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Better All the Time #17

After this weeks festivities in Boston, whether you viewed them as a tremendous renewal of hope for our nation, a massive hot-air-athon, or an unwlecome disruption of your summer re-run viewing, what better wrap-up could there be than a little good news?

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Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day I
  1. Lung Cancer Gene Identified
  2. Raising Nicer Rats. And Monkeys. And Children.
  3. Richer All the Time
  4. Frozen Ark
  5. Stem Cell Therapy Even a Mother Could Love
  6. There's Never an Alien Around When You Need One
  7. IP Addresses for Everyone Everything!

    Quote of the Day II


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Quote of the Day I

We've discovered the secret of life.

-- Francis Crick

via BrainyQuote


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Item 1
Lung Cancer Gene Isolated?

The Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium (GELCC) examined 52 families who had at least three first-degree family members affected by lung, throat or laryngeal cancer. Of these 52 families, 36 had affected members in at least two generations. Using 392 known genetic markers, which are DNA sequences that are known to be common sites of genetic variation, the researchers generated and then compared the alleles (the different variations each gene can take) of all affected and non-affected family members who were willing to participate in the study.

The good news:

First off, this is good news because it should provide some additional impetus for some people not to smoke. As the article explains:

Another interesting discovery the team made involved the effects of smoking on cancer risk for carriers and non-carriers of the predicted familial lung cancer gene. They found that in non-carriers, the more they smoked, the greater their risk of cancer. In carriers, on the other hand, any amount of smoking increased lung cancer risk. These findings suggest that smoking even a small amount can lead to cancer for individuals with inherited susceptibility.

Of course...

Many will argue that you would have to be crazy to smoke, anyway. Maybe the knowledge that you carry this gene would be enough to scare a long-time smoker into quitting; maybe not. But you would really have to be crazy to know that you carry this gene and go ahead and start smoking anyway.


This news suggests a possible path to gene therapy treatments that could be used to prevent, maybe one day even cure, lung cancer. Great stuff.


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Item 2
Nature, Nurture, Tomato, Tomahto

Try connecting the dots between the these three pieces of news.

(1) From Tech Central Station

Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you'll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.

Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

(2) From NewScientist.com:

Good mothering can abolish the impact of a "bad" gene for aggression, suggests a new study, adding spice to the "nature-versus-nurture" controversy.

The new work, on rhesus monkeys, backs an earlier study in people which gave the same result.

(3) From Kurzweil AI:

Scientists have discovered that rat genes can be altered by the mother's behavior.

All newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene, they found. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.

The good news:

So it appears that good parenting is as important for monkeys as it is for humans. And if human physiology is similar to that of rats in this regard (which is a leap, of course) it's just possible that kids are better today because we've actually made them...better. Maybe they aren't just making better use of what nature gave them, maybe nature has — through the good offices of their parents — given them a little more to work with than the previous generation had.


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Item 3
The Rich Are Getting Richer, and the Poor Are Getting...Richer!

Without a doubt, there is some connection between economic and technological development. Technological development fuels productivity growth, which in turn drives economic growth. This raises an interesting question: is there an economic version of Moore's Law? How fast is our standard of living increasing? If Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974, is it fair to say that standard of living is doubling every 30 years? And if so, how does that rate of growth compared to what was experienced in years gone by?

The good news:

The article draws a link between increasing economic productivity, technological advancement, and improved standards of living. It seems that these three are related in a very positive way, which keeps pushing all of us towards better and better economic circumstances.

The downside:

As Stephen points out in the comments to the linked entry, although the wealthiest individuals may have vastly more material resources than the poorest, the difference between the two in terms of standard of living is getting smaller and smaller. It's so sad: being super-rich doesn't buy you the same gloating rights it used to.

Boo hoo.


The steady rise in the standard of living over time means most of us, inlcuding some of the poorest among us, richer than kings.


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Item 4
DNA Code Freeze

Britain's "Frozen Ark" project boarded its first endangered passengers on Monday: an Arabian oryx, a Socorro dove, a mountain chicken, a Banggai cardinal, a spotted sea horse, a British field cricket and Polynesian tree snails.

The "ark", a project by three British institutions, doesn't include any living animals, but hopes to collect frozen DNA and tissue specimens from thousands of endangered species.

Like Noah, the scientists harbour hopes of repopulating the Earth.

The good news:

Everybody complains about the loss of biodiversity through man-made extinctions, and now somebody is doing something about it.

The critical assumption:

The ark approach is similar to cryonics, but the aim is to preserve whole species rather than individual organisms. In both cases, it is assumed that the future holds the key to restoring that which we have lost (or in this case, are losing.)

This project assumes that, in the future, we will have the technology to restore these lost species, and to generate new populations of them. It also assumes that we will have — or have the ability to create — a suitable habitat for them. To support a project such as this may involve believing that the present is not all it should be, but one could not possibly get behind such an endeavor without believing that a better future is possible.


Most of us reading this will live to see the restoration of at least one "extinct" species of animal.


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Item 5
Fetuses Give Pregnant Women Stem Cell Therapy

Diana W. Bianchi, M.D. of the Tufts University Sackle School of Graduate Biomedical Research has found that cells from fetuses during pregnancy cross over into mothers and become a large assortment of types of specialized cells in the mothers and persist for years.

The good news:

This good news on a couple of fronts. First, it suggests a heretorfore unimagined health benefit associated with motherhood. What could be more deserved than that? Perhaps even more importantly, it suggests that we may have found a new source of fetal and embryonic stem cells, one that may be free of the controversey which has surrounded stem cell research up to this point.

As Randall Parker explains it:

My guess is that a large fraction of the hESC research opponents will decide that extraction of hESC from a mother's blood is morally acceptable. No fetus will be killed by the extraction. The cells so extracted are not cells that would go on to become a complete new human life. If a sizable portion of the religious hESC opponents can be satisfied by this approach for acquiring hESC then Bianchi's research may well lead to a method to get hESC that will open the gates to a much larger effort to develop therapies based on hESC.

On thing is for sure...

It will prove a lot easier to "win" the stem cell debate by coming up with a solution that both sides like than it would have been to get one side to agree that we should walk away, or the other side to agree that it's okay to kill an embryo. There's a lot to be said for the win-win scenario.


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Item 6
Close Encounter Soon?

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute is predicting "First Contact" with an alien civilization within a generation. To be specific the prediction is:

If intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, advances in computer processing power and radio telescope technology will ensure we detect their transmissions within two decades.

The good news:

If there's anybody out there, and these calculations based on the Drake Equation are correct, we should know about it in a fairly short period of time (relatively speaking. And if there isn't anyone out there, we will be more sure of that if we haven't heard anything within the next 20 years or so.

The downside:

The problem with Drake's equation (which Drake would certainly acknowledge) is that all variables are unknown. We can make educated guesses, but we can't know with any degree of certainty as long as our sample size for known civilizations is one.


Drake's equation has always been better for providing a framework for speculation than for proving anything. But Shostak has expanded Drakes' framework and has given SETI a goal.


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Item 7
The Gift of Understatement

Paul Hsieh on the new version six of the Internet Protocol:

The new IPv6 internet naming and number protocol will make it possible for every person (or device) on Earth to have their own IP address.

The Good News:

Every person or device on Earth? Well, er, yeah...and then some. The linked article repeats the same modest claim before getting to heart of the matter:

Vinton Cerf of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) said the next-generation protocol, IPv6, had been added to its root server systems, making it possible for every person or device to have an Internet protocol address.

Cerf said about two-thirds of the 4.3 billion Internet addresses currently available were used up, adding that IPv6 could magnify capacity by some "25,000 trillion trillion times."

The Good News Amplified:

Our friend Alex Lightman gave a talk a while back that touched on a number of interesting topics, one of which was the introduction of IPv6. He estimates that IPv6 will provide enough IP addresses so that every atom in the known universe can have one.

Now that oughta hold us for a while.


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Quote of the Day II

Watching science catch up to science fiction. Portable computers, Star Trek communicators, all that stuff has actually happened and there’s more on the way.

-- Major Robert Blackington, USAF, on what's best about living in the future.


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It's Official

SpaceShipOne will fly September 29, 2004, making the first of its two qualifying flights required to win the X Prize.

We'll be there. (Virtually, of course.)


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For more good stuff, don't miss the latest Winds of Discovery.

Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster, Stephen Gordon, Kathy Hanson, and Michael "El Jefe Grande" Sargent. Live to see it!


Great list. Phil for President!

Have you considered creating a RSS feed for the "Better All The Time" series? My blog reading time is limited so I'm not sure I can handle all of your posts but I'd love to be able to subscribe to these round-ups..

Here are instructions on how to do this with MT, should you want to. ;)

Thanks for all the great links!


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