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January 27, 2007

Sea Monsters Live!

Who needs a fake...


...when you can have the real thing? Here in the city of Tokyo (where business travel has brought me for a few days) there have been recent sitings of a rare prehistoric creature, the frilled shark. Unlike Nessie, the frilled shark is unquestionably real. Thought to have been long extinct, the species was found in the 19th century to be alive and well and living in the (deep) waters in the vicinity of Japan.

According to Wikipedia, these monstrous, eel-like fish live at depths of 120 to nearly 1300 meters deep. (That's well over half a mile for the metric-resistant.) So when a specimen showed up in a harbor south of Tokyo earlier this week, an alert fisherman was quick to notify the management of a nearby marine park. Photgraphers from the park managed to get some excellent phots of the shark before it (unfortunately) died, probably because it couldn't handle life in shallow water.

Check this thing out:


It's too bad we lost this one, but it's encouraging to realize that we live on a planet that supports such incredible diversity of life. It's also good to know that these things are usually found only in the very deep water. I, for one, wouldn't want to run into one while snorkeling in water 10-15 feet deep.

So here's to the frilled shark. My trip to Japan can only get better if Godzilla himself shows up.

January 23, 2007

Fast Forward Radio, Episode 12

[Cross-posted from The Speculist.]

Or, download the MP3 File

How would you upgrade yourself?

Phil has been upgrading the old fashioned way -- latest developments here --but what if there were no limits?

Michael Anissimov lists the Top Ten Cybernetic Upgrades Everyone Will Want.

A New Blogger at The Speculist

Ben Young suggests that Tabloid Journalism is good for society. Is it possible that this is just another example of how everything "bad" is good for you?

And check out the NPR interview with Steven Johnson - the author of the book "Everything Bad Is Good for You."

Must-know terms for 21st Century Intellectuals

George P. Dvorsky at Sentient Developments put together a list of key concepts that every intellectual should know.

And Stephen adds to that list.

Stephen and Phil take a swipe at the Doomsday argument.

Ultimately they agree that we have a chance to avoid all risks except the unknown unknowns:
The Unknown
- D.H. Rumsfeld

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

Plus, check out Kathy's new Speculist challenge related to the Doomsday clock.

This episode features the song "Goodbye Beautiful Day" by Beat & Path.

You can subscribe for free to Fast Forward Radio by clicking here if you have iTunes.

Or subscribe with other podcast receiver programs by copying the following URL into the subscribe window:


Click here to download iTunes, or here to download other podcast receivers.

If you've missed past episodes of Fast Forward Radio, you can find them all at the Fast Forward Radio webpage. For more Speculicious podcasting fun, check out The L2si Report.

January 22, 2007

Trashing Peak Oil

In 1956, M. King Hubert made a bold and now-famous prediction. He predicted that oil production in the lower 48 states would peak in the early 1970s and decline steadily from that point on. In the years since that decline began -- right on schedule in 1970 -- there have been many attempts to apply Hubert's reasoning to the overall global oil supply, in order to determine when we will reach the peak that will mark the beginning of the end for global petroleum use.

According to Kenneth Deffeyes, a former professor of geophysics at Princeton University, we're going to hit the peak sooner rather than later, and worldwide oil production will have fallen 90% by 2019.

Obviously, one factor that will mitigate against hitting the peak is finding new sources of oil:

Part of the controversy lies in the fact that to know what fraction of the world’s oil we’ve used up, you have to know how much there was, initially. That includes undiscovered reserves, plus known ones from which new extraction techniques will improve our ability to wring the last drops.

Ideally, you’d do this with a careful geological survey of the entire world, adding up everything you find. Instead, you have to estimate. The estimates are all over the map. Most geologists believe there are at least a trillion barrels left. The U.S. Geological Survey thinks there are a trillion more, undiscovered, for a total of 2 trillion remaining.

By the first estimate, we’re at the midpoint now. By the second, we’ve got several more years – 15 at present consumption rates, fewer if consumption continues to increase.

Another important mitigating factor will be trends in oil usage. If we use less oil, the peak gets pushed back. And the numbers seem to confirm that, worldwide, we're using less oil:

Fresh data from the International Energy Agency show oil consumption in the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fell 0.6 percent in 2006. Though the decline appears small, it marks the first annual drop in more than 20 years among the OECD countries, which drain close to 60 percent of the 84.4 million barrels of oil used globally each day.

Fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles are one step that Americans have been taking towards consuming less petroleum. A new generation of plug-in hybrids will help us to burn a lot less gas, particularly if other sources of energy -- coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind -- are used to generate the electricity we plug into.

The there's the idea of alternatives to oil. Over the past couple of years, we've written about how biodiesel, shale, and methane hydrates, all of which might provide part of the solution.

And now here's an idea that might prove to be another major mitigating factor. FuturePundit Randall Parker asks:

How about an energy technology that will reduce the need for landfills while replacing as much as a quarter of the gasoline burned in the United States?

The technology, developed originally by researchers at MIT and at Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL), in Richland, WA, doesn't incinerate refuse, so it doesn't produce the pollutants that have historically plagued efforts to convert waste into energy. Instead, the technology vaporizes organic materials to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a mixture called synthesis gas, or syngas, that can be used to synthesize a wide variety of fuels and chemicals.

There is enough municipal and industrial waste produced in the United States for the system to replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline used in this country, says Daniel Cohn, a cofounder of IET and a senior research scientist at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

Implementing this kind of technology would represent a huge win-win. Let's ward off the peak oil problem while reducing landfill waste. Wastefulness is a criticism often leveled against Americans (not without good reason.) Reclaiming a significant amount of the energy we consume from what we throw away would be an excellent place to start addressing the waste problem.


Identifying Friendly Intelligence

Here's another brain-related development with some interesting implications:

Are you a giver? Brain scan finds the truth

Altruism, one of the most difficult human behaviors to define, can be detected in brain scans, U.S. researchers reported on Sunday.

They found activity in a specific area of the brain could predict altruistic behavior -- and people's own reports of how selfish or giving they are.

"Although understanding the function of this brain region may not necessarily identify what drives people like Mother Theresa, it may give clues to the origins of important social behaviors like altruism," said Scott Huettel, a neuroscientist at Duke University in North Carolina who led the study.

In the study, students played games to earn money either for themselves or for a charity (selected by the students themselves.) The tests given monitored the difference in response when a student won money for charity rather than for him- or herself. One of the intriguing aspects of the study was that the response both to winning for oneself or for a charity did not show up in the region of the brain expected -- a region associated with reward stimulus.

"This area we saw was the posterior superior temporal cortex," [neuroscientist Scott] Huettel said. "It's part of the parietal lobe. What this brain area seems to be involved in is extracting meaning from things you see."

"If you see a rock move because someone picked it up, you can recognize that they have a goal. That would activate this region. If you saw a leaf fluttering in the wind, there is no intention in that leaf." And this brain region would not activate.

"We think altruism might help others understand the intentions of others," Huettel said.

Very interesting that selfless behavior seems to be tied up in the mystery of intention. As I wrote recently on that subject:

In the end, defining the future requires an understanding of intention. What is it? Another form of information? Its aim would appear to be a unique kind of information processing. Intention seeks to convert information in one form – an idea – into information in another form – manifested reality. Karl Popper dealt extensively with this puzzle, perhaps without providing the answers we’re looking for.

So did a new metaphysical reality become manifest when human beings began planning their actions? Or is intention only an illusion, effectively fooling conscious beings into believing that their random actions are leading to something other than random outcomes?

Maybe intention is the fire that Prometheus gave our remote ancestors, the same fire that we will soon be handing down to our electronic progeny. Assuming that it is not an illusion, intention is not only the one hope we have against all the random existential threats to human existence, it’s our one hope against all the intentional threats, as well as all the random threats that never would have existed were it not for intentional actions. It may be our damnation. It may be our salvation.

How interesting that we can’t even say with any certainty precisely what it is.

Equally interesting, as noted above, is the suggestion that intention may be related to altruism. One of the crucial challenges that humanity faces in the coming decades (or possibly just years or months) is coming to understand how what we think of as goodness -- and altruism makes up a big part of that -- can be encoded into a an intelligent system, any intelligent system. In order for the Singularity to be anything other than devastatingly bad news, it will need to involve one or more friendly intelligences, either an artificial Intelligence or an enhanced human intelligence.

Either way, beginning to understand how to identify selfless behavior at the level of brain activity, even for non-enhanced humans, is a huge step in the right direction.

January 20, 2007

What a Day for a Daydream

Gaia Vince, Online Deputy Editor for NewScientist.com writes:

It’s the end of the working week, with the promise of the weekend looming ahead in all its glory… and I bet you, like me, have already fallen into the soothing lap of a daydream. Gazing out of the window, the mind wanders aimless, floating free as a cloud, flitting from one notion to another…

Sorry, where was I? Yes, the point of all this random daydreaming – for it turns out, there is a point – is apparently to allow the brain to remain in “standby” mode during a lull in tasks, a bit like a car idling between gears at the lights.

“This type of thought could be a sort of ‘default’ state of the mind, a psychological baseline,” says Malia Mason, who carried out brain scans of people either carrying out complex mental tasks or daydreaming.

The scans showed a distinct pattern in brain activity when people were daydreaming, which involved a complex network of disparate brain areas. Mason explains that a wandering mind still leaves the brain in an optimal state of arousal so it is primed for more purposeful tasks, yet it allows people to remain only as alert as they need to be during mundane tasks.

Science marches on. First we learned that red wine and dark chocolate have life-extending properties, now we discover that daydreaming is an optimum mental state. This may require some rethinking of my online bio, which begins with these words:

Phil Bowermaster has been a full-time amateur speculist since about age three. Often misunderstood during his childhood and adolescence, he fought a frequent perception that he was "daydreaming" or "goofing off" when in fact he was involved in serious contemplation of alternative scenarios to the world he saw around him. This misunderstanding persists to the present day.

Now that research is putting a mark of respectability on daydreaming, maybe I can dispense with the apologies. It turns out that I've not only been contemplating better worlds, I've been tuning my brain in the process. That's kind of a win-win, now, isn't it?

Vince goes on to complain about the inability to achieve perfect randomness of thought, and asks how others have been able to avoid inevitable thought traps such as worrying about whether one has filed one's taxes.

Well, Gaia, I would suggest that you stay on that thought trap until it leads you someplace new. Randomness should mean flowing into and out of patterns of thought. And if it doesn't lead you anywhere, maybe you ought to go ahead and file those tax forms. There will be plenty of time for random thought later.

January 19, 2007

Re-Growing Nerve Cells

Too late to help Christopher Reeve, alas, but this looks like the beginning of the breakthrough he was looking for:

Stem cells nurture damaged spine: study

BOSTON (Reuters) - Human embryonic stem cells can help regenerate damaged nerves in rats, producing compounds that nurture nerve cells and stimulate the growth of new ones, Geron Corp. said on Wednesday.

Geron had earlier reported that human embryonic stem cells had helped replace myelin, a fatty covering on nerves that is vital to function.

Now, the company's researchers said, they had shown the cells produce multiple nerve growth factors, which are proteins that stimulate the survival and regeneration of neurons.


For victims of paralysis, the ability to replace damaged or missing nerve tissue is the Holy Grail of stem cell research. It will take considerably more than what's been done here before we start seeing people abandoning their crutches and wheelchairs, and even more still before stem cell research offers hope to those who suffer in other ways -- e.g., Parkinson's/ Alzheimer's -- but this is an important step, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, we should be on the lookout for the convergence of other positive developments in this sphere, for example:

Blood stem cells make mouse bone marrow, brain cells

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stem cells taken from bone marrow replenished the radiation-ravaged immune systems and bone marrow of mice and can also make brain and liver cells, scientists reported on Monday.

These so-called adult stem cells can grow almost indefinitely in the lab and have many of the other valued properties of more controversial embryonic stem cells, Dr. Catherine Verfaillie of the University of Minnesota and colleagues reported.

"The cells not only survived when transplanted but they completely repopulated the blood system of the mice," Verfaillie said.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, the researchers said the findings suggest adult stem cells can be manipulated to regenerate a range of cells and tissues.


Replacing brain cells might be more in line with helping the degenerative diseases mentioned above. And of course there will be tremendous benefits for many if the ability to regenerate liver and bone marrow cells pans out.

Additionally, stem cell therapies such as these which can be achieved using adult stem cells represent a kind of Holy Grail in their own right, in that they enable research to move forward without the ethical difficulties raised by embryonic stem cell research. And in addition to these ethical considerations, there's a very practical one -- most stem-cell therapies are intended for adults, or at least for people who stopped being embryos a long time ago. It makes sense to believe that, all things being equal, an individual's own undifferentiated cells -- cells with his or her own DNA -- will prove much more useful in treating any condition than would cells from some other body.

Related postings here and here.

January 18, 2007

Silver Bullet for Cancer?

We know that effective cancer treatments are coming -- nanobots singling out cancer cells and destroying them with tiny laser beams, gene therapies calibrated right down to the specific DNA sequence of the patient, etc. It's all very exciting. But then there's this:

It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their “immortality”. The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe.

It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.

Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.

DCA works by switching the mitochondria back on inside cancer cells. Deprived of oxygen, cancer cells survive by an alternative energy-supplying process called glycolysis. This bypasses the normal metabolic process governed by the mitochondria. Unfortunately, the mitochondrial process not only supplies a cell with energy, it determines the cell's lifespan. When a cell adopts this workaround fuel strategy that bypasses the mitochondria, it becomes an "immortal" cancer cell. By switching the mitochondria back on in such cells, DCA ensures that they die a natural, and very welcome, death.


Source: Newscientist

There are a couple of downsides:

1. Patients who have used the drug while being treated for the metabolic disorders for which it was originally developed have experienced "pain, numbness and gait disturbances." All of which I assume most folks would gladly swap for cancer any day of the week.

2. Because the drug is not patented and is very cheap to produce, there isn't much of a business case for the drug companies to continue this research and bring the cancer treatment to market. The New Scientist article suggests that the way forward may be through "clinical trials funded by charities, universities and governments."

Say, this might be a good project for the Gates Foundation or some such. In any case, I don't see how that second obstacle can stand in the way for long if this drug is truly as effective as these preliminary results indicate.

Via GeekPress.

UPDATE: Via InstaPundit, here's some more good news on the war on cancer:

Cancer Deaths Decline For Second Straight Year

The number of Americans who died of cancer has dropped for a second straight year, marking a milestone in the war on the disease, officials said yesterday.

More than 3,000 fewer Americans died from cancer in 2004 than in 2003, according to statistics analyzed by the American Cancer Society, indicating that a much smaller decline in cancer deaths a year earlier probably was not a fluke but instead marked the start of a trend.

I appears that the bulk of the credit goes to the fact that there are fewer smokers and that screening procedures have improved (and are used more frequently.) Excellent!

January 17, 2007

L2si Report, Video Edition


First it was Better All the Time, then it was this blog, then the L2si Report podcast. Now it's time for some good news in video form. If you've got five minutes, we'll give you a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world!

Good news referenced in this edition:

Item 1: People are getting smarter...and nicer?

Item 2: The man who sold (a whole bunch of books about) the moon

Item 3: Don't resolve, upgrade!

Missile-Proof Jet

Here's what might be thought of as a good first step:

Jet with anti-missile system leaves LAX

LOS ANGELES - An MD-10 cargo jet equipped with Northrop Grumman's Guardian anti-missile system took off from Los Angeles International Airport on a commercial flight Tuesday, the company said.

The FedEx flight marked the start of operational testing and evaluation of the laser system designed to defend against shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles during takeoffs and landings.


The system works by detecting a missile launch, honing in on the missile, and then hitting it with a laser which fries the guidance system. Of course, it's unfortunate that steps such as this have to be taken, but it's encouraging that they are being taken. The potential downside is that all commercial aircraft will be fitted with these systems just as a new threat, completely immune to this defense, emerges.

One the other hand, we can expect that the version of this system that makes it out to commercial airliners will be considerably more robust than what's being tested now. Let's just hope that it's robust enough.