May 17, 2004

Better All The Time #5

Here's more proof that things may not be as bad as they seem. In fact, some "things" appear to be getting better and better.

Today's Good Stuff:

  1. Nanotech to Enable Hydrogen Cars
  2. The Information
  3. HIV Treatments Coming Sooner
  4. Quote of the Day
  5. Home of the World's Fastest Sumpercomputer
  6. A Crucial First Step
  7. I Got It on Freebay!

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Item 1
Hydrogen Cars the Nanotech Way


A Department of Energy report has found that nanotechnology could reduce the high costs of hydrogen cars by developing revolutionary ways of producing and storing hydrogen. Hydrogen stores energy more effectively than batteries, burns twice as efficiently in a fuel cell as gasoline does in an engine, and produces a single waste product, water.

"The amount of hydrogen that would be needed for a hydrogen economy is about five times what we're producing today..." In order to generate hydrogen energy, we first need to develop inexpensive, renewable sources of electricity like wind or solar power. Some nanotechnologists are already working on more efficient solar cells

[Hydrogen gas may] have to be compressed, and the tank that holds it would need to be able to withstand the resulting high pressure. Nanotechnology could provide materials strong, light, and cheap enough to build such a tank. Another approach would be to have a tank filled with a solid material that absorbs hydrogen at fill-up time, and releases it while driving. Nanotechnology could produce that very porous solid material.

The good news:

As we reported last week (item 5), gasoline may play a role in the first generation of hydrogen-powered cars. According to the DOE report, nanotechnology may pick up where today's fuels leave off.

Ironically, most of the nine million tons of hydrogen we produce today is extracted from fossil fuels. In order to generate hydrogen energy, we first need to develop inexpensive, renewable sources of electricity like wind or solar power. Some nanotechnologists are already working on more efficient solar cells, which would help provide inexpensive electric power to produce more hydrogen at low cost.

The downside:

Currently, it costs ten times as much to operate a car using hydrogen fuel cells than it does gasoline.


That price can only go down as hydrogen technology is phased in. Hydrogen powered vehicles will be great for the environment and will reduce the world's dependence on Arab oil. Imagine the political importance of being able to tell the Saudis, "keep the oil and the Wahhabism please."

Yep, sounds like a pretty good idea.


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Item 2
Internet Groceries Continue to Expand

After the spectacular crashes of big-name Internet grocers in the late 1990s, the dream of a grand new wave of online food stores appeared to fizzle. But with intentionally meager fanfare, grocers have made Internet shopping available to tens of millions of consumers nationwide, and upcoming expansions will expand it to millions more.

Industry watchers say it's no longer a question of whether Internet grocery can be successful, but rather of how big it will become.

The good news:

It has taken a few false starts to get us to this point, but it looks as though there really is a viable business model for this service. What helps is that the offering now includes services such as storable, reusable shopping lists and delivery within a 2-hour window. It costs about $10 bucks.

Online grocery shopping will really take off when the supermarkets themselves becomes virtual. When we can stroll the aisles, comparison-shop, use virtual coupons clipped from our virtual newspapers...

The downside:

Of course, at that point, it won't represent that much of a time savings. Also, it is likely that virtual grocery shopping will never be as big a hit with women as it is with guys. (I for one can't imagine the Specuwife buying meat or produce this way — Phil.)


Online grocery shopping is a long-promised, long-anticipated feature of the digital age. And now it looks as though we have it.


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Item 3
US accelerates HIV drug approval

The US is to accelerate its approval of new HIV drugs for the world's poor from four years to as little as six weeks.

But the US Food and Drug Administration, which will run the scheme, says it will not cut corners on safety to rush drugs through the system. Many will be combinations of medicines that have already been approved, it says.

The good news:

There are two pieces of very encouraging news, here:

  1. HIV treatments getting to peeple who desperately need them.
  2. A government agency refining its normal process — actually doing something faster! — to help people in need.

It's especially encouraging to run a story like this on a Monday.


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Item 4
Quote of the Day

Extended longevity means extended healthy life span, not more years of increasing infirmity. You would never be old for longer - you would be healthy and in the prime of your life for longer. Hopefully for as long as you choose, if medical research proceeds rapidly enough.

Resources are never fixed, and nor are the ways in which we use them. We humans continue to produce more resources, and make better use of existing resources, all the time through our advancing technology and knowledge of the world.

-- Reason at Fight Aging!


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Item 5
The U.S. Wants to be the Fastest

Winning back the title of world's fastest supercomputer is the goal of a $25 million contract awarded by the Energy Department to Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Center for Computational Science…

"The new machine will enable breakthrough discoveries in biology, fusion energy, climate prediction, nanoscience and many other fields that will fundamentally change both science and its impact across society," Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Jeff Wadsworth said. "Our plans are to surpass the world's current fastest supercomputer--Japan's 40-teraflops Earth Simulator--within a year."

The partnership begins with Oak Ridge's Cray X1 computer, which will be upgraded to 20 teraflops this year, and next year will be combined with a second 20-teraflops Cray Red Storm-based processor. Also next year, partner Argonne National Laboratory will add a 5-teraflops IBM Blue Gene computer that is expected to move the partners past the Earth Simulator.

The good news:

You don't have to be jingoistic flag-wavers like we are to appreciate the importance of not living in a scientific backwater.

But taking a broader view, faster computation (6.25 times faster than today's champ in just three years) means that problems too complex today will be solved tomorrow.

We're also encouraged that this is not a one-shot bid to beat Japan. As history has shown, with computers one cannot rest on past accomplishments. Success is a process, not a finish line.

The downside:

You ever see the Terminator movies?


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Item 6
Just 11 More Steps

The first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem.

The Bush administration is now admitting that the limited number of embryonic stem cell lines may be impeding research.

In the letter, Dr. Zerhouni reiterated the president's stand that tax dollars not be used to "sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos." But he also wrote, "It is also fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas" of research.

Via KurzweilAI

The good news:

Rather than tightening restrictions on stem cell research in a second term (as we have pessimistically predicted), this may signal an easing of restrictions. The government is such a big player in R&D, that restrictions in government funding can steer American science away from promising fields like embryonic stem cell research. So it's particularly good news that Bush is admitting that his policy may be slowing science.

The downside:

The easing of restrictions can't come too soon for those suffering with disease. And the rest of us ain't getting any younger either…yet.

This is probably election-year triangulation. Activists should get a commitment from Bush while the election is still tight. If they fail to get a commitment, this may be the last we hear of it from the Bush administration.


The admission that more stem cell lines would do some good is significant. We'll see what happens next.


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Item 7
'FreeBay' Sites Connect the Cheap and the Green

Attention Rhode Island residents: A free washing machine is yours for the taking at the corner of Tangent and Burgess in East Providence.

It might not clean your clothes, but it could come in handy as a movie prop or ... something.

Sounds enticing? Jen Duclos hopes her notice on the Free Market ( will attract an Internet-savvy dumpster diver willing to cart away the unsightly appliance, which was mistakenly posted as a stove.

"It's been sitting out on the curb for like a year," Duclos said. "It just makes the neighborhood look so ghetto, I hate it."

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but online exchanges offer free lumber, refrigerators and other slightly used treasures for anybody willing to come haul them away.

The good news:

Have you ever said this:

"eBay? Forget it. I couldn't give this stuff away!"

Well, here's your big chance to see if you were right.


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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Live to see it!

Posted by Phil at May 17, 2004 08:33 PM | TrackBack

hey, re: HIV treatments - please allow me to be mildly self-promotional-yet-helpful and note some recent potentially 'Better' new avenues of research using computer modeling, linked to at! keep it real and positive!

Posted by: John Atkinson at May 18, 2004 12:34 AM

May megablessings be heaped upon you forever and ever for putting this site together. I love it.

I've been exploring blogs the past two weeks because the news has become so unbearable. It feels as though the entire world has become unglued. Today I came here via instapundit, but I'll be back frequently on my own. Your news is a wonderful antidote to deepening depression.

Thank you so very much.

Posted by: Marci at May 18, 2004 09:41 AM

In one of your Good News columns you might acknowledge some of the advances in *adult* stem cell research, with particular attention to the fact that 1) it's shown far better results, and in particular 2) isn't known for causing cancers as embryonic stem cells have.

Embryonic stem cells aren't the only game in town. It's time this was acknowledged widely, so the adult alternatives get all the research dollars they need.

Posted by: J Bowen at May 18, 2004 09:57 AM

So DoE wants to spend $25 million to speed up supercomputers by 6.25 times in three years? Do they know that the normal course of Moore's Law will do the same for free in four years?

Posted by: Bob Munck at May 18, 2004 10:15 AM

Uh, not exactly, Bob. It's money spent on projects like this - and money spent on the next generation of Intel chips - that has computers on the Moore's Law track.

Posted by: Fred Boness at May 18, 2004 11:08 AM

Why can't they speed up approvals of all drugs not just the ones for HIV?

Posted by: fred at May 18, 2004 11:33 AM

If you have a dead washing machine or other piece of junk in your neighborhood, simply take some spraypaint to it.

Write, "Mayor Cianci is a crook" or "Mayor Flynn is a drunk" or whatever the case may be in terms of your current mayor, and a plausible attack line. The machine will be gone within 48 hours.

Posted by: David Pittelli at May 18, 2004 12:38 PM

I have one word for you : Thalidomide.

The higher risks associated with less safety (and efficacy) testing are acceptable to a certain degree when the patient is terminal. Those risks are unacceptable otherwise, given the high potential for harm.


Posted by: jlb at May 18, 2004 12:49 PM


Glad you like "The Speculist." Come back early and often.

J. Bowen:

We've mentioned adult stem cells quite often. Check out Item 8 of "Better All The Time #2."

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 18, 2004 01:29 PM

How dare you call Mayor Cianci a crook..

After all, it's not like he's a multiply convincted felon, or anything!



Posted by: Darwin at May 18, 2004 04:13 PM

Excellent blog. Here is another article "doubting the doomsayers"

Posted by: Kendall Harmon at May 18, 2004 05:01 PM

Yeah, you support adult stem cell research alright - the post referenced had its "downside":

"This is a bit of a stretch, but if adult stem cells prove to have little versatility by comparison to embryonic stem cells, then this scientific dead end may provide political cover for the opponents of stem cell research in two ways.

First, while scientists investigate the potential of adult stem cells, embryonic stem cell opponents can say to the public, "see, we support stem cell research," even as they block research of the most promising form of stem cells. Most of the public has not made the distinction between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

And second, if adult stem cells really do prove to have little use, research opponents will say that embryonic stem cells will have little use as well."

Good news is bad news if it might impede embryonic stem cell research?

You appear concerned that the public will not make informed distinctions between adult and embryonic stem cells. Me too. But articles which cover adult stem cell successes rarely if ever credit *adult* stem cells - those are just "stem cells". But when they involve embryonic stem cells then "embryonic" is mentioned. You don't suppose there's a bias there, do you?

Posted by: J Bowen at May 19, 2004 12:31 AM


"Good news is bad news if it might impede embryonic stem cell research?"

If adult stem cells prove medically useful (as they will), this is unadulterated good news for the patients it helps. Good news is good news.

IF it is true that adult stem cells are less versatile than embryonic stem cells (which appears true), THEN it would be tragic if opponents of embryonic stem cell research used successes in adult stem cell research to block embryonic stem cell research. Good news is still good news but could be used to bad ends.

I would be thrilled if it turns out that all the medical advances possible with embryonic stem cells also prove to be possible with adult stem cells.

Beside avoiding the ethical minefield, you could also avoid the incredible expense (with today's technology) of obtaining matching embryonic stem cells for an adult patient. Doing this requires obtaining donor eggs, doing nuclear extraction and then doing a very tricky cloning procedure.

It would be so much better if we could just go to the bone marrow and get what we need.

As for the possible bias between adult and embryonic stem cell news, I can't speak for others, but I believe "The Speculist" has done a good job making the distinction. And we will continue to make the distinction.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 19, 2004 08:51 AM

Kendall Harmon:

Thanks for the link.

"Doubting the Doomsayers" is a good article.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 19, 2004 09:00 AM

Finally someone is saying the good things that is going on in the world!!! More power to you! Keep up the good work, it is more important than you can imagine.

Posted by: David Rogers at May 19, 2004 04:25 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am so sick and tired of the news I avoid the news on the internet and TV at all costs. It is so unbearable. We are getting saturated with bad news after bad news and it's so demoralizing. If I have to listen to one more negative comment about our government I am going to punch somebody's lights out! In any case, this site is most refreshing.....thanks again!

Posted by: CLC at May 20, 2004 12:01 AM