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August 26, 2006

Saying Goodbye to the Stem Cell Debate?

Stephen Gordon has the details over at The Speculist.

August 20, 2006

A Cup, A Cup, A Cup, A Cup, A Cup

I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the java and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup

Manhattan Transfer

shiner.jpgIt just simply does not get any better than this:

Coffee as a Health Drink? Studies Find Some Benefits

Coffee is not usually thought of as health food, but a number of recent studies suggest that it can be a highly beneficial drink. Researchers have found strong evidence that coffee reduces the risk of several serious ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver.

I can't tell you how vindicated this makes me feel about...well, virtually every morning for the past 25 years or so. What can I say? Just trying to ward off diabetes and heart disease. Call me a health nut.

Let the research continue. If coffee turns out to be a health drink, there's no telling what amazing discoveries are about to be made concerning Snickers bars, bratwursts, and -- dare we even say it -- Shiner Blonde.

Science. You have got to love it.

August 19, 2006

The Journey and the Destination

Futurist blogger Michael Anissimov outlines some unexpected (and wonderful) trends in both personal and mass transportation:

blimp.JPG

Last week, news broke (on Digg, of course) that Skyacht Aircraft, Inc. is developing the world’s first personal blimp, and would eventually it will be for sale. The prototype model is pictured above.... I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw high-quality personal airships for sale by 2008 for $50,000 a pop. The main downside is the cruising speed - around 12 mph.

So we need rigid-shell airships that have high speeds and extreme steering capability. Duly noted.

This all reminds me: this gem, the Moller Skycar, can be yours by 2008 or 2009 at the latest for a deposit today of $10,000 and a total cost of $500,000:

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Sometimes stuff that sounds “too good to be true” is actually true. Test videos here. Obviously, what needs to be done is to combine the two ideas.... The balloon/payload ratio is improved to 10:1, or even 5:1. It is my prediction that the fusion of cheap VTOL technology with rigid-frame airships will lead to a transportation revolution greater in significance than the rise of the automobile. Combined with software based on descendents of Sebastian Thrun’s for self-navigating cars, you have an airship that can go park itself innoculously and propel itself back to your home at the push of a button.

Over at Onotech, San Francisco techie Ethan Stock is arguing the value of derigibles for mass transit as well as personal transit, in an age of prohibitively expensive and environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels:

Right now it takes about 10 hours to fly the 6000 miles from SF to London, at about 600 miles per hour. An appropriately designed dirigible could do it in 24 hours at 250 miles per hour, at a vastly (90%?) reduced fuel cost — since a dirigible would benefit both from the cubic reduction in power-required vs. speed flown, and the absence of the need to expend power to keep the aircraft up in the air, which accounts for a large percentage of airplane fuel cost. Imagine that, instead of spending 10 hours on a cramped, noisy, EXPENSIVE airplane, you spent a full day and a full night on a quiet, spacious, dirigible? Broadband internet access would be essential — not only could you make crystal-clear phone calls, but you could transfer any volume of data. You’d get nice meals from a large kitchen. You could walk around and exercise. You could sleep in a real bed. And in a world of $70 - $140 a barrel oil costs, all of this might be CHEAPER to provide than a miserable 10-hour flight.

Speaking as both a flying car and airship enthusiast, now this is a future truly worth living to see. I have GOT to get me one of those rigid personal airships.

Also, I love the idea of the flying "cruise" airships across the ocean. Add shopping, gaming, and other entertainment facilities and you've got a fun and luxurious way to travel -- two values that have been all but eliminated from air travel. This would be like a cruise ship that actually gets you somewhere: both the journey and the destination would be the reward.

August 18, 2006

Shrinking Fat Cells

More good news for those who are watching their weight:

Exercise may be especially helpful in reducing the size of fat cells around the waistline -- more so than diet alone, a study suggests. That's important, because fat specifically in the abdomen has been linked to the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Among a group of obese women who were placed on a regimen of calorie cutting alone or diet plus exercise, those who exercised showed a reduction in the size of fat cells around the abdomen. Women who only dieted showed no such change.

The article doesn't explain why, exactly, smaller fat cells are a good thing, but my better-than-eighth-grade education tells me that if you have the same number of smaller fat cells as you once had big ones, you'll be thinner. Also, this reaffirms the importance of exercise, which some folks are likey to respond to more enthusiastically than others:

FatCat.jpg

August 17, 2006

New FFR

It's the 11th edition of FastForward Radio, the original Speculist podcast, over at our sister blog.

August 14, 2006

Mandatory Solar

Interesting energy-related developments from China:

The southern boomtown of Shenzhen has set an example for power-hungry Chinese cities in energy saving by mandating the use of solar power in new housing construction, state media reported.

The law, the first of its kind in China, will require all new residential buildings with fewer than 12 storeys to install solar powered water heating systems, the China Daily reported.

Of course, government-mandated demand wouldn't be my first choice for something to round out the equation, but if governments are going to be madating stuff, I can think of lots worse things than this.

solar.jpg

August 13, 2006

The Fat Vaccine

This could be good...

newphil.jpgAugust 11, 2006 - Researchers are testing a new anti-obesity vaccine. They say the drug has worked for animals and could eventually be used for humans.

Dr. Kim Janda of Scripps Research Institute says, "What we've done is taken a molecule known as ghrelin, which is known to be involved in hunger and also fat metabolism, and we've made a vaccine against this molecule known as ghrelin."

Ghrelin makes you hungry, slows your metabolism and tells your body to store fat. And that's not all, according to Dr. Janda, "It's also involved in fat storage, so basically when it's high your metabolism slows down."

Unlike other weight loss drugs or appetite suppressants, the vaccine doesn't work by speeding up your metabolism. Instead, it's said to simply block the effects of ghrelin.

The article goes on to say that the vaccine works by tricking your body into treating ghrelin like a foreign substance. With ghrelin out of the picture, diet and exercise become a lot less significant. Without a molecule in there telling your body to make fat, your body will tend to treat fat like a disease -- something to resist and eliminate.

Now speaking as a guy who has spent the better part of the past year working on resisting and eliminating fat, I have a mixed reaction to this news. On the one hand, a shot like that would have made the past 32 weeks (and counting) a lot easier. On the other hand, if I had started taking a shot like that at the beginning of this year, would I have learned as much about eating healthy as I have? Would I have gotten as much exercise?

I'm thinking no, and -- um -- no. Unfortunately.

So the good news, for me, is not only that they're coming out with something like this, but that it won't be available for a while yet. I can go through this valuable learning experience of growing healthier and -- when the time comes -- maybe get a boost from this kind of treatment in maintaining the progress I've made.

Or maybe I won't need it at all, which would be fine, too.

August 12, 2006

The L2si Report #3

ReportLogo.jpg

My work travel schedule prevented me from getting this out earlier this week but I've always found that good news tends to arrive just in time.

In this week's edition:

A good time to be born

Instant Messaging improves language skills

All cleaned up and ready to go

and

We're inconsistent...and that's good

Plus, three years of good news in 30 seconds!

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!

August 06, 2006

We're Inconsistent. And that's Good!

Sometimes good news isn't so much a matter of discovering a new good thing as it is recognizing that an existing bad thing isn't nearly as bad as we thought.

Case in point: the so-called culture wars. If you indulge regularly in op-eds, talk radio, and, let's face it, blogs, you're likely to be inundated with the notion that fundamental ideas about how society should be structured are tearing us apart. Backward red-state hicks are one step away from imposing federal laws that outlaw double beds and make it mandatory that kindergartners learn that Adam and Eve road dinosaurs to church every Sunday. Meanwhile, godless liberals are working tirelessly to slaughter every baby in site and make us all gay.

We are constantly being told how polarized we are, and that we are only getting more so. Well now there's this:

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The so-called culture wars rending America over such issues as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research may be overblown, based on a U.S. poll released on Thursday.

"Despite talk of 'culture wars' and the high visibility of activist groups on both sides of the cultural divide, there has been no polarization of the public into liberal and conservative camps," the Pew Research Center said, commenting on its poll of 2,003 American adults.

Best illustrating the willingness of Americans to consider opposing points of view is that two-thirds of poll respondents supported finding a middle ground when it comes to abortion rights -- a solid majority that stood up among those calling themselves evangelicals, Catholics, Republicans or Democrats.

Here's the best part:

On five prominent social issues -- abortion rights, stem cell research, gay marriage, adoption of children by gay couples, and availability of the "morning-after" pill -- most Americans did not take consistent stances.

Just 12 percent took the conservative position on all five issues, while 22 percent took the opposite stance on all five. The bulk of Americans had mixed opinions.

The bottom line here seems to be that most people, in spite of it all, are reasonable. We can see the potential drawbacks in ideas that we favor and we can see the potential good that may be present even in ideas that we oppose.


redblue.jpg

This isn't to say that there's no polarization going on in this country. Obviously, editorial pages and political platforms are getting more and more polarized. But this may have to do more with effective marketing than it does with revealing a deep ideological split. Perhaps we've developed a resistence to marketing over the years and media and political types are forced to go extreme just to get our attention.

So not only are we inconsistent (in a good way) and reasonable, maybe we're even developing a resistance to ideological marketing? That's a hat-trick, folks.

August 05, 2006

Someday

We went to Red Rocks earlier this week to see Celtic Woman. Not everybody's cup of tea, I realize. But you put four gorgeous women with awesome singing voices on stage and I personally don't find a lot to complain about. Anyhow, there was one song that really got my attention, called Someday. I believe it's from the Disney version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

There is something very touching in the simple lyrics -- optimistic, but tinged with a certain sadness. It's wistful; and somehow strangely appropo for Singularitarians.

Someday

celtic-woman.jpg Someday
When we are wiser
When the world's older
When we have learned
I pray
Someday we may yet live
To live and let live

Someday
Life will be fairer
Need will be rarer
And greed will not pay
God speed
This bright millennium
On its way
Let it come
Someday

Someday
Our fight will be won then
We'll stand in the sun then
That bright afternoon
'Till then
On days when the sun is gone
We'll hang on
If we wish upon the moon

There are some days dark and bitter
Seems we haven't got a prayer
But a prayer for something better
Is the one thing we all share

Someday
When we are wiser
When the whole world is older
When we have learned
I pray
Someday we may yet live
To live and let live
One day, someday

August 04, 2006

How's this for Good News?

The Speculist turns three today!

August 03, 2006

Half of the Equation

Here's an interesting development:

Vail Resorts to switch to wind power

DENVER - Vail Resorts said it will buy enough wind-generated electricity to replace all the power used by its five ski areas and more than 135 other stores, lodges and offices.

vail.jpg Vail said Tuesday it would purchase nearly 152,000 megawatt-hours of wind-generated electricity a year, making it the second-largest corporate purchaser of wind power in the country. It did not immediately disclose the cost.

"By embracing wind power as a clean and renewable source for 100 percent of our companywide electricity use, we want to reinforce our commitment to the natural environment in which we operate and be a leader on this critical effort within the travel industry," said Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts.

Way to go, Rob.

The half of the equation mentioned in the title of this entry is, of course, the demand half. So often when we see new information about alternative energy sources, the focus is on the supply half of the equation -- equally important, of course. But what's neat about news that centers on the demand half is that, from the fact that Vail has announced that they're making the switch, the supply half can be pretty much assumed.

The reverse isn't necessarily so. If someone announces that they have figured out a way to save the planet by generating power from lawn clippings, we have no way of knowing whether the planet will actually be saved, because we don't know whether anyone is going to take the visionary up on their idea. But we can rest assured that the 152,000 megawatt hours required to run Vail can be had via wind power -- because Vail is putting money on the table. That is to say, even if the power weren't available, somebody would see to it to make it available, pronto.

But apparently, there is a lot more wind power out there than you might guess. The quoted article goes on to report how the Whole Foods grocery store chain is also switching to a 100% wind-powered model -- and they use up about three times as much power as Vail.

This also helps make the case against one of the fallacious arguments raised against alternative energy sources, the so-called Silver Bullet argument. It goes something like this:

Power for a grocery store chain and a couple of ski resorts is a drop in the bucket. Wind power, on its own, could never supply more than a small percentage of the energy we currently get from petroleum. Therefore, it is not a solution.

The response to the Silver Bullet argument is that we don't need a Silver Bullet. Wind power doesn't have to replace petroleum on its own. If we do a little bit with wind, a little bit with solar, a little bit with biofuels, a little bit with nuclear power -- it adds up. And the more demand that organizations like Vail and Whole Foods create, the more supply of alternate energy there will be.

August 02, 2006

Instant Messaging Builds Language Skills

This could well be our most counter-intuitive good news story of the week...or month, even:

Are you worried the acronyms and other linguistic shorthand used in casual computer instant messaging may be corrupting your kids' grammar and syntax?

Relax.

New research by two University of Toronto sociolinguists, to be presented tomorrow at the Linguistics Society of Canada and the U.S. annual meeting, shows quite the contrary.

"Everybody thinks kids are ruining their language by using instant messaging, but these teens' messaging shows them expressing themselves flexibly through all registers," associate professor Sali Tagliamonte, 46, said.

"They actually show an extremely lucid command of the language."

We were pleased to report last week how SMS is saving lives in China -- so we're second to none in promoting unexpected benefits of this kind of technology -- but I think the best anyone could have hoped for in regard to what instant messaging is doing to teenagers' language capability would have been that it isn't somehow completely destroying it (along with good-size chunks of their brains.)

But, no. Apparently it isn't doing any particular harm and may be providing some help.

While parents still might cringe at much of the spelling and grammatical usage displayed in instant messaging, the researchers report that kids are actually developing a:

[L]linguistic hybrid, a fusion of formal and vernacular features of language.

No doubt, purists will continue to wring their hands about "what's happening with kids these days," but there is clearly an argument to be made that developing and practicing with a whole new modelof communication allows kids to flex lingusitic muscles which otherwise would have remained dormant.

As long as they don't carry too many of the alternate spellings and weird abbreviations into more formal written language, maybe there's something for us all to be happy about.

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August 01, 2006

All Cleaned up and Ready to Go

You gotta love this:

SAN CLEMENTE DEL TUYU, Argentina - Dozens of freshly cleaned Magellanic penguins waddled into the ocean Monday to the applause of onlookers, the first batch of close to 200 goo-covered birds that were rescued and washed after an oil spill.

The 49 penguins, each tagged with metal identifying bands, were released on a wind-swept South Atlantic beach not far from the outlet of Argentina's River Plate. Another 141 birds that survived an unexplained oil spill off Patagonia in May still await release.

penguins.jpg

I don't have anything profound to add. Some good news just speaks for itself. Bon voyage, little birdies!