improved health care infrastructure -- are, of course, correct, and that their impact is greatly magnified by early childhood. People are living longer today because they had a cleaner, safer, healthier, more nutritionally sound environment (by and large) than their parents did. Chances are, your mother had a healthier early childhood than her mother did, and you had a healthier early childhood than she did.

Chronic illness in early childhood predisposes an individual to complications and other illnesses throughout life, while diminishing growth rate. These later generations, which have managed to avoid or lessen the impact of childhood ilnesses, tend to be much more robust physically -- both taller and heavier than their ancestors.

We all know that increases in body weight are accompanied by a greater risk of obesity and all the complications associated with it. How interesting, then, that even though we are much fatter than previous generations -- a point that it seems to be made quite a bit -- we are much, much healthier than they were.

On a recent edition of the Glenn and Helen Show, Dr. Michael Zemel -- discussing the obesity problem -- commented that we may be pushing our luck in this regard, that with obesity rampant among younger and younger children, we may be witnessing the emergence of the first generation to be less healthy, and to have a shorter life expectancy, than their parents. While there's no question that the problem of childhood and teenage obesity needs to be addressed, Robert Fogel's research may provide some mitigation to that fear. After all, fat as they may (unfortunately) be, there's no question that the generations coming up now have had exemplary early childhoods -- probably the healthiest ever. Other than the weight problem, which we need to help them beat, these kids would appear to have a very healthy, and long, life ahead.

July 29, 2006

SMS Saves Lives

Here's an example of a government making use of changing technologies and new infrastructure to positive ends:

SHANGHAI, China - With Typhoon Kaemi roaring toward China's crowded southeast, Dr. Yang was sealing his apartment windows against the pounding rain when his cell phone buzzed to life.

"Typhoon forecast to make land this evening," said the message sent to millions of mobile phones in the coastal city of Jinjiang and surrounding Fujian province. "Please attend to preparations."

The article goes on to describe how the government of the Fujian province has sent more than 18 million SMS messages so far this typhoon season. There's no telling how many deaths and injuries this effort has helped to prevent, especially when you consider the fact that everyone who receives an SMS typhoon warning probably spreads the word to several folks who did not.

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When the 2004 tsunami devasted Indonesia and other parts of southeast asia, there was a good deal of discussion about what kind of warning systems could be put in place to mitigate against such horrific loss of life in the future. My contribution to that discussion was that we need a better educated and more proactive mass media, that institutions like CNN and the BBC could do a lot more than they did to help spread the word. One of the shortcomings of that plan was that not very many people in some of the most hard-hit regions -- remote areas in Indonesia, particularly -- have access to a TV or radio. Certainly, an SMS swarning system such as described above would have been some help in Bandar Aceh and other developed areas, but again no help at all for those who live outside the reach of electronic communications.

I have long asserted that technological development represents, overall, a net plus for humanity -- both in our ability to survive and in our ability to find meaning and to lead more fulfilling lives. I can't think of anything that makes that case better than the contrast between those folks in Jinjiang who received early and sufficient warning to stay away from the water and their doomed counterparts in Indonesia a year and a half ago for whom no warning was possible.

Technological development. Faster, please.

July 28, 2006

A Different Kind of Car Race

From the fine folks who brought us a different kind of space race, we now have this:

Goals of the Prize
Our goal is to stimulate automotive technology, manufacturing and marketing breakthroughs that:

  • Radically reduce oil consumption and harmful emissions
  • Result in a new generation of super-efficient and desirable mainstream vehicles that people want to buy

How it will work
The rules are being shaped by our philosophy that the Automotive X PRIZE must:

    volvoelectric.jpg

  • Achieve our main goals (above)
  • Be simple to understand and easy to communicate
  • Benefit the world - this is a global challenge
  • Result in real cars available for purchase, not concept cars
  • Remain independent, fair, non-partisan, and technology-neutral
  • Provide clear technical boundaries (i.e., for fuel-efficiency, emissions, safety, manufacturability, performance, capacity, etc.)
  • Offer a "level playing field" that attracts both existing automobile manufacturers and newcomers
  • Attract a balanced array of private investment, donors, sponsors, and partners to help competitors succeed (e.g., manufacturing assistance, testing resources, etc.)
  • Make heroes out of the competitors and winner(s) through unprecedented exposure, media coverage and a significant cash award
  • Educate the public on key issues

Here's looking forward to what the entrants in this competition come up with, and hoping that some of the ideas get past the concept stage and into real commercial implementation.

July 27, 2006

Fire and Ice -- The Promise

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Over on the Speculist I just a wrote a short piece about the potential environmental dangers posed by methane clathrate -- the burning ice pictured above. But danger is only part of the story. To quote a recent Popular Mechanics article on the subject:

Natural gas locked up in methane hydrates could be the world's next great energy source--if engineers can figure out how to extract it safely.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 100,000 to 300 million trillion cu. ft. (tcf) of methane exists globally in hydrate form--most of it in the ocean floor. "There's more energy potential locked up in methane hydrate formations across the world than in all other fossil energy resources combined," says Brad Tomer, director of the Department of Energy's Strategic Center for Natural Gas and Oil.

That sounds like good news.

Plus, let's not forget a point I raised in the earlier entry -- methane burns much cleaner than any other fossil fuel. So we have more of this stuff than we do any other energy source and it would be a net plus for the environment if we were to start using it (to the exclusion of dirtier fuels.)

Of course, the risk is still there that methane clathrate could do some significant harm to our environment. To reiterate another point raised in the earlier post -- methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. We have to be really careful with that stuff. If we go heating the planet up so that too much of it is released into the atmosphere, a dangerous chain reaction might ensue wherein warmer temperatures cause more methane to be released...leading to still warmer temperatures. And so on.

On the other hand, isn't there room for a win-win scenario, here? Let's say we start (very carefully) extracting methane gas from hydrate deposits that are determined to be at the greatest risk for melting anyway. That would make sense, wouldn't it? That way we protect the environment while making the switch to a new, cleaner energy source. Once the process is perfected for safely extracting methane from methane clathrate with minimal or no leakage, we begin widespread extraction, eventually switching to methane as our principle fuel source. If petroleum emissions are making the planet warmer and increasing the risk that additional methane will be released into the atmosphere, wouldn't burning methane -- a cleaner fuel -- help cut that risk?

It's two sides of the same coin. By developing a new energy source, we make the planet cleaner. Or, if you prefer, by making a modest effort to clean up the planet, we open up a new energy source.

Sounds like we win either way.

What This Country Needs...(#2 in a series)

I think Phil might agree with me when I say:

What this country needs...

Is a viable flying car! (See the full entry on our sister site "The Speculist".)

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July 26, 2006

(Much) Thicker Than Water

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Although it sounds like a clue from "The Case of the Cosmonaut's Cut", CNet News’s Future Tech Blog is passing on a story from Haaretz that Israeli soldiers may be going into battle carrying their own freeze-dried blood in two years.
Here’s hoping that the product fares better than Northfield Labs’ PolyHeme (PolyHeme product page / PolyHeme Class Action Lawsuit page).

UPDATE: (Wednesday, July 26th, 2006) A gentle nudge from the Senior Editor reminds me to 'accentuate the positive' in this development.

Reducing the mass and volume of transfusion blood, while extending its shelf-life holds implecations well beyond the battlefield. Recently, my wife underwent major surgery and was willing and able to participate in the hospital blood bank's 'autologous donation' program in a small way. By donating a single unit of her own blood in June, to be used in her surgery in July, she was able to reduce her overall impact on our local blood supply, be more secure that the blood she got was both correctly matched to her type and healthy, and contribute actively to the process.

The Israeli product, should it prove to be safe and cost-effective (and, in the world of emergency / intensive medicine, cost-effective does not equal inexpensive), would allow patients to donate their own blood over a longer period before planned surgery, spreading out the stress on the patient's system. It would allow emergency medical personnel (or astronauts...) to pack a significant amount of transfusable blood, in a variety of types and factors, over a relatively long period, in the smallest of packs or vehicles. Finally, it might (and here I am going well beyond my biotechnical knowledge base and speculating rampantly) allow blood to be stored (LN2?) and reconstituted perhaps years later.

July 25, 2006

Welcome to L2si

L2si is a new blog from your friends at The Speculist, where we’ll be highlighting not just news, but good news. And in fact not just good news, but transformational news – news that speaks to the fundamental changes taking place right now – the changes that are reshaping our lives and our world.

This new blog has its origins in a feature we ran at The Speculist called Better All the Time. Think of L2si as a permanent edition of BATT, and one that will be regularly updated. There will also be a Podcast version of content from this blog which will be debuting in the next day or to under the title of The L2si Report. (It will accompany this blog in the same way that FastForward Radio accompanies The Speculist.)

L2si is an abbreviation for "Live to See it," which is our tagline at the Speculist, but it’s a lot more than just a tagline. L2si is our philosophy. It’s our affirmation that the world not only should be getting better, but that it is getting better -- that the future holds in store amazing promise, and that there is much that we can all hope to live to see.

So what do we mean when we say that the world is getting better? Well, by better we mean freer. Safer. Cleaner. More things to do. More things to be. Less stuff to die from, more stuff to live for.

This may strike some as a radical proposition, suggesting that we’re part of an evolutionary process. Are we saying that there’s some unstoppable wave of improvement that nobody really started and that no one has the power to stop? Or more modestly, have we concluded that the very human drive to be smarter, to be stronger, and to be better than we were, tends to win out? That in the end we, humanity, are better at solving problems than we are at anything else, including creating problems?

Well, in a word, yes. There’s a strong case to be made for the latter explanation, and we can’t entirely rule out the former one.

Now it’s strange timing, some would argue, to launch a new blog and podcast about how the world is getting better within a week of another Tsunami hitting Indonesia and a new war breaking out in the Middle East. But our point is not that bad things haven’t happened, aren’t happening, or won’t continue to happen. They have, they are, and they will. Nor do we assert that a better future is guaranteed. It is not. Rather, we look at where humanity has come from over the past few dozen millennia and we see a relentless progression towards more knowledge, more capability, and greater freedom. Could that relentless progression come to a grinding halt tomorrow? It could. Or more likely, could it hit circumstances that will set it back a century or two (or five) as it has done on numerous occasions along the way to where we are now? It could.

So what we’re looking for is evidence that this has not happened. We simply want to present proof that the progress continues – that in spite of the terrible things that may be going on day to day, our journey towards greater knowledge, greater capability, and greater freedom goes on.

So let’s get started. An amazing new world is emerging. A brighter future has already begun.

The L2si Report #1

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What could be better than a new blog with daily good news updates? How about an accompanying weekly podcast?

This inaugural edition of The L2si Report includes:

New Hope for Paralysis Victims
Producing Solar Power on the Cheap
The Balloon Launch that May Lead to the First Hotel in Outer Space
Producing Insulin from Flowers

Plus, a tip for improving your own world.

That's a lot of good news for a mere ten minutes (or so) of your time!

Click here to download or play the Podcast.

Here's the feed, for those interested in subscribing:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/L2si

We're working on getting the 'cast up on the iTunes Music Store as well. We're there!

The Five-Cent Cigar Challenge

Thomas Riley Marshall was vice president of the United States in the year 1917 when he uttered a phrase which is now remembered far better than his own name. Marshall is reported to have quipped in response to a laundry list of items falling under the heading of "what this country needs" with the now immortal words:

What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.

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From the vantage point of almost a century, perhaps it's time to update Marshall's famous rejoinder. Not because smoking has fallen into such disfavor, or because it's unlikely these days that one can acquire a really good cigar for anything less than five dollars, but simply because the phrase "what this country needs" is irresistible to the L2si community. It's a phrase in need of completion. It's a challenge.

We therefore announce the L2si Five-Cent Cigar Challenge. All are invited to help us complete the phrase: "What this country needs..." The winning phrase will be chosen by universal acclamation of its brilliance. The prize will be the fame and glory associated with the idea's imminent implementation.

So please, don't let's sit on those brilliant ideas, not when they can be so easliy appended to the comments section of this blog entry.

As a humble example of the kind of thing we're looking for, we present the following:

What this country needs is a really good battery-powered sports car.

Gizmodo provides the following pertinent facts about the Tesla Roadster:

Goes from 0-60 in four seconds

Top speed of 130 MPH

Powered by 6800 lithium ion batteries

Runs 250 miles on a single charge

Recharges in about three and a half hours

So we're talking about a very clean, very quite, very powerful vehicle that just happens to look like this:

tesla.jpg

Wired News adds that this smokin' hot speed machine will sell for about $80,000 -- which puts it in line with top-of-the-line gas-powered sports cars -- and that its level of energy efficiency means that driving it will cost about 1-2 cents per mile -- which significantly differentiates it from those same standard sports cars. (Maybe we should have said, "What this country needs is a good two-cents-a-mile sports car?") Wired News also reports that this new entry in the budding electric car market hails from Silicon Valley -- those are laptop batteries powering it, after all -- and that a more reasonably priced sedan will follow the commercial roll-out of the roadster next year.

To all of which we can only say, bring it on.

July 24, 2006

Nuclear Swords into Inflatable Orbiting Plowshares

Bigelow Aerospace made history last week by successfully launching an inflatable, miniature space station into earth orbit. The good news here – another step forward in the private development of space. Company founder Robert Bigelow – a Las Vegas tycoon who made his fortune from the Budget Suites of America hotel chain – has outlined a plan whereby last week’s orbital balloon launch is the first step in a process that leads to the opening of the first hotel in outer space. It sounds like a plot right out of a Robert A Heinlein novel, but it isn’t. It’s just medium-to-long-term planning from a real company – one that looks to be off to a very successful start.

If all that wasn’t good news enough, Robert Reed III of LUF Blog points out that this is the perfect example of private space development providing an occasion to beat swords into plowshares. That’s right. Bigelow’s inflatable craft, aptly named the Genesis 1, was launched into space using a converted Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile.

Power to the People. No, Seriously!

Let’s say you want to help bring electricity to a remote African village that desperately needs it…how would you do it? With other infrastructure lacking and the sun beating down overhead, solar power would seem to be an obvious answer. There’s just one hitch: solar power generating equipment is costly.

MIT grad student Matthew Orosz was doing a Peace Corps stint in the African village of Lesotho when he saw something that gave him an idea. Villagers were using very simple parabolic troughs made from reflective material to collect the sun’s energy to bake bread. What if, he thought, these simple solar collectors were to be connected to equally simple power generators? Small generators could provide needed power to villagers without having to introduce a lot of expensive equipment and infrastructure. With that in mind, Orosz has designed a personal solar generator that can easily be assembled in a back yard using auto parts and plumbing supplies.

According to MIT Technology Review, this Rube Goldberg contraption produces 1 kilowatt of power and 10 kilowatts of heat for less than half the cost of a 1-kilowatt system using standard solar technology. The system’s inventor is now hard at work on a plan to make these simplified solar generators available through a special World Bank financing program. Villagers who once had to do without may soon be able to share a generator to power their community center and serve as a battery recharge station.

The Power of Thought

The New York Times (link requires login to NYT news section) reports that Matthew Nagle, a man who has been paralyzed below the shoulders for five years, is now able to draw pictures, change television channels, and control a robot arm and a prosthetic hand all through the power of thought. Channeling that power is a small electronic device which has been implanted in Nagle’s brain and which provides a unique new human/computer interface.

The Times quotes John P. Donoghue, the Brown University professor who led the team that developed the implant as saying, “If your brain can do it, we can tap into it.”

With this new interface, Nagle can move a computer cursor by thinking about it. Of course, the ability to move a computer cursor around may sound trivial to those of us who do it literally thousands of times a day using our fully-functioning arms and hands, but there is nothing trivial about the hope for independence that these kinds of breakthroughs represent for millions. The ability to turn thought into physical motion outside ourselves is so fundamental that we rarely think about it. Yet now, just maybe, we stand on the brink of being able to return that ability to those whom we had every reason to believe had lost it forever.

That is some pretty good news, folks.