May 27, 2004

Better All The Time #10

If the thought of a three-day weekend, the official beginning of barbeque season, and (for those to whom it applies) the end of the school year aren't enough good news for you, perhaps it's time to reflect on the men and women who have served so bravely over the years to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity." We owe them a lot. In fact, we owe them everything.

And then if you want still MORE good news, may we suggest the following seven items...

Today's Good Stuff:

    Update: the Debate Continues
    Quote of the Day
  1. Ever See a Sunburned Hippo?
  2. Awwww, Isn't it Cute?
  3. Genetic study Shows Chimps are Less Human
  4. Mars Rover Output Starts to Dim
  5. Smart Batteries
  6. The Birth of Individualized Medicine
  7. A Modern Rip Van Winkle (Kinda)

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More Fun with Mr. Farlops

The debate over the "Better all the Time" series between Mr. Farlops and us continues, but with much agreement:

Yes, I guess I really meant that subjective happiness is always chronic. Objectively global health continues to improve and the global middle class continues to grow and clearly by those standards it really is getting better all the time.

And one way of improving subjective happiness is to celebrate objective improvements. That's what the "Better all the Time" series is all about.

But at the same time we must admit that every technical advance delivers unexpected consequences both good and bad. In the early twentieth century, who would have thought that cars would contribute to the atrophy of back muscles from lack of walking? Or to changing sexual and romantic mores as kids got privacy away from parents?

Hey, you're not knocking "parking" are you? Some of us wouldn't be here if… er, we may have said too much.

While the global middle class continues to grow and its health continues to improve, population pressure and resource use continues to rise. Nanotech will relieve that quite a bit, along with declining birth rates but, it's something to worry about.

Over-population is less of a problem than exploitative government. Have you ever noticed that the famines never seem to occur in democratic/capitalistic countries? Where there is freedom to innovate, population is not a liability, but an asset.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it's not going to be all roses and it's not going to be all horrors. It's going to be both and neither. The main thing is that it's going to be surprising.

We agree, except that we'll wager that our biggest surprise will be how good we'll have it in about twenty years.

Once one problem is solved, we humans always find something else to grouse about. I guess I am saying that the quest for utopia is a never-ending process. The journey itself is better than the goal. Also the challenge of avoiding dystopia is also a never-ending one; new dangers arise all the time.

Yeah, that's the only bad thing about Utopia. It would be too boring for us humans. We are happiest when we are busy solving some problem or fixing something. The unexpected new challenges created by our improvements mean that perhaps we shouldn't worry about utopian ennui setting in any time soon.


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Quote of the Day

It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though the limits of our abilities do not exist.

Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

(from BrainyQuote)


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Item 1
For the Ultimate Sunscreen, Try Hippo Sweat!

The colourful secrets of hippopotamus sweat have been uncovered. Researchers have identified the chemicals responsible for the timeless myth that hippopotamus sweat blood...

Kimiko Hashimoto and his colleagues at Kyoto Pharmaceutical University, Japan, revealed that hippos' secretions are neither blood nor sweat, but a mixture of pigments that function both as sunscreen and antibiotic. This mixture keeps hippos' cool and protects them from the harmful effects of the sun.

The good news:

This could mean that you will never have to come face-to-face with a hot, sunburned, infectious hippo!

The downside:

Hippos aren't likely to surpass plastic bottles as the preferred sunscreen container. Hold it. Come to think of it, that isn't really a downside.


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Item 2
NASA Scientists Discover Baby Planet

NASA scientists have discovered what may be one of the youngest planets known to man.

The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope identified the planet which is thought to be a million years old, meaning it is a mere baby.

The object is in the constellation Taurus, 420 light-years away.

Until now the youngest known planets observed are several billion years old...

Spitzer is the fourth and final spacecraft in NASA’s Great Observatory series, which began with Hubble and continued with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, now gone, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

The good news:

Witnessing the birth of new planets will increase our understanding of how our own solar system was formed.

The downside:

Too bad we can't see it up close.


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Item 3
Genetic study shows chimps are less human

Genetically, chimpanzees are 98.5 percent identical to humans. But the differences between the species are clearly profound and geneticists have been laboring to find out how such subtle variations in DNA can be so crucial…

The team of scientists from China, Japan, Germany and the Republic of Korea (ROK) compared chromosome 22 on three different chimpanzees to its counterpart in humans, chromosome 21, where certain genetic problems can lead to severe diseases, including Down's syndrome.

Insiders say the comparison will help understand disease and also help in comparing one person's genetic sequence to another by helping to set a "base" genetic sequence…

The scientists looked for differences that would help separate the human sequence from the chimp sequence, and found 1.44 percent of the DNA was different…

They reported in Nature that many of the differences were within genes, the regions of DNA that code for proteins: 83 percent of the 231 genes compared had differences that affected the amino acid sequence of the protein they encoded, and 47 showed "significant structural changes"…

Some of the genetic differences they found may have direct implications for disease. They found differences between chimp and human immune system genes, for instance, and molecules involved in early brain development.

Besides, significant genetic differences in the brains and livers of the two species, for example, may help explain why chimps rarely have symptoms of complicated human diseases, such as AIDS, malaria and hepatitis C, even after they are infected with the same viruses.

The good news:

Understanding the genetic differences between us might well be the key to making us less susceptible to those nasty diseases listed that we get but chimps don't. To Bonzo, Cheetah, J. Fred Muggs, and anyone we may be forgetting: a hearty thank you.


Does it strike anyone else as kind of a relief to learn that we're not all that closely related to chimps, after all?


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Item 4
Mars Rover Output Starts to Dim

The slow and inevitable build-up of dust on the solar panels of the Mars rover Opportunity is prompting scientists to cut overnight heating to the vehicle in hopes of eking out a few more hours for investigations by day.

The cold, however, could mean the death of one of the rover's most productive science instruments, an infrared sensor called mini-TES that scientists have been using to detect minerals from afar and measure surface and atmospheric temperatures.

The good news:

Not running the heater at night is apparently risky only to the one instrument, the mini-TES. Even if this is the end of the useful life of that instrument, the rover can still do useful work as long as its solar panel provides enough electricity to function.

Opportunity has now been on Mars 124 days. It was 50 days ago that Opportunity was cleared for an extended "beyond the warranty" mission. And it isn't finished just yet.

As this rover slowly dies, we celebrate the "little engine that could." And let's not forget the resurrected Spirit is still going strong!

The downside:

Goodbyes are always tough.


We should be gratfeul for the time we were given. Others haven't been so lucky.


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Item 5
Nanotech Improving Energy Options

Nanotechnology could help revolutionize the energy industry, producing advances such as solar power cells made of plastics to environmentally friendly batteries that detoxify themselves, experts told United Press International.

One nanotech firm, mPhase Technologies in Norwalk, Conn., is partnering with Lucent Technologies to commercialize nanotechnology by creating intelligent batteries, with the intent of bringing the devices to the marketplace within the next 12 to 18 months.

The company is seeking to develop a battery containing millions of silicon nanotube electrodes, sitting upright like a bed of nails. Atop each nanotube sits a droplet of electrolyte. The droplets rest atop the nanotubes without interacting, much like an Indian fakir can rest atop a nail bed. But when a voltage change pushes the droplets down into the spaces between the tubes, they react, causing current to flow.

"This can give them a very long storage life of years and years, by only activating when in use," Simon explained. The silicon-based devices are compatible with semiconductor processes, are easy to miniaturize, have a quick ramp up to full power, are inexpensive to mass produce and have high power and energy density.

The good news:

Clearly, we're going to need batteries such as these for robots, starships etc. [ Actually, I can't wait to get one for my wireless optical mouse. — Phil]


This expands on the good news we reported recently about the role nanotechnology will play in helping us to switch to hydrogen-powered cars.


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Item 6
Pharmacogenomics could replace 'trial-and-error' with science from the human genome

The future use of a gene-based technology called pharmacogenomics could lower the cost of health care by decreasing the occurrence of adverse drug effects and increasing the probability of successful therapy. These findings are published by investigators at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in the May 27 issue of Nature.

According to the authors, the significant potential for improving health and reducing cost will not be achieved unless three things happen. First, more studies must be undertaken to identify the network of genes that govern most drug responses. Second, systems must be developed to assist physicians and pharmacists in interpreting genetic tests for selecting drug therapy. Finally, legal protections must be put in place to preclude the misuse of genetic information from patients.

The good news:

We will witness over the next decade the birth of individualized medicine. As these methods of treatment mature, it will make today's medicine look crude and ineffectual by comparison.

The downside:

Unfortunately, it's going to take a while.

The way the pharmaceutical market is currently structured may slow the development of pharmacogenomics. The current structure does not encourage the sharing of information between companies or the production of small lots of drugs.


Eventually this will come to pass simply because the market will demand it.

In the future you may take a single pill tailor-made for you that contains multiple drugs patented by different drug companies. The companies could be paid royalties for the ingredients they contribute.


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Item 7
Baby Born From Sperm Frozen 21 Years

In what's believed to be a world record, a healthy baby boy was born using sperm that had been frozen for 21 years, according to British researchers.

Reporting in the May 25 issue of Human Reproduction, the authors say the baby was born two years ago using in-vitro fertilization.

The good news:

The ability to store viable semen for long periods of time by way of freezing offers hope to would-be dads stricken by testicular cancer at a young age. In fact, that's exactly the situation that led to the birth described above.

BATT-congrats to the parents, who now have a baby boy after four unsuccessful attempts! If you ever doubt that things are getting better all the time, just a have chat with those happy folks.

The downside:

Reader, M104 member, and noted deity Joanie comments:

C' can't tell me that science has completely eliminated freezer burn...and if they have, why can't they make it so that my food doesn't experience it? Why is it reserved solely for something like this?

Don't worry, Joanie. If science can make this happen, there has got to be hope for those 21-year-old Swanson TV dinners in your freezer. Just hang in there.


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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon. Our thanks to Joanie, to John Atkinson (who reports that he is now solo-blogging), and to the inimitable Mr. Farlops. We'll be taking Monday off as it's a national holiday and all (here in the USA). We'll return Tuesday, June 1.

Until then, don't forget to stop and smell the roses...especially the blue ones.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at May 27, 2004 10:22 AM | TrackBack

Does it strike anyone else as kind of a relief to learn that we're not all that closely related to chimps, after all?

No, because I always figured that was the reason for why the right whingers act like they do.

Posted by: Robert McClelland at May 28, 2004 09:18 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, Robert McClelland.

Posted by: Sortelli at May 28, 2004 09:34 PM

What, Mr. McClelland is proof that the scientists are wrong and we *haven't* evolved that far from our common ancestors?

Posted by: Billy Oblivion at May 28, 2004 10:41 PM

What, Mr. McClelland is proof that the scientists are wrong and we *haven't* evolved that far from our common ancestors?

I know you are but what am I?!?! Oh, good comeback, Peewee Herman.

Posted by: Robert McClelland at May 28, 2004 11:35 PM

That's not Bobby Mac, he only copy/pasted one line of text, and it wasn't his. Just some nut who has picked up the infantile "whing" thing and run with it.

Posted by: og at May 29, 2004 06:54 AM

Actually, if I understand the claims, the new work overstates the difference between human and chimp because it ignores a signficant portion of the DNA (ie, DNA that aren't part of a genome) and counts as "different" two genes that differ by a small change. Maybe that small change is significant and maybe it isn't.

As I understand it, the genetic distance of 1.4% means that one would have to add or remove 1.4% of the human DNA to get the chimpanzee version. If these changes were randomly distributed through the DNA, then one would expect to find a mutation difference in any strand of DNA with more than a few dozen base pairs (around an average change of 1 per 70). Those expectations seems in line with the differences reported by these scientists.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at May 29, 2004 11:23 AM

The 98.5% similarity is between the DNA of a human and a chimp. DNA is then used as a guide to make RNA and then protein. The similarity of DNA and the similarity of protein do not have to be the same. Three bases in DNA code for one amino acid in a protein. The first two bases in DNA are more important than the third. IF one of the first two bases changes, often the amino acid will also change. IF the third base changes, there is a good probability that the amino acid would not change. As an example, assume that there is a 33% difference in the DNA between two species. IF all of the differences are in the first base, the protein will probably be close to 99% different. If all of the differences are in the third base, the proteins are likely to be greater than 90% similar.
In short, changes in DNA may not be directly correlated with changes in proteins.
Don Allen

Posted by: Don Allen at May 29, 2004 06:47 PM


Your comment reminds me of a passage from Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything." At the bottom of page 413 (Amazon's search function is an awesome thing) MIT's Eric Lander says that the Genome "is like a parts list for the human body: it tells us what we're made of, but tells us nothing about how we work. What's needed now is the operating manual-instructions for how to make it go. We are not close to that point yet."

Bryson goes on to suggest that the difficult work is still ahead of us - "cracking the proteome." Proteome is a new word for a new concept - a new science. Proteome is "the library of information that creates proteins."

Here's Amazon's link:

Here's a link to "The Journal of Proteome Research:"

If Eric Lander's analogy is correct, that DNA is just a parts list, there could be a huge difference between us and chimps within the proteome.

Two vehicles built on the same chassis probably have very similar parts lists, but can look and function very differently.

If you take the analogy further (which is probably a mistake) - you could say that two very different things can be made from the same set of legos.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 30, 2004 06:31 AM

The scales aren't quite the same (claiming a "5%" difference between human and chimpanzee), but genetic differences between humans is at most around 0.03%.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at June 2, 2004 09:50 AM

8668 Get your online poker fix at

Posted by: poker at August 15, 2004 04:02 PM
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