Saturday, February 25, 2006

Cool items... science, innovation move on...

Modernism plugs on...

Dean Kamen, the engineer who invented the Segway, is puzzling over a new equation these days. An estimated 1.1 billion people in the world don't have access to clean drinking water, and an estimated 1.6 billion don't have electricity. Those figures add up to a big problem for the world—and an equally big opportunity for entrepreneurs. To solve the problem, he's invented two devices, each about the size of a washing machine that can provide much needed power and clean water in rural villages. "Eighty percent of all the diseases you could name would be wiped out if you just gave people clean water," says Kamen. "The water purifier makes 1,000 liters of clean water a day, and we don't care what goes into it. And the power generator makes a kilowatt off of anything that burns."

VisiCalc creator Dan Bricklin is developing WikiCalc, which will make it possible for anyone to enter spreadsheet data and for anyone else to edit that data and have those edits be reflected on everyone's computers...

Astronomers searching for advanced life beyond Earth should focus their attention around beta CVn, a binary star roughly 26 light years away that resembles our Sun. The recommendation comes from a shortlist of likely life bearing systems compiled by Margaret Turnbull, at the Carnegie Institution, who adds that researchers looking for any kind of life – including basic forms that could not send communications to Earth – should take a particularly close look around another star, epsilon Indi A.

LiftPort Group has built a cable for a space elevator stretching a mile into the sky and tethered on balloons, enabling robots to scrabble some way up and down the line. To make the cable, researchers sandwiched three carbon-fiber composite strings between four sheets of fiberglass tape, creating a mile-long cable about 5 centimeters wide and...

On March 1 there will be two new Brin essays at

Oh, I gotta share this from Karl Rove, our master of Culture War: “As people do better, they start voting Republican - unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.” Aha... unless... a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? This really is fascinating at several levels. And disturbing.

Speaking of excess education. Are any of you experts in ancient heiroglyphics? In the egyptian stamp set that my kids have, there is a symbol whose glyphic meaning is “unknown” (while others are obviously birds and reeds and water waves). It is a dark circle with horizontal lines across it. Not a big problem since the SOUND it is supposed to make is known. (It’s the “th” sound.) But is it a representation of the Earth, with latitude lines superposed? Or maybe something like you see at

The following items come from many sources, including the Arlington Institute and The Globalist.

Quote" If you introduce a new challenge like chemical contraception, initially it devastates the population. But some individuals are resistant to it. Perhaps because of religious or philosophical reasons, perhaps because they just love kids and long for a big family. Anyway, even though the contraceptives are there, they chose not to use them.
End result: If any of that choice is heritable then these trends will be accentuated in the next generation. In time resistance of one form or another to contraception will emerge. There is no difference here between contraception and the effects of a new insecticide or antibiotic. In time you will get resistance." (I mentioned this years ago, and fairly recently on this blog.)

Web Suicide Pacts Surge in Japan -- (BBC -- February 9, 2006)
The number of Japanese who killed themselves in suicide pacts made over the internet rose sharply last year. Police said 91 people died in the pacts in 2005, compared to 55 in 2004 and 34 in 2003, when the records started. Alarm at the rise has led to increased vigilance by internet service providers, who now report suspected suicide pacts to the authorities.

The United States and its Muslim community and Muslim communities in Europe differ significantly.
In Europe, Muslims tend to be isolated, while American Muslim communities are more likely to be integrated into society, argue Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, co-authors of “The Next Attack.” They warn, however, that there are ominous signs pointing to a radicalization among Muslim youth in the United States.

Stars Hum Themselves to Death -- (ABC -- February 10, 2006)
Milliseconds before a giant star dies in a spectacular explosion, it hums a note around 'middle C', astronomers say. The discovery could prove to be the "missing link" in understanding what makes stars explode. Until now scientists had assumed that the spectacular explosion in a star's dying moments was due to the star's outer shell bouncing back off the core, But none of the models of exploding supernovae to date had supported this theory.


Kagehi said...

"The water purifier makes 1,000 liters of clean water a day, and we don't care what goes into it. And the power generator makes a kilowatt off of anything that burns."

And all they need to do is walk 800 miles to buy a new part when something breaks... Seriously though, the issue isn't often making the water clean, but just getting it out of the ground. And even then, its often fails to put in a well, because many tribal societies have nothing to do *but* walk several miles to the river to get water, wash clothes, etc. You end up with a clean water source no one uses, and everyone still gets diseases, because they are still exposed to the contaminated sources.

You want to fix this problem, it needs to be holistic, not just a new gadget, which when it breaks, they might not see the means to fix for years.

"If you introduce a new challenge like chemical contraception, initially it devastates the population. But some individuals are resistant to it. Perhaps because of religious or philosophical reasons, perhaps because they just love kids and long for a big family. Anyway, even though the contraceptives are there, they chose not to use them."

Umm. I can understand resistance via biology, but please, someone explain to me how genes mutate by religious conviction, to produce biological resistance....

But on a similar subject:

"However, when the researchers in the current study examined cells from the 42 mothers who had at least two gay sons, they found that about a quarter of the women in this group showed something different.

"Every single cell that we looked at in these women inactivated the same X chromosome," Bocklandt told LiveScience. "That's highly unusual."

In contrast, only 4 percent of mothers with no gay sons and 13 percent of those with just one gay son showed this type of extreme skewing.

Bocklandt thinks this suggest that a mother's X chromosomes partly influences whether her son is gay or not."

Also, three other genes have been found to contribute, with the odds drastically increasing when someone have a mutation on all three.

Brian Dunbar said...

LiftPort Group has built a cable for a space elevator stretching a mile into the sky and tethered on balloons, e . . .

Thanks for noticing and blogging about our humble effort. All said and done the test was an incremental build on what we've done, so nothing too exciting here.

But this is, we think, the optimal way to Get Stuff Done. Build, test, break and repeat. Do this for a few years and you'll see (we hope) solid progress and a prosperous business.

Anonymous said...

David, in a comment back in September you said:

. . . we won't see a "space elevator" above Earth in our lifetimes. Even if it would work, the liability insurance, in case the thing broke, would be staggering. The lower half would strike Earth at hypersonic speeds, paining a charred "equator line" all the way around!

Have recent developments made you more optimistic?

Brian Dunbar said...

I am not David but the 'charred line' thing is way overblown. If we had material strong enough to paint a charred line across the equator we'd be well on our way to building a Ringworld.

He does have a point - if such a disaster is possible it is unlikely we'll build a space elevator.

jbmoore said...

I think the power generator and water purifier would be excellent candidates for investment and promotion by the USAID. How best to affect American foreign policy than help people better their lives in a practical way. To go out with a perfect note and a bang, some stars have a sense of humor as they expire and birth new life elements. Thanks, David. This was an uplifting entry by and large.

Anonymous said...

Let's just hope that contraceptives don't weed out the smart people, as in the classic SF story "The Marching Morons".

Anonymous said...

"there is a symbol whose glyphic meaning is “unknown” ... It is a dark circle with horizontal lines across it."

I'm not an expert on egyptian hieroglyphs (not even remotely) but from this page and this one it could perhaps be concluded that it means something like "source" or "whatever came/comes before". This is just my humble opinion though. (a site like Wikihiero puts it in the group 'unclassified') BTW are you sure it's pronounced th and not kh?

Mary Ann said...

Is it possible that you don't know how to create an active link in your blog text? Pasting a long URL into the text requires the reader to copy and paste the link to follow it. And it forces the text to be wider than the template margins, pushing the sidebar to the bottom of the page.

To avoid this you can highlight a word that describes the link, click the link button on the blogger toolbar and paste the URL there.

Anonymous said...

@ kagehi

You want to fix this problem, it needs to be holistic, not just a new gadget, which when it breaks, they might not see the means to fix for years.

I haven't yet seen a holistic approach to anything that has accomplished jack or shit.

Progress is incremental. Dean Kamen initially isn't going to get a lot of traction with his clean water machine, but he may get some.

Eventually the people with fewer diseases will outcompete the people that didn't move forward. May take a generation or two.

But it is worth pursuing.

Rob Perkins said...

Heh. Forget the third world. I want those two Kamen gadgets for *myself*.... :-)

OK not really. I want the gadgets for *both* myself and the third world, mass produced by clever people who mark the things up 30% plus shipping costs.

And while we're at it, some of those hand-cranked laptop PC's for cost + 30% for every single classrom desk in the world might be nice too. We could get ourselves a geodesic network if they were that ubiquitous...

Kagehi said...

>I haven't yet seen a holistic approach to anything that has
>accomplished jack or shit.
>Progress is incremental. Dean Kamen initially isn't going to get
>a lot of traction with his clean water machine, but he may get some.
>Eventually the people with fewer diseases will outcompete the people
>that didn't move forward. May take a generation or two.

See, the problem here is people "have" tried this before, the result was that they still went back the poluted sources, because their culture and life style centered around the activities at them, and the pumps/filters, etc. went unused. And it "still" doesn't solve the problem of what happened when, not if, it breaks. By holistic "I" mean dealing with why they might not change habits, not just dropping a machine in some back water location and hoping they change. Virtually every group and organization that has tried to do that so far has come back later to find nothing changed at all, or worse, to find some local warlord has decided he needed the machine to use, or sell for more guns, more than the people it was given to. Yes, it worth trying to solve these problems. But its damned stupid to try the same solution over and over again, with the expectation that if you try it enough times or won't fail the next time. This can be attributed to ignorance, stupidity or insanity, depending on who does it. In this case I think its ignorance, in the case of a lot of aid agencies, I think it is stupidity, since they never seem to *get* that dropping a $5,000 machine they natives can't fix into an environment that makes it break within a few months, is plain idiocy. As for the insane part... Continually insisting that the first step in the incremental process is dropping such a thing in the middle of no place, then *hoping* people will actually use it (and that it doesn't immediately break), given all evidence to the contrary, is not sane.

Its not worth trying something that has failed before, and thus you can predict with some certainty will fail again. Not without thinking about "why" it fails.

Anonymous said...

Obviously every machine needs maintening, which dictates a direct link with the 'civilized' world. And a valuable machine can be stolen and/or misused which again dictates some oversight by agents from that civilized world.
Some training and cultural changes may be necessary and this also takes prolonged contact with the civilized world.

It seems that holistic in this context means that the 'backwater location' is wholly embraced by the mentioned civilized world.

David Brin said...

Mary Ann, the links issue comes up often.

Though I am a tech-pundit, I am also a curmugeon. I must use a Mac that is OS9 compatible because all modern word processing programs made since the marvelous WordPerfect 1989 version have been alien torture devices, designed to hamper human productivity. This, alas, includes recent versions of WP, that immitate WORD formalisms. As a result, the Blogger keys that you refer to simply blow up my old Mac, so I cannot use them. Sorry. (From now on, could some volunteer answer this for me?)

I do intend to buy a new mac at JUST the right moment... when the big iron G5s that still use IBM chips are remaindered to make way for Intel chipped models. At that point I MUST buy, in order for my legacy programs to still operate. When that happens, perhaps a recent version of Safari will solve all of this. (BTW, if any of you are on the ball about good computer deals, please send me an alert when you think the time is exactly right to pounce on that Power PC(IBM chip) big Iron G5! I don’t need Quad power. Thanks!)

People interested in Proxy Power that gets computers into classrooms should look into Project Inkwell --

Tony Fisk said...

The water purifier sounds an overly high tech gadget. There are other tools for obtaining clean water that are being produced.

Consider the 'elephant pump', developed by Pump Aid which uses 2000 year old technology and local materials, and is cheap (This was covered last July both by WorldChanging and New Scientist (subscription needed).

David, your curmudgeonly attitude of Mac OS9 and Past Perfection vs the fallen followers of the Word is almost worth a rant in its own right! What do you find attractive about WP98? Is it a case of cognitive dissonance, or were there some seriously useful features?

(Time was when the best way to run a Mac was on an Amiga...which still exists BTW. But, I digress)

Your comments on exposure to old tech makes it a good time to point out the Open Document Format being proposed by Oasis, picked up on by Massuchetts for government documents, and opposed tooth and nail by... guess who?

In between covering that other champion for the ownership of Openness (SCO), Groklaw's been covering Microsoft's 'sledging' antics on this issue (or, if not M$, 'friends' of M$)

Anonymous said...

Bummer . . . Octavia Butler passed away suddenly on Saturday:

David Brin said...

Actually, it's worse than you think. The word process or I like is the 1989 version of WP, not the 1998 one. By 98 they had already surrendered to the Word formalisms that make no sense at all. the incoherent menu choices. The "paragraph and document" formating choice trees. The need to press and choose and click three times, whenever one click ought to do. The incomprehensible process by which Word insists that it knows how you want to indent and list and format, far better than the mere writer knows what he wants.

Yes, WP still have "show codes", the blessing that lets you over-rule the program when it gets impudent. For that reason alone, WP is still preferable over any version of Word.

But in WP 1989 you could actually move around a word processor as if it were designed to serve you, instead of such your time and creative juices and life force, like a lamprey.

(Imagine this. You do a search for a word. The search FINDs the word in the document. But then you DON'T have to close the find window in order to get back to work!!!! When alerts happen, the program does not insist that you obey and jump and acknowledge, but instead it trusts you to actually read the alert and go back to work, without jumping through its sadistic hoops.)

Yes, people get used to WORD. They get so used to it that they start to depend upon their chains. They find alternatives unnerving, even when they demonstrably take fewer motions, take less time and make more sense.

Well I won't give in to alien sadist programmers. I won't.

Someone out there tell me when the time is right to buy the last PowerMac. I gotta have it, so I can stay a curmugeon for another ten years.

Rob Perkins said...

Won't work, David. It just won't work.

You can trust me on this. I waited, as you are waiting, for the last Apple Newtons to be offered, so I could pick up a remaindered one.

Instead, I found that as soon as the announcement was made, clever entrepreneurs from all over the country already had the lists of stores which sold and carried them, and bought them all up *the day the discontinuation announcement was made*, and this because they knew just how uber-cool the machines were.

I predict G5 macs will follow this pattern. The dual G5's will never be remaindered. Ever. And the "classic" environment you need for those old programs will be gone before the discontinuation announcement.

It's just the way Apple works.

Now, you might get a Dual G5 secondhand... maybe. There will be/is now a market for that.

And ohyeah, they're water-cooled or liquid-cooled, I think.

You're better off with a G5-based iMac.

Brian Dunbar said...

It might be time to abandon the idea of using a word processor to write.

Use a good text editor to bang out the words. Then use TeX to format them.

Bit of a learning curve, sure. Possibly an outrage to your brain when you encounter that curve - it's less a curve and more a vertical wall. But worth it perhaps, if it lets you stop fretting about obsolete hardware and software and just get on with the process of crafting words.

My .02 cents only, I am no writer, YMMV.

Heh - I've either setup Brin to become more productive than ever or mired him in a gumption trap. Time will tell.

Anonymous said...

We interrupt this religious discussion to get back to live links.

Is there some reason that all the links are just punched in in text lines.

It just introduces four steps (new window, copy, paste, return) into an attempt to follow a link.

What's the point?

Anonymous said...

Another feature of this plain text link is that when the link runs out of the border of the column as in

it becomes very difficult to select it (a fifth step) and not select all the text around it.

Just saying that "the link issue comes up a lot" doesn't quite cover this since clickable links are turned on and used here in the comments by the commenters.

Is there a standard explanation for this on the page that you could post a clickable link to so that we may understand the reason for this?

Rob Perkins said...

@Van der Leun

Yes, there's an explanation. David Brin uses an iMac running Mac OS9. The good people at Blogger think that nobody is using Mac OS9. Therefore their system doesn't consider the browser installed with Mac OS9. Therefore making the URI's David finds into something you can click on with less work... more work for him.

He stated here that he's not gonna spend thousands just to make it possible for links to work; the tradeoff in requiring him to learn new software which works with OSX (or Windows) is much costlier than just courteously asking you to select-copy-newtab-paste.

Unless, of course, you have an iMac G5 delivered to his door, at your expense. Then he can give you the links, because there's a version of Firefox for that.

Kagehi said...

Hmm. There is an open source application called AbiWord:

For OSX though, which has a "show formatting codes" button on its main toolbar. It even has a "Web View" option for people designing stuff to be published online.

I also tested it, you can have the search window remain open, even while editing the page.

OpenOffice is another alternative, however it doesn't have a show code like feature for the simple reason that it saves documents in an XML file format, which *is* basically showing all the codes. I have no idea if they provide a direct way to alter those "while" typing the document though. But being opensource, its not impossible that a suggestion or even someone you might know that can program, could make changes to allow it. Just make sure they submit the code for it back to the project, since other people might want the same feature. ;)

As for Tony Fisk's comment. Didn't have a link, but I was pretty sure such a local materials filter existed and its "exactly" the sort of thing that "is" working. The high tech ones invariably fail because they only work if you are already near enough to civilization to be certain they can be fixed in some reasonable amount of time.

Anonymous said...

It's been a long time since I studied hieroglyphs (and was never very good at them in any case), but I do know that the character is Gardiner Aa1/phonetic x, which is probably vocalized as the digraph 'kh' sound (it's an aspirated 'kh' or voiceless velar fricative -- think the ach-laut in 'loch'). It persists in Arabic as 'khah.'

Since there's no 'th' sound in ancient Egyptian and no 'kh' in English, the symbol is sometimes used to stand in for 'th' for English-hieroglyphic transliteration.

The image is traditionally thought to be either a sieve or a placenta, but really its meaning is unknown and those interpretations should be treated with caution.

Anonymous said...


I'm sure there is a way to make clickable links using your OS9 software.

But in any case, I wished to mention that now is a great time to buy the very sexy G5 iMacs (say a 20"!) -- Apple is rapidly clearing them to make way for the Intel model. Such is progress.

Personally, if I needed another Mac, I'd buy one of those iMacs like a shot. They're still in the Apple Store from $1499 but for how much longer?


jomama said...

"Eighty percent of all the diseases you could name would be wiped out if you just gave people clean water,"...

Not that hard or expensive to do.

See here.