2006 January 31 Tuesday
Diesel Electric Hybrid Prototype Boasts High Fuel Efficiency

A compact diesel hybrid could get nearly 70 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving.

PSA Peugeot Citroen unveiled Tuesday two prototype cars featuring its new diesel-electric hybrid powertrain, the Peugeot 307 and the Citroen C4 Hybride HDi.


The cars achieve 25 percent better fuel economy than a comparable gasoline-eletric hybrid - 3.4 liters of diesel fuel per 100 km (roughly 69 mpg combined city/highway).

The problem is that it costs too much.

"Our objective is to reduce the cost by a factor 2.5 to 3 so that the difference a consumer has to pay for a diesel hybrid is the same as that between a petrol and a diesel car -- because the gain in fuel economies and emission reduction is the same," CEO Jean-Martin Folz told reporters.

The cost difference between the demonstration vehicles and a conventional diesel model is about $9,700, or about 8,000 euros at current exchange rates, now and has to be cut to $1,800 to $2,400 (1,500 to 2,000 euros).

Cost is the simple reason why more hybrid models aren't for sale already. A segment of the market will pay for a Prius as a lifestyle choice. But most people aren't going to make as big of a sacrifice for fuel efficiency. The payback takes too many miles.

The previous article says Ford, Toyota, and DaimlerChrysler are all pursuing diesel hybrid development for larger cars.

Half the cars sold in Europe now come with diesel engines.

High-tech diesel engines (HDi) have grown steadily more popular in Europe since the late 1990s. One out of every two passenger cars bought is now equipped with a diesel engine, compared with one out of four in 1998. In some countries, including France, the percentage of diesel cars reached 70% in 2005. This ongoing growth shows that there is strong consumer demand for vehicles that are both affordable and offer low fuel consumption without compromising driving comfort.

By contrast, emissions regulations have kept most diesel car models out of California and New England as well as New England states have increasingly patterned their emissions regulations after California. Though newer diesel technology (and if memory serves, changes in diesel fuel formulations) might allow diesels to meet emissions regulations in some of the tougher US states.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 31 10:10 PM  Energy Transportation
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Brain MRI Better Than Polygraph For Lie Detection?

I'm reminded of Mick Jagger singing "These days its all secrecy, no privacy". So much for the privacy of your own thoughts.

Traditional polygraph tests to determine whether someone is lying may take a back seat to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), according to a study appearing in the February issue of Radiology. Researchers from Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia used fMRI to show how specific areas of the brain light up when a person tells a lie.

"We have detected areas of the brain activated by deception and truth-telling by using a method that is verifiable against the current gold standard method of lie detection--the conventional polygraph," said lead author Feroze B. Mohamed, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Radiology at Temple.

Dr. Mohamed explained how the standard polygraph test has failed to produce consistently reliable results, largely because it relies on outward manifestations of certain emotions that people feel when lying. These manifestations, including increased perspiration, changing body positions and subtle facial expressions, while natural, can be suppressed by a large enough number of people that the accuracy and consistency of the polygraph results are compromised.

"Since brain activation is arguably less susceptible to being controlled by an individual, our research will hopefully eliminate the shortcomings of the conventional polygraph test and produce a new method of objective lie detection that can be used reliably in a courtroom or other setting," Dr. Mohamed said.

Dr. Mohamed and colleagues recruited 11 healthy subjects for the study. A mock shooting was staged, in which blank bullets were fired in a testing room. Five volunteers were asked to tell the truth when asked a series of questions about their involvement, and six were asked to deliberately lie. Each volunteer was examined with fMRI to observe brain activation while they answered questions either truthfully or deceptively. They also underwent a conventional polygraph test, where respiration, cardiovascular activity and perspiration responses were monitored. The same questions were asked in both examinations, and results were compared among the groups.

"With fMRI, there were consistently unique areas of the brain, and more of them, that were activated during the deceptive process than during truth-telling," Dr. Mohamed said. In producing a deceptive response, a person must inhibit or conceal the truth, which activates parts of the brain that are not required for truth-telling. Thus, fewer areas of the brain are active when telling the truth.

Fourteen areas of the brain were active during the deceptive process. In contrast, only seven areas lit up when subjects answered truthfully.

By studying the images, investigators were able to develop a better picture of the deception process in the brain. The increased activity in the frontal lobe, especially, indicated how the brain works to inhibit the truth and construct a lie.

Will some people with special intellectual talents be able to develop the ability to fool a functional MRI scan?

By Randall Parker 2006 January 31 09:39 PM  Brain Surveillance
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Assortative Mating By Systematizers Raising Incidence Of Autism?

Logical organized minds with a knack for pattern recognition preferentially marrying each other in a process called "assortative mating" may be the cause of a rise in the incidence of autism.

Highly analytical couples, such as scientists, may be more likely to produce children with autism, an expert has argued.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the University of Cambridge, said the phenomenon might help explain the recent rise in diagnoses.

He believes the genes which make some analytical may also impair their social and communication skills.

Perhaps male scientists and computer programmers ought to marry literature professors, art professors, and lawyers? Organized and disorganized people should hook up? Systematic types should mate with chaotic types? Not sure what this would do the divorce rate. But it might lower the incidence of autism. Though it might come at the expense of lowering the frequency people born with the ability to be extremely talented scientists and engineers. Or maybe it would create managers better balanced between having technical and communications skills and therefore make industry more productive over all.

Parents of autistic kids tend to have autistic tendencies themselves.

According to a survey of 1,000 members of the National Autistic Society, fathers and grandfathers of children with autistic spectrum conditions are twice as likely to work in a systemizing profession such as engineering.

Students in the natural sciences have a higher number of relatives with autism than do students in the humanities, and mathematicians have a higher rate of autistic spectrum conditions compared with the general population.

The theory that both parents of children with autism are strong systemizers is also evident from a study that shows both mothers and fathers score above average on a questionnaire that measures autistic traits.

The idea here is that people who hate to socialize who marry like minds are at risk of having kids who get even stronger doses of genes that push them in that direction with the extreme being autism.

Baron-Cohen is not the first person I've seen put forward this idea. Some argue that Silicon Valley has a disproportionate incidence of autism and that this is happening because male and female techies are hooking up there in workplaces and having babies.

IF this theory is correct (and it seems very plausible) then it adds further evidence to the argument that technology is causing big changes in selective pressures on genes which code for cognitive function. Evolution did not stop tens of thousands of years ago. Selective pressures can cause changes in mating practices that cause changes in distributions of genetic variations for brain genes and this can happen in a relatively short period of time.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 31 09:22 PM  Brain Evolution
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2006 January 30 Monday
X Prize For DNA Sequencing Announced

The X Prize Foundation folks have decided to offer a new prize for DNA sequencing.

The Santa Monica, Calif., foundation plans to offer a $5 million to $20 million prize to the first team that completely decodes the DNA of 100 or more people in a matter of weeks, according to foundation officials and others involved.

Such speedy gene sequencing would represent a technology breakthrough for medical research. It could launch an era of "personal" genomics in which ordinary people can learn their complete DNA code for less than the cost of a wide-screen television.

Details of the award are being worked out, and officials say they don't expect anyone to claim the prize for at least five to 10 years.

I am all for orders of magnitude faster and cheaper DNA sequencing. However, I question the granularity of this prize. I'd rather see prizes for advances in microfluidics and other technologies that would be for goals that can be achieved more quickly and which could be done by smaller groups. Multiple research teams could very easily make contributions that get used in the final effort to win this prize and yet not be the actual team that travels that final distance. University groups with limited resources that are working on various aspects of the larger problem but not on pieces big enough to solve the entire problem aren't going to be incentivized by this prize.

Still, this prize will certainly increase the attention on the DNA sequencing problem and will probably hasten the day cheap DNA sequencing technology is developed. Plus, the sorts of big money people getting attracted to prizes (e.g. Google co-founder Larry Page joined the X Prize board) bodes well for the future funding of big science and technology prizes.

Prizes legitimize and promote technological goals to the public.

"Prizes change the public perception about an issue," says Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif. People begin to believe that a problem is solvable. "The more prize money, the more the issue is seen as important by the public."

Last June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put an exclamation point after "grand challenge" when it announced one of the richest in history. The Grand Challenges for Global Health pledged $436.6 million (including $31.6 million from British and Canadian sources) toward solving some of the world's worst health problems. Preliminary funds have been granted to 43 groups attacking 14 challenges. They include: developing vaccines to prevent malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV that don't require refrigeration, needles, or multiple doses; finding new ways to stop the spread of insect-borne diseases; and developing more nutritious crops to feed the hungry.

Of course, the coolest prize with the most relevance to the eventual stopping and reversing of the aging process is the Methuselah Mouse Prize for finding ways to make laboratory mice live longer. The latter article above even quotes Methuselah Mouse Prize cofounder David Gobel who some of you have noticed posting in the comments section of FuturePundit posts. The general buzz big new prize announcements helps promote each prize. The Ansari X Prize success with Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne flight into space has relegitimized prizes as a way to accelerate technological development.

Update: Aside: Corporations ought to use internal prizes for achieving various desired technological breakthroughs. Internally corporations are like command economies. Engineers and managers who come up with ways to save or make the company large sums of money rarely get much reward for their efforts. Companies could get a lot more innovation if they offered prizes internally for technological developments and cost saving innovations.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 30 09:16 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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2006 January 29 Sunday
Glycosylated Antibodies Produced In Yeast

Many proteins in the body need sugars attached to them (the process is called glycosylation) in very specific patterns to make them work optimally. A biotech company and some university researchers have developed a way to make human monoclonal antibodies in yeast which have sugars attached to them.

Researchers at GlycoFi and Dartmouth College have reported the first production of monoclonal antibodies with human sugar structures in yeast. This research, published online January 22 and in the February issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, demonstrates that antibodies with human sugar structures (glycosylation) can be produced in glyco-engineered yeast cell lines, and that by controlling the sugar structures of antibodies, their therapeutic potency can be significantly improved. Moreover, this same approach offers the potential to improve other glycosylation-dependent drug properties (such as solubility, half-life, or tissue distribution). Given the mature and well-established nature of yeast-based protein production technology, the reported work also promises to improve the production and scale-up economics of antibody manufacturing.


"Mammalian cell cultures currently used for most therapeutic protein production produce a mixture of glycoforms and typically do not allow for the control of glycosylation," said Tillman Gerngross, chief scientific officer of GlycoFi, and professor of Bioengineering at Dartmouth College. "We have spent the last five years engineering yeast cell lines that perform human glycosylation, which now allows us to glycosylate proteins with unprecedented control and uniformity."

Since yeast can grow so fast and is easier to grow than mammalian cells I'd also expect this approach to eventually lower the production cost for antibodies and other protein products.

The ability to glycosylate antibodies is very important because monoclonal antibodies are used against cancer. The glycosylation makes the monoclonal antibodies more effective.

"By controlling the sugar structures on antibodies we have shown that the antibodies ability to kill cancer cells can be significantly improved and that therapeutic proteins can be optimized by controlling their sugar structures," says Dr. Huijuan Li, associate director of Analytical Development at GlycoFi, and the lead author of the study. She noted that while the current report focuses on antibodies, the approach taken by the GlycoFi team can be applied to any therapeutic glycoprotein. Moreover, in addition to cell killing, this approach can be applied to optimize other protein characteristics such as solubility, therapeutic half-life, tissue distribution and interaction with complement proteins. Currently glycoproteins comprise about 70% of all approved therapeutic proteins and the therapeutic protein market is expected to grow at over 20% annually over the next decade.

Just as the yeast were genetically engineered to use human genes to make useful products for the human body the same is going to be done with other organisms and for even grander purposes. What I'd most like to see is extensive genetic engineering of pigs to create pigs that make organs that are transplantable into humans. That's a more distant prospect. But it is an achievable goal.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 29 10:10 PM  Biotech Immunology
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Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Labs Very Isolated

Harvard University has raised money from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, alumni, and other sources to create the Harvard Stem Cell Institute which does embryonic stem cell research. Douglas Melton, a Harvard professor who does impressive stem cell research (see here and here for example), has a lab in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and recently spoke to the New York Times about the legal barriers between his lab and the bulk of biomedical researchers at Harvard and other research centers.

Q. How exactly has President Bush's ban on federal financing for most embryonic stem cell study affected your research?

A. It made it more difficult, to say the least. Long before Bush's speech, we had planned stem cell experiments. Afterward, we were able to go forward because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Association and Harvard alumni provided private funding.

However, because of administration policy, we had to set up this whole new laboratory that was separate from everything else here at Harvard.

And we had to separate the money in a really scrupulous way. We have an accountant who makes sure that not a penny of federal funds goes to embryonic stem cell research. We have separate everything - light bulbs, computers, centrifuges.

This can be burdensome. Most of the activities at this university receive federal money in some indirect way. So you have to ask yourself, "How can you do the research without any imprint of federal funding?"

And we're not just talking about equipment and real estate; it's people. Let's suppose there's a graduate student who's receiving a federally funded fellowship, can he or she participate in thinking about this research or even look at the data? The answer is no.

In order to keep out researchers who receive federal funds Melton's lab requires a card and access code to enter. On the one hand, at least it is possible to set up labs that operate outside of the restrictions set on federal funding. The private realm still exists. On the other hand, the private realm has got to keep out the public realm using security cards. The default assumption is that government regulations and the government's domain apply at universities. The stem cell research debate aside, I find that troubling.

Melton argues that progress can not be made without a community of researchers. He points out that current regulations so isolate him from the vast bulk of researchers that the advantages that come from sharing ideas are greatly reduced. The 2004 passage of a California ballot initiative to fund stem cell research effectively is going to cause the creation of more isolated buildings on California university campuses where researchers work totally with non-federal funding. But these labs will at least be able to collaborate with each other. Effectively the federal regulations on human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research combined with state and private funding are leading to the creation of a smaller parallel system of research labs.

My expectation is that this is the new status quo on human embryonic stem cells (hESC) research in the United States. We'll have a group of isolated human embryonic stem cell labs working away on human pluripotent stem cells derived from hESC for years to come. Eventually the barrier between these researchers and the rest of biomedical research community will break down due to one of two reasons: A) research advances will lead to ways to make pluripotent stem cells without using an egg as a starting point or B) the value of hESC for producing therapies will become so clear to the public at large that a large majority will decide that their ethical reservations aren't all that deep and that it is in their own self interest to accept therapies made from embryonic stem cells.

I expect option A to happen years before option B. But I'm not certain on that point. Possibly the small number of human embryonic stem cell labs will fairly quickly develop an effective therapy using hESC that public attitudes will shift. Possibly the problem of how to turn more differentiated cells into much less differentiated and ultimately pluripotent cells will take a decade or longer to solve. But a larger number of labs will be funded to work on the problem of how to produce pluripotent stem cells without using embryos as compared to the number of labs that will work on hESC.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 29 09:47 PM  Bioethics Debate
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2006 January 28 Saturday
Immune System Rejuvenation May Partially Rejuvenate Brain

The brain is going to be the the hardest organ in the body to rejuvenate. We will not be able to replace the brain since it contains our individual identity. So we'll need to repair it in place. By contrast, some day we'll be able to grow replacements for other organs in the body such as the liver, kidneys, heart, or pancreas. Since the brain is the hardest rejuvenation therapy target I'm always heartened by any research that suggests promising avenues for development of brain rejuvenation techniques. A team of researchers in Israel have made discoveries that suggest rejuvenation of the immune system might some day partially slow or partially reverse the aging of brains.

REHOVOT, ISRAEL -- January 16, 2006 -- A team of scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science, led by Prof. Michal Schwartz of the Neurobiology Department, has come up with new findings that may have implications in delaying and slowing down cognitive deterioration in old age. The basis for these developments is Schwartz's team's observations, published today in the February issue of Nature Neuroscience, that immune cells contribute to maintaining the brain’s ability to maintain cognitive ability and cell renewal throughout life.

Until quite recently, it was generally believed that each individual is born with a fixed number of nerve cells in the brain, and that these cells gradually degenerate and die during the person's lifetime and cannot be replaced. This theory was disproved when researchers discovered that certain regions of the adult brain do in fact retain their ability to support and promote cell renewal (neurogenesis) throughout life, especially under conditions of mental stimuli and physical activity. One such brain region is the hippocampus, which subserves certain memory functions. But how the body delivers the message instructing the brain to step up its formation of new cells is yet unknown.

Schwartz's group believes immune system T cells enter the brain to carry out functions beneficial to the brain. Schwartz already found evidence that immune cells carry away toxins. She now presents evidence that immune T cells stimulate brain stem cells to produce new nerve cells (neurogenesis).

The central nervous system (CNS), comprising the brain and spinal cord, has been considered for a long time as "a forbidden city", in which the immune system is denied entry as its activity is perceived as a possible threat to the complex and dynamic nerve cell networks. Furthermore, immune cells that recognize the brain's own components ("autoimmune" cells) are viewed as a real danger as they can induce autoimmune diseases. Thus, although autoimmune cells are often detected in the healthy individual, their presence there was perceived as an outcome of the body's failure to eliminate them. But Schwartz’s group showed that these autoimmune cells have the potential ability if their levels are controlled to fight off debilitating degenerative conditions that can afflict the CNS, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's diseases, glaucoma, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and the nerve degeneration that results from trauma or stroke.

In their earlier research, Schwartz and her team provided evidence to suggest that T cells directed against CNS components do not attack the brain but instead, recruit the help of the brain's own resident immune cells to safely fight off any outflow of toxic substances from damaged nerve tissues.

In the present study, the scientists showed that the same immune cells may also be key players in the body's maintenance of the normal healthy brain. Their findings led them to suspect that the primary role of the immune system's T cells (which recognize brain proteins) is to enable the "neurogenic" brain regions (such as the hippocampus) to form new nerve cells, and maintaining the individual's cognitive capacity. The research team led by Prof. Schwartz, included graduate students Yaniv Ziv, Noga Ron and Oleg Butovsky, and in collaboration with former graduate student Dr. Jonathan Kipnis and with Dr. Hagit Cohen of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva.

Mice lacking T cells generate fewer new neurons in response to a mentally stimulating environment.

It was reported before that rats kept in an environment rich with mental stimulations and opportunities for physical activity exhibit increased formation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus. In the present work, the scientists showed for the first time that formation of these new nerve cells following environmental enrichment is linked to local immune activity. To find out whether T cells play a role in this process they repeated the experiment using mice with severe combined immune deficiency (scid mice), which lack T cells and other important immune cells. Significantly fewer new cells were formed in those mice. On repeating the same experiment, this time with mice possessing all of the important immune cells except for T cells, they again found impairment of brain-cell renewal, confirming that the missing T cells were an essential requirement for neurogenesis. They observed that the specific T cells that are helping the formation of new neurons are the ones recognizing CNS proteins.

To substantiate their observations, the scientists injected T cells into immune-deficient mice with the objective of replenishing their immune systems. The results: cell renewal in the injected mice was partially restored finding that supported their theory.

In another set of experiments, they found that mice possessing the relevant CNS-specific T cells performed better in some memory tasks than mice lacking CNS-specific T cells. Based on these findings, the scientists suggest that the presence of CNS-specific T cells in mice plays a role in maintaining learning and memory abilities in adulthood.

The use of the immune system to carry away toxic substances could potentially include removal of intracellular and extracellular junk. The removal of such junk is one of the major SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) categories for the development of rejuvenation therapies. The use of the immune system to stimulate the production of new cells is also another SENS category.

Rejuvenation of the immune system would bring other advantages aside from encouraging neurogenesis. People would become less susceptible to death from infections in old age. Infections would not last as long and one would become less susceptible of getting sick in the first place. Also, a sufficiently sophisticated immune system rejuvenation would cure many auto-immune diseases.

This result illustrates a more general point about rejuvenation therapies: Rejuvenation of some subsystems of the body will cause other subsystems to work better. An aged subsystem will work better if other subsystems become young again. We do not have to make every part of the body younger to make the entire body function more youthfully overall.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 28 07:53 PM  Aging Studies
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2006 January 25 Wednesday
Political Partisans Addicted To Irrational Defense Of Their Tribes

Partisan defenders of irrational positions get rewarded by their brains in the same way drug addicts get rewarded by addictive drugs.

When it comes to forming opinions and making judgments on hot political issues, partisans of both parties don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making, according to a new Emory University study. The research sheds light on why staunch Democrats and Republicans can hear the same information, but walk away with opposite conclusions.

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions -- essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted -- not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward -- similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," says Westen. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."

The feeling of partisan loyalty is an obstacle to rational thought. Abandon your partisan loyalties and the effect will be to boost your ability to understand political events.

Also, distrust the most partisan commentators who defend the leaders of their factions. Their odds of making sense and being correct are lower than for less partisan commentators.

Addicts of partisanship need treatments that will prevent them from getting high from defending their tribes.

Behavioral data showed a pattern of emotionally biased reasoning: partisans denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate that they had no difficulty detecting in the opposing candidate. Importantly, in both their behavioral and neural responses, Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the way they responded to contradictions for the neutral control targets, such as Hanks, but Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush.

While reasoning about apparent contradictions for their own candidate, partisans showed activations throughout the orbital frontal cortex, indicating emotional processing and presumably emotion regulation strategies. There also were activations in areas of the brain associated with the experience of unpleasant emotions, the processing of emotion and conflict, and judgments of forgiveness and moral accountability.

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning (as well as conscious efforts to suppress emotion). The finding suggests that the emotion-driven processes that lead to biased judgments likely occur outside of awareness, and are distinct from normal reasoning processes when emotion is not so heavily engaged, says Westen.

Political parties harness neural wiring that was probably selected for to encourage tribal solidarity and mutual defense of the tribe. Today it motivates people to defend positions and actions taken by the leaders of their political faction. The human mind was not selected for by evolution to be a perfect reasoning machine.

I feel sorry for the partisans. They are basically drug addicts. But I have greater sympathy for the rest of us who suffer from their actions just as we suffer from the actions of drug addicts.

Update: Think about the pattern of cognitve reaction when people feel loyalties are at stake. Imagine a drug or other treatment could interrupt that reaction. One can imagine why people would want to take such drugs for themselves. One could think more objectively and rationally about business problems or personal problems or political issues. But one can also imagine why governments and other groups would want to avail themselves of neurotechnologies that would allow the disruption of feelings of loyalty.

Millions of people already take drugs to disrupt and prevent feelings of anxiety and depression. The idea of developing pharmaceutical and other medical means to disrupt and prevent other modes of emotional reaction therefore does not seem farfetched. If such disruption can be done with drugs it also probably can be done with genetics to cause offspring to have very different patterns of formation of loyalties. Will people choose to give their offspring different capacities and tendencies to form and defend loyalties? I expect individuals, cults, and governments to do this. I expect humanity to splinter into groups that have greater differences in cognitive function than human groups naturally have due to differences in selective pressures during our evolutionary past.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 25 07:30 PM  Brain Addiction
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2006 January 23 Monday
Fish Consumption By Mom Makes Babies Smarter?

Yet another study provides evidence for the hypothesis that higher omega 3 fatty acid consumption raises IQs in babies.

Perhaps the most startling finding was that the children of those women who had consumed the smallest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids during their pregnancies had verbal IQs six points lower than average. That may not sound much, but it would have a serious effect on a country's brainpower if it were widespread. And the finding is particularly pertinent because existing dietary advice to pregnant women, at least in America, is that they should limit their consumption of seafood in order to avoid exposing their fetuses to trace amounts of brain-damaging methyl mercury. Ironically, that means they avoid one of the richest sources of omega-3s.

Dr Hibbeln, however, says his work shows that the benefits of eating such fish vastly outweigh the risks from the mercury in them. Indeed, in the Avon study, it was those children exposed to the lowest levels of methyl mercury who were at greatest risk of having low verbal IQ.

Higher omega 3 fatty acid consumption was positively correlated with better fine motor performance and negatively correlated with pathological social behavior.

One obvious question: Are smarter women more atune to popular dietary advice and hence more likely to eat fish? That could explain at least part of the results in this study. Maybe the fish eating is just a proxy for having higher IQ genes to pass on to one's children. However, other studies support the argument that omega 3 fatty acid consumption improves brain development and brain performance.

Read the whole article.

Aside: I use a margarine substitute that contains a decent amount of omega 3 fatty acids and no trans fatty acids. Keep an eye out for such products if you want to boost your omega 3 fatty acid consumption but don't want to eat fish all that often.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 23 10:07 PM  Brain Development
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Wind Turbine Sales Growth Rapid In United States For 2005

The wind power market is growing rapidly in the United States

With wind farms popping up from New York to Texas to California, wind power is riding high in the saddle again. Explosive growth of more than 40 percent this year - 3,400 megawatts of new generation is expected - could make the United States the world's largest wind-power market, a new report shows.

State government mandates are a big reason why wind power equipment sales are hitting new records.

Among the biggest factors spurring growth are states taking the reins of leadership from the federal government on energy mandates. Eager to cut air pollution, global warming, and rising electric rates, at least 22 states have approved "renewable portfolio standards" - legislation requiring utilities to include renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, and biomass in their energy mix.

At the rate wind power is being installed on the ridges and plains of North America - US and Canada - wind power will grow by 4,250 megawatts this year, compared with about 2,600 megawatts last year. If Congress renews the tax credit in 2007, the industry could be installing 6,000 megawatts a year by 2010, according to a new study by Mr. Chua.

Another source claims a 35% increase in wind power for 2005.

The industry added about 2,500 megawatts of wind power last year, a record 35 percent increase, according to the American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group. The country's wind capacity is more than 9,200 megawatts in 30 states, enough for 2.4 million average U.S homes.

Wind power still makes up less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity, but experts expect wind to generate at least 5 percent by 2020.

Whenever I see claims about wind capacity I always wonder whether the numbers represent maximum output in high winds (I suspect the answer is Yes). If so, what the average operating output is for most wind farms? 35%? 40%? I also wonder what percentage of the time each wind farm generates little or no electricity.

Suppose wind does supply 5% of US electricity by 2020. Sound like much? Not really. First of all, US electricity demand will rise by a lot more than 5% by 2020. So wind power will not prevent an increase in fossil fuels burned for electric generation. Given the high cost of natural gas and declining US natural gas production expect the fossil fuel of choice for electricity generation to continue to be coal.

Electric power demand in the United States grew 1.7% in 2004 or about a third of expected electric power supply increase from wind by 2020.

The electric power industry continued growing in 2004. Electricity generation and sales rose for the third straight year to record levels, growing by 2.3 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively, over the 2003 levels, as the U.S. economy continued to grow.

3 years times 1.7% equals about 5%. So wind might supply 3 years or 20% of the electric power production growth that will occur in the next 15 years in the United States. Maybe wind could really take off and supply half of the future growth in demand. Yet even that rosier scenario would not prevent a big growth in fossil fuel (mostly coal) burning for electric power generation.

Wind power is not making gains due to falling equipment prices. The surge in demand for new wind turbine equipment was so strong that prices rose for 2006 deliveries.

The North American wind turbine market saw record growth in 2005; installations surpassed record levels seen in 2001 and 2003, with the majority of them onshore. From an industry that finally broke US$3 billion in 2005, the market is expected to more than double to just under US$7.5 billion in 2010. These figures, detailed in the EER study, factor significant price increases implemented for projects in 2006 and beyond, but also take into consideration greater vendor competition that will arise as local manufacturing capacity and new turbine models are introduced in the coming years. Improved competition will, however, not be sufficient to reduce prices to the extent they have risen for 2006.

Simply put, market share in 2005 was determined more by manufacturing capacity than by competitive strategies or items such as cost and product positions. All wind turbine vendors active in North America in 2005 sold-out of available capacity and therefore market share has been determined by how many turbines could be manufactured and delivered. The demand was even stronger than anticipated, and as a consequence, a turbine shortage transpired and availability became an important criterion for selection.

The oil price rise has driven up prices for a wide range of competing energy sources. The price of coal has doubled. In many parts of the country wood pellets have doubled in price. Natural gas is way up on declining domestic production and growing demand.

The price of coal will fall as more mines open in response to higher coal prices. Wind turbine prices will fall as factories ramp up production capacity.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 23 09:25 PM  Energy Wind
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2006 January 22 Sunday
Sanger DNA Database Doubles Every 10 Months

One reason why I am optimistic that rejuvenation therapies using Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence can reverse the aging process within the lifetimes of most people reading this is that the rate of advance of biotechnology is increasingly resembling the rate of advance of electronic technology. The rate of accumulation of DNA sequence information in a public database is doubling every 10 months.

The Archive is 22 Terabytes in size and doubling every ten months - perhaps the largest single scientific database in Europe, if not the world.

The database is large even compared to major non-DNA computer databases.

Martin Widlake, Database Services Manager at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said: "At 22 000 GB the Trace Archive is in the Top Ten UNIX databases in the world. That's not bad for a research organisation of 850 employees in the countryside just outside Cambridge."

"It is possibly the biggest single (acknowledged) scientific RDBMS database in Europe, if not the world."

All the data are freely available to the world scientific community (http://trace.ensembl.org/), as a resource to geneticists all over the globe. When a researcher is studying a disease or gene, they can download the genetic information known about the area they are studying.

Luckily technologies for computer speeds and hard disk capacities are undergoing their own rapid rates of doubling and so computers will probably keep up with storage and processing needs of projects to reverse engineer and understand human and other species genomes.

Ray Kurzweil's argument that the technological advance is eventually going to accelerate to a rate we can't even comprehend (see The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology) seems plausible to me because of the doubling rates we see in computer speed, storage capacities, and fiber optic information transmission rates. On top of that we now have biotechnology advancing with rates that are highly analogous to the rates we've been watching in semiconductor technology for decades. Our perception of the rate of change from year to year or decade to decade up to this point does not tell us much about the rate of change 20 years from now because the rate of change is accelerating.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 22 10:21 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Does Kuwait Have Half Their Claimed Oil Reserves?

Instead of having 99 billion barrels of oil reserves Kuwait might have only 48 billion with only 24 billion of those actually proven. So says a report in the Petroleum Intelligence Weekly (PIW). The PIW claims to have seen internal Kuwaiti documents that contradict their public oil reserve claims.

"PIW learns from sources that Kuwait's actual oil reserves, which are officially stated at around 99 billion barrels, or close to 10 percent of the global total, are a good deal lower, according to internal Kuwaiti records," the weekly PIW reported on Friday.

I am sorely tempted to say something sarcastic about dynastic governments and honesty in the Middle East. But I'll resist the temptation.

The Kuwaiti government denies the report.

I have no idea where they got this figure from ... I don't think it's accurate,' Farouk Al Zanki, the chairman of state-run Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) said in Kuwait City.

I'd tell you how relieved I am to read their denial but I'm really trying hard not to say something sarcastic.

Jeremy Leggett, author of a new book The Empty Tank : Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Global Financial Catastrophe (lest you be in any doubt where he stands on "Peak Oil" and in the UK I think the same book is titled Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis) , says that all of OPEC mght be over-reporting their oil reserves by 300 billion barrels.

But consider what A M Samsam Bakhtiari of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) has told the Oil & Gas Journal about the existing-reserves question: "I know from experience how 'reserves' are estimated in major Middle Eastern and Opec countries, and the methods used are usually far from scientific, as the basic knowledge for such a complex exercise is not to hand." Bakhtiari is withering about Saudi Arabia's reserves hike of 90 billion barrels in 1990. But he is not too keen on his own national figures either. The BP Statistical Review cited 92 billion barrels of "proved" oil reserves at the end of 1993, but Bakhtiari preferred the estimate of a retired NIOC expert, Dr Ali Muhammed Saidi, who could add the proved reserves up to only 37 billion barrels.

Dr Mamdouh Salameh, a consultant on oil to the World Bank, agrees there is a 300-billion-barrel exaggeration in Opec's reserves. More recently, a former director of Aramco has said that Saudi Arabia's proved developed reserves stand at 130 billion barrels.

300 billion barrels would be about $20 trillion at today's market prices.

The big flap from a couple of years ago where Royal Dutch Shell was found to have greatly overreported their own oil reserves makes me give more credence to the claims that governments have overreported oil reserves as well. A lawsuit by mostly Dutch pension funds has brought the Shell oil reserves story back into the news just as the accusation about Kuwait reserves has surfaced.

The complaint alleges that between 1997 and 2003, Shell executives knowingly overstated the company's oil and natural gas reserves by an aggregate 33 percent (about 6 billion "barrels of oil equivalent," the standard metric used to express reserves). The pension funds also charge that the oil company inflated its reserve replacement ratio (RRR) — a key performance indicator in the oil business — and overstated future cash flows by a total of $100 billion over six years.

But in order to really overestimate on a far more massive scale you need the sovereign power of government.

Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, argues that most oil is under the control of national oil companies whose public reports can not be trusted. (same article here)

Those who take a more sanguine view of the global oil prospect point to the 1.1 trillion barrels of "proven" reserves that are currently on the books of the world's oil companies -- equivalent to all the oil extracted over the past century, or more than 40 years of consumption at the current rate. Although those same figures appear in most official oil reports, it turns out that roughly three-quarters of the world's oil is controlled by state-owned companies, whose reserve figures are never audited and are based as much on politics as on geology. Many countries have added paper barrels to their reserves at times they weren't even looking for oil.

I do not trust the Middle Eastern governments to be either competent or honest in estimating their oil reserves. Anyone disagree?

I used to hope that the oil production peak would come sooner because it would force a migration to less polluting energy sources. However, unlike peak oil doomsters I expect a migration to coal, liquified and gasified coal, oil tar sands, and oil shale and that such a migration could happen pretty rapidly once it becomes clear that peak oil has been reached.

The disruption of the shift will have some economic costs. But we probably already have reached an oil price where coal liquification and oil shale extraction are economically viable. I hope Shell's in situ oil shale extraction technology works so that we do not have to have landscapes littered with expanded shale rock because we'll be using oil from shale one way or another.

I would rather build thousands of nuclear reactors than shift toward coal, oil shale, and oil tar. Certainly hitting the oil production peak will accelerate nuclear development. But a scaling up of nuclear reaction construction will take time and when peak oil hits the rush will be on to scale up other energy sources that can be brought on line more quickly.

I hope peak oil does not usher in biomass energy on such a scale that lots of rainforests and species bite the dust. Perhaps genetic engineering of crop plants can provide a way to reduce the footprint of biomass energy production. But environmentalists who want to save rainforests and species ought to be working overtime lobbying for more photovoltaics research and they ought to support nuclear energy development. Either that or bye bye monkeys and big cats.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 22 12:06 PM  Energy Policy
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2006 January 21 Saturday
Corn Stoves For Home Heat Are Hot On US Market

All of the corn stove makers are sold out with long waiting times and sales volumes have more than doubled in the last year to about 150,000 stoves a year according to one report. Why the big demand for corn heating? Corn is a much cheaper source of heat than wood, natural gas, oil, or propane.

Why all the sudden hullabaloo? Simple – nothing costs less to burn at this point than corn, which sells for about $2 per bushel. According to figures provided by Even Temp, maker of the St. Croix line of stoves, the cost per therm for 100,000 British thermal units is 42 cents. The same per therm cost for natural gas is $1.40 and $2.60 for propane (LP). Wood is 64 cents per therm.

And Dennis Buffington, a professor of engineering at Penn State University, provided these figures in a recent Wall Street Journal story about corn stoves: For 1 million BTUs of heat, it takes $16.47 in natural gas, $33.80 in propane and a mere $8.75 for corn.

Check out Buffington's neat web site on corn as a heat energy source.

Corn heat costs about the same as coal heat but with far less pollution. (same article here)

It would cost about $130 worth of corn to heat a 2,000-square-foot home in Colorado for a month during the winter with a corn-burning stove, according to figures provided by Dennis Buffington, a professor at Penn State University who has studied corn-burning stoves for seven years.

In comparison, it would cost about $125 a month using a coal stove and $247 for natural gas.

Corn stove sales might rise by a factor of 5 from 2004 to 2006.

About 65,000 corn stoves were sold domestically last year, estimated Mike Haefner, president of Minnesota-based American Energy Systems. He expects a jump to about 150,000 this year, and at least 350,000 in 2006. Even with a retail price of $1,600 to $3,000, the stoves often pay for themselves within a year or two.

Unless you have a really cheap source of wood (e.g. your own forest) corn seems a better choice. Wood pellets are in short supply and wood pellet prices have more than doubled.

Retailers, meanwhile, have been struggling to find any pellets for sale. But those that have a supply should ration their sale to no more than 10, 50 or 40-pound bags per customer, the CPB is recommending. The cost per bag has risen from $3 to between $7 and $10.

The demand for pellet stoves increased dramatically following the severe price increases forecast this winter for natural gas, heating oil and propane.

You can burn corn in some wood stoves. But corn leaves behind a sugary residue which is difficult to clean from wood stoves.

When corn is burned it leaves behind a substance from the sugars it contains that when cooled is very hard and stays in the burner. These clinkers, as they are called, must be regularly cleaned out of the stove. Some special corn stoves are designed to automatically clear clinkers, Koval said.

Shelled corn contains about 7000 Btu (British thermal units) per pound at 15 percent moisture, or about 392,000 Btu per 56-pound bushel. That rating is about the same for wood pellets.

Actually, Dennis Buffington says corn has 6,800 BTUs per pound and wood 8,200 BTUs per lb. So for heating wood is worth about 20% more per pound than corn.

There are hassles to operating a corn burning stove.

Yet owning one of these stoves is not like owning a gas furnace, Doubek said. "You've got to be a handy person to own a pellet stove."

The fire pot must be emptied daily, the ash tray about once a week. There's dealing with the 40-pound bags of pellets or corn to keep the fuel bin full, and the stove requires an annual disassembly and cleaning of the heat exchanger, combustion fan, and other parts exposed to sooty smoke.

With better designs that hassle factor looks reducible. Big feeder bins could reduce the frequency of refueling to once a seaon. Also, the waste ought to automatically get moved into a fairly large sized container that could get taken out a lot less often.

Mary-Sue Halliburton, in an excellent survey of corn stoves, points out that if corn stoves were upgraded to do co-generation of electricity they could power their own fans and also run household appliances. I agree with her that there's still plenty of room for innovation to make corn stoves better values.

How about making a corn hot water heater also produce steam for a small electric turbine? Corn hot water heaters already exist. Here's a corn boiler water heater that comes with a 14 bushel storage bin to reduce the frequency of reloads.

Local costs of corn vary quite a bit by region but for some corn is incredibly cheap.

"It's beautiful," exclaims Mr. Hallman, a retired mailman. He went on the warpath in 2000, turning off his gas furnace after paying a $400 monthly heating bill. After that, he struggled to heat his house with a wood stove. "I had to bring in wheelbarrows full (wood), clean out ashes, soot and creosote," he recalls. "Those days are over. This burns absolutely clean."

Corn warmth also comes cheap. Mr. Hallman pays an area farmer $1.60 a bushel to fill the back of his pickup truck with dried kernel corn. He unloads it into a plywood bin in his garage. Every morning he pours a couple of pails into a hopper on top of his furnace, which burns a little less than a bushel a day. He figures his new monthly heating bill will be less than $60.

To put that $1.60 per bushel in perspective consider that 1 gallon of #2 fuel oil has about the same amount of heat as 22 lb of corn. But there are 56 lbs in a bushel of corn. 56/22 is equivalent to 2.55 gallons of fuel oil per bushel. Of course, the fuel oil is going to cost you over $2 per gallon and possibly a lot more (as of this writing oil prices are headed up near $70 per barrel). So the oil equivalent is probably $5 or $6 or about 3 or 4 times more expensive. If you can get corn for $1.60 per bushel you are getting a great heat energy deal.

Seeing how cheap corn is as a heating source I've been wondering why utilities aren't trying to use it to generate electricity. So I did some poking around and came up with one utility that is attempting to use corn stalks and other biomass to generate electricity. Cedar Falls Utilities of Iowa is experimenting with corn stalks and other biomass to run an old coal electric generator.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Chunks of coal lay on the fringes of a 450-ton mountain of cubed biomass -- a symbol of transition as this eastern Iowa city enters a new age of electricity.

The cell phone-sized cubes -- comprised of corn stalks, switchgrass and oat hulls -- are crammed into a pole building and will be burned next month to show whether biomass can partially replace coal as a source for Cedar Falls' power.

If successful, Cedar Falls Utilities plans to convert one of its two coal-fired generators into a biomass facility, providing nearly a quarter of the city's electricity through environment-friendly means.

They are experimenting with a 16 megawatt steam turbine which they burn coal in for peak loads.

CFU has burned small quantities of biomass in recent months, said CFU Engineering Projects Manager David Rusley. "We needed to run a more extended test burn to move the project forward," he said. "The difficulty has been finding sufficient quantity of biomass in a form we can use in our boiler. After looking at many alternatives, we decided to manufacture the fuel we need."

Ultimately, the Utility's goal is to fuel one of its local generating units exclusively with biomass. Known as Streeter No. 6, the unit is a 16 megawatt (MW) steam turbine, powered by a boiler that typically burns stoker coal (small chunks of coal up to 1.25" in diameter).

"If we can convert Streeter No. 6 to biomass, nearly a quarter of the electric load in Cedar Falls could be met with biofuels grown in Iowa," said CFU General Manager Jim Krieg.

CFU is motivated to experiment with this old coal burner because new emissions regulations require an expensive upgrade if they are to continue burning coal and that upgrade is not cost effective. CFU thinks they can burn corn cob pellets with no major changes and eliminate the need for coal emissions reduction equipment.

CFU found it could burn the corn cob pellets without any major changes, only adjusting the oxygen composition in the stoker.

The biomass testing not only serves as a way to further CFU's endeavors into renewable fuels, but it could give Unit 6 new life. Federal emission standards will require $1.6 million in environmental upgrades.

"We can't justify that investment if we are only using the unit a few days each year to burn coal," said CFU General Manager Jim Krieg. "If we can burn a biomass fuel, we'd like to turn it into a base load unit that operates continuously."

I commend the Cedar Falls Utilities board of directors for their attitude about costs.

"The board's goal is to get to 10 percent renewable energy in Cedar Falls, but they want to do it without raising costs to customers," Zeman said.

Alliant Energy looks like it might also try to generate electricity from biomass.

The test comes as more utilities are exploring fossil fuel alternatives. Alliant Energy is also a partner with Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development and the U.S. Department of Energy on a biomass project in Chillicothe, near Ottumwa.

Corn for heat sure looks like a comer on the energy scene. While the US government has served Archer Daniels Midlands and the farm lobby by funding dubious corn ethanol production a far more cost effective use of corn for heating is taking off with little government intervention. I suspect there's a lesson in that.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 21 08:03 PM  Energy Biomass
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Building Cooling Electric Demand Could Be Shifted Toward Mornings

Buildings could be pre-cooled in the mornings.

Engineers have developed a method for "precooling" small office buildings and reducing energy consumption during times of peak demand, promising not only to save money but also to help prevent power failures during hot summer days.

The method has been shown to reduce the cooling-related demand for electricity in small office buildings by 30 percent during hours of peak power consumption in California's sweltering summer climate. Small office buildings represent the majority of commercial structures, so reducing the electricity demand for air conditioning in those buildings could help California prevent power-capacity problems like those that plagued the state in 2000 and 2001, said James Braun, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering.

The results focus on California because the research was funded by the California Energy Commission, but the same demand-saving approach could be tailored to buildings in any state.

"California officials are especially concerned about capacity problems in the summertime," said Braun, whose research is based at Purdue's Ray W. Herrick Laboratories.

A building's physical mass could get cooled down in the morning and therefore help keep the building cooler later in the day.

Findings will be detailed in three papers to be presented on Monday (Jan. 23) during the Winter Meeting of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers in Chicago. Two of the papers were written by Braun and doctoral student Kyoung-Ho Lee. The other paper was written by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory managed by the University of California.

The method works by running air conditioning at cooler-than-normal settings in the morning and then raising the thermostat to warmer-than-normal settings in the afternoon, when energy consumption escalates during hot summer months. Because the building's mass has been cooled down, it does not require as much energy for air conditioning during the hottest time of day, when electricity is most expensive and in highest demand.

Better ways could be found to do this where humans are less affected by temperature changes. A building could get constructed (or upgraded) to contain a large mass (made out of lead perhaps?) that gets cooled at night more than the air does. The air conditioner could cool it down way below normal room temperature (say close to freezing or even below). Granted the method reported here requires only an upgrade to the thermostat electronics. But it has drawbacks and limits on what it can achieve. Demand could get shifted for more hours or even days if a high density mass was cooled in the summer. Also using solar or wind energy such a mass could get heated in the winter whenever the wind blew or the sun shined.

Basically they shift demand from the afternoon to the morning.

Precooling structures so that it takes less power to cool buildings during times of peak demand is not a new concept. But researchers have developed a "control algorithm," or software that determines the best strategy for changing thermostat settings in a given building in order to save the most money. Research has shown that using a thermal mass control strategy improperly can actually result in higher energy costs. Factors such as a building's construction, the design of its air-conditioning system, number of windows, whether the floors are carpeted, and other information must be carefully considered to determine how to best use the method.

"The idea is to set the thermostat at 70 degrees Fahrenheit for the morning hours, and then you start adjusting that temperature upwards with a maximum temperature of around 78 during the afternoon hours, " Braun said. "When the thermostat settings are adjusted in an optimal fashion, the result is a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in peak electrical demand for air conditioning.

But currently there is little incentive for most businesses to shift a portion of their electricity demand from afternoon to morning. What is needed are utility rate structure changes to implement dynamic pricing so that current price comes closer to the marginal price. That'd make electricity much more expensive during peak times but cheaper during low usage times.

"If you couple this reduction in demand with a utility rate structure that charges more during critical peak periods, utility costs will drop. Without such a change in peak rates, though, the actual impact on operating costs is relatively small, with about $50 in annual savings per 1,000 square feet of building space.

"A good incentive for reducing peak demand would be to impose a higher peak demand charge for the critical peak-pricing periods, and if customers reduce their consumption during these times, they are rewarded with lower energy costs for the rest of the time."

Some of the technology developments needed to allow demand shifting are pretty low tech. It is easy to develop a computer program that will vary the thermostat setting as a function of the time or day and not much harder to develop software and a communications system to broadcast marginal prices so that companies could adjust their demand as a function of current electric prices. The bigger obstacle is at the policy level, not the technological level.

If public utilities were to more widely implement dynamic pricing of electricity then businesses would pretty quickly implement lower tech methods of adjusting demand. At the same time, incentives would then come into existence to develop better technologies for shifting demand. For example, the value of better battery technologies would increase and therefore dynamic pricing would accelerate the development of better battery technologies.

An acceleration of battery technology development in response to dynamic electric pricing would eventually accelerate the shift toward hybrid and pure electric cars. Increased demand for electric power storage technologies would increase investment to develop such technologies.

The deployment of technologies and business practices that allow rapid demand adjustment in response to dynamic pricing would be bullish for both solar and wind electric power. Businesses would treat rises in electric prices that happen when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing as reason to shift business activity (or accumulation of energy in batteries or cool or heat in previously mentioned building masses) toward the times when the sun does shine and the wind does blow. To put it another way: if demand can be made more dynamic by market forces then the inconstancy of solar and wind power would pose less of a problem for their wider spread adoption. Greater market forces in electric power distribution would accelerate energy technology development and deployment.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 21 02:54 PM  Energy Tech
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2006 January 18 Wednesday
Men Feel More Pleasure Than Women Watching Punishment

The brains of men feel pleasure when they see unfair actors get electric shocks.

Men appear to get greater satisfaction than women when witnessing retribution, a brain imaging study funded by the Wellcome Trust biomedical research charity has revealed.

This evidence of male schadenfreude, or pleasure at seeing revenge exacted, was highlighted during an experiment, published online by Nature today (Jan 18th), undertaken to compare empathy in the brains of people watching someone they either liked, or disliked, suffering pain.

A series of tests was undertaken involving 32 male and female volunteers plus four ‘confederates’ who were actually actors, but this was kept secret from the rest of the group.

In the first part of the experiment volunteers played a monetary investment game giving cash to one of the actors who had to then decide how much to give back. During each “transaction” the amount was tripled, so it was beneficial for both volunteer and actor to send as much as possible.

The study was designed to allow one actor to behave fairly, by returning a similar amount, while the other, unfair actor, tended to send back very little, if anything at all.

In the second part of the experiment at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience in London, at UCL (University College London)**, the volunteer was placed in a magnetic resonance imaging brain scanner, to allow researchers to measure empathic responses as he or she watched the actors receiving a mild electric shock. When the “fair” players received this stimulation –the equivalent of a short bee sting- both female and male volunteers showed empathy activation in pain related areas of the brain – the fronto-insular and anterior cingulate cortices.

When the unfair actor received a shock the women taking part in the experiment showed empathy with them. However brain images of the male volunteers showed no increased activity in the empathy-related pain areas, but did reveal a surge in the nucleus accumbens, the “reward” region of the brain.

This reward- related activity was not seen in the majority of female participants, who appeared to have empathy for both the fair and unfair actors suffering pain.

I'd love to see follow-up investigations of how the females who felt the pleasure differ from the females who didn't feel the pleasure. Do females who feel more pleasure when watching punishment have other more masculine traits than the females who do not feel the pleasure? Do they tend to work in different kinds of occupations? Have different values?

Empathy declines when people are seen as unfair.

Dr Tania Singer, who led the study, said: “During breaks in the tests you could tell from the body language that both the male and female volunteers did not like the actors who had cheated them. They tried to stay away from them as much as possible.

“These emotional responses were later confirmed in questionnaires completed by the volunteers who were asked to judge the actors. They consistently rated the fair player as being more agreeable, more likeable and even more attractive than the unfair actor.

“These results suggest that fairness in social situations shapes the nature of the emotional link we have to other people. We empathize with others if they cooperate and act fairly. But, in contrast, selfish and unfair behaviour compromises this empathic link. So, when the unfair player received a painful shock there was, at most, very little sign of anything registering in the empathy-related region of the men as opposed to the reward-related area where there was activity. They expressed more desire for revenge and seemed to feel satisfaction when unfair people were given what they perceived as deserved physical punishment.

“This type of behaviour has probably been crucial in the evolution of society as the majority of people in a group are motivated to punish those who cheat on the rest. This altruistic behaviour means that people tend to protect each other against being exploited by society’s free-loaders, and evolution has probably seeded this sense of justice and moral duty into our brains.

“We will need to confirm these gender differences in larger studies because it is possible the experimental design favoured men as there was a physical rather then psychological or financial threat involved. However this investigation would seem to indicate there is a predominant role for men in maintaining justice and issuing punishment.”

For every quality of the brain where the sexes differ or where different groups of people differ due to genetic reasons I always ask myself what will happen to that quality when people can choose genetic variations for their offspring. Will the desire to carry out altruistic punishment become more or less prevalent in genetically engineered humans? What effects will the change have on society? My guess is the desire to carry out altruistic punishment is essential to cause people to keep each other in line and acting fairly. Take away that trait and people would become far less likely to protect each other from thugs, thieves, fraudulent government workers, fraudulent businesses, and other manner of unfair actors.

See my previous posts "Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment" and "Altruistic Punishment Seen As Explanation For Mass Political Behaviors".

By Randall Parker 2006 January 18 10:48 PM  Brain Sexuality
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2006 January 16 Monday
Oil Seen As Toothless Political Weapon

US policy in the Middle East is seen as based on a fallacy about the power of oil producers.

U.S. policy in the Middle East is driven by baseless fears that an “oil weapon” can cut off our fuel supply, a Johns Hopkins researcher has concluded.

In a peer-reviewed journal article, Roger J. Stern argues that the decades-old belief that petroleum-rich Persian Gulf nations must be appeased to keep oil flowing is imaginary and the threat of deployment of an "oil weapon" is toothless. His review of economic and historical data also shows that untapped oil supplies are abundant, not scarce.

Stern’s analysis, titled “Oil market power and United States national security,” appears in the Jan. 16-20 online Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the article Stern argues that the longstanding U.S. security concern that our oil supply could be threatened is wrong.

The real security problem, says Stern, comes from market power. Persian Gulf oil producers, he says, collude to command artificially high prices that could never exist in a competitive market. Excessive OPEC profits result, he says. These contribute to instability in the region, terror funding and the likelihood that a Persian Gulf superpower could emerge if one state captured the oil production of its neighbors. Because of these threats, the United States has concluded it must use military force to block state-on-state aggression in the region and to contain terrorism.

“U.S. appeasement of the oil market power not only helps create these problems, it makes them inevitable,” said Stern, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. “Why do we follow this schizophrenic policy? We do it because we believe the ‘oil weapon’ might be used to reduce our supply if we somehow offend the OPEC countries. My research shows the oil weapon is completely implausible.”

According to the journal article, recent history shows that attempts to use an oil weapon have consistently failed. The idea, Stern says, dates back to the mid-1930s, when the League of Nations considered cutting off oil to Italy as punishment for its aggression in Ethiopia. The league realized the oil weapon couldn’t work, however, because non-league nations could continue to supply Italy. Keeping oil out of Italy would have required a blockade, an idea dismissed as impossible to enforce. What was true for Italy then is true for the United States today, Stern says.

What I've never understood about Washington DC elites who swallow this fallacy is if they really do believe it then why not act on this belief in ways designed to decrease US reliance on oil? Tens of billions of dollars get spent by the US each year on weapons development. If the Middle Eastern oil producers really do possess such a potent weapon then why not respond with a national security policy in the same way the US would respond to any other threatening weapon and develop "weapons" in the form of technologies that would render oil essentially obsolete?

If we are going to act as if we believe this fallacy why not at least make our response to the fallacy productive of a useful end? We could develop cheaper and cleaner energy technologies a lot more rapidly if the national security types in Washington DC treated an end to the oil dependency as a big national security gain for the United States. The end of the dependence on oil and other fossil fuels by the development of cheaper non-fossil fuels energy technologies would provide both environmental gains (cleaner air) and economic gains (cheaper energy and not imported either). Funding of the research would be far less expensive than the Iraq war too.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 16 10:37 PM  Energy Policy
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2006 January 15 Sunday
Austrian Hackers Break Into Surveillance Camera Video Feeds

Austrian hackers broke into police video feeds in Vienna Austria.

A group called Quintessenz used an off-the-shelf satellite receiver to intercept the video signal transmitted by a surveillance camera overlooking a busy square in the capital Vienna. The feed had been crudely scrambled by modifying the analogue video signal but the activists were able to unscramble it using commercial video processing software.

This enabled them to view everything recorded by the camera, and revealed both its capabilities and shortcomings. "The funny thing was, the camera wasn't able to see right below itself," says Christian Moch, a spokesman for Quintessenz, "so people could carry out drug deals underneath it without being seen".

Science fiction writer David Brin has examined the gradual death of privacy due to technological advances in his book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? and in articles he has on his web site. Brin makes the point that we face two choices: A) Let only government officials watch the camera feeds (and other surveillance feeds) or B) Let everyone watch the camera feeds. These hackers in Austria basically implemented plan B on a small scale.

Suppose everyone could watch all public video cameras over the internet. On the one hand, criminals and even terrorists would be able to figure out shortcomings in the surveillance systems. But on the other hand, a lot more members of the public would be able to watch for criminals in their spare time and many more cameras would have humans watching their feeds in real time. Police can't afford to watch every camera that they have access to. As cameras get cheaper and more ubiquitous the ratio of cameras to police employees watching them will rise higher and higher.

General public access to surveillance cameras would also lead to more rapid reports of camera failures and allow the public to knowledgeably criticize choices for camera positions and choices in camera brands and quality of signals.

So would you prefer only small numbers of people to have the authority to watch surveillance cameras? Or would you prefer a much larger number of people to have access to public camera video feeds?

Update: One other point: Lots of people are going to surveil each other regardless of whether governments provide access to their video cameras. Already spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends put GPS tracking devices on cars to see where their significant other goes to. Does she stop at some apartment complex when she claims she's at a business meeting? Or does he cruise a red light district? You can bet that as nanosensors become more powerful people will be putting audio recorders in clothes buttons and sending their untrusted loved one off on their day with sensors. Then they'll find out whether some hanky panky is going on at the office. Also, business competitors will find ways to spy on each other using coming nanotech sensors.

The point I'm making is that the surveillance society is not just something governments will create. Whether or not governments help us watch each other we will find ways to listen to, watch, and otherwise sense what people around us are doing. Parents will use tiny sensors to surreptitiously find out of their kids are doing drugs or having sex. Employers will use increasingly sophisticated sensors to watch employees. Employees will use sensors to find out what their bosses say behind closed doors. Many sensing technologies will be hard to detect and even if detected will be hard to connect with whoever is using them. Privacy is going to be increasingly hard to protect.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 15 10:12 PM  Surveillance Cameras
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2006 January 10 Tuesday
We Really Are Out Of It The First 10 Minutes After Waking

In the first minutes after waking up our brains function worse than when drunk or severely sleep deprived.

A new University of Colorado at Boulder study shows that people who awaken after eight hours of sound sleep have more impaired thinking and memory skills than they do after being deprived of sleep for more than 24 hours.

The study showed test subjects had diminished short-term memory, counting skills and cognitive abilities during the groggy period upon awakening known as sleep inertia, said CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Kenneth Wright, lead study author. The new study has implications for medical, safety and transportation workers who are often called upon to perform critical tasks immediately after waking, since cognitive deficiencies following 24 hours of sleep deprivation have previously been shown to be comparable to the effects of alcohol intoxication, he said.

The study appears in the Jan. 11 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Study authors included Wright and Adam Wertz of CU-Boulder's integrative physiology department and Joseph Ronda and Charles Czeisler of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

"This is the first time anyone has quantified the effects of sleep inertia," Wright said. "We found the cognitive skills of test subjects were worse upon awakening than after extended sleep deprivation. For a short period, at least, the effects of sleep inertia may be as bad as or worse than being legally drunk."

Following six nights of monitored sleep lasting eight hours per night, the study participants were given a performance test that involved adding randomly generated, two-digit numbers, said Wright. Based on the results, the researchers concluded the subjects exhibited the most severe impairments from sleep inertia within the first three minutes after awakening, he said.

The most severe effects of sleep inertia generally dissipated within the first 10 minutes, although its effects are often detectable for up to two hours, according to the study authors.

Studies conducted by Dr. Thomas Balkin and colleagues at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., have shown cortical areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex take longer to come "on-line" following sleep than other areas of the brain, Wright said. The prefrontal cortex is thought to be responsible for problem solving, emotion and complex thought.

People who have to suddenly do critical work upon waking are prone to making potentially lethal mistakes in those first minutes.

The CU-Boulder study has implications for medical professionals who are often called on to tend patients in crisis on a moment's notice, often at odd hours, Wright said. Medical residents, for example, who may work 80 hours or more per week and who "catnap" at times, could be prone to make simple math mistakes when calculating dosages of medicine during bouts of sleep inertia, he said.

The results also have implications for emergency medical technicians and firefighters who may be hastily awakened and called upon to drive a vehicle to an emergency scene, putting themselves and others at risk, said Wright. The study also has implications for commercial truck drivers, who frequently pause for quick naps in their vehicles' sleeping berths during cross-country excursions, he said.

We should avoid having intellectually difficult problems to solve upon awaking. We should also structure our immediate environments around beds to not require any great cognitive effort to safely navigate.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 10 10:10 PM  Brain Sleep
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2006 January 09 Monday
Cell Phones Increase Home And Work Stress

Cell phones eliminate home as a refuge from work and work as a refuge from home.

MILWAUKEE — Are the electronic gadgets designed to make us accessible anytime, anywhere making the lives of dual-income families easier? Maybe not. A study by a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) indicates that use of cell phones and pagers by one large sample of married or partnered couples is adding stress to family life – especially for women.

The study finds a link between use of cell phones and pagers and increased psychological distress and lower family satisfaction among the sample, says Noelle Chesley, an assistant professor of sociology, because it allows yet another way to bring job worries home after work.

Women in the study were doubly affected because they indicated that the greater access also allowed home concerns to spill over into the work day, something the men did not experience.

"What we found was that it was a negative experience for both men and women, but women had the added problem of home life invading work," Chesley says. For women, the consequences of cell phone access may be increased calls from children or elderly family members, calls that are usually placed because a problem has arisen at home.

The survey sample included 1,367 people who were employed at one of seven organizations in upstate New York. To be eligible for the study, respondents had to be married or partnered with someone who also worked outside the home.

"We wanted to get a sense of the trends or patterns for a larger group," she says, "but it was by no means a national or random sample. You can, however, get a sense of – ‘is this more of a blessing or more of a curse?' – among a large group of workers."

I watch people in offices scramble to run back to their desk when they hear their cell phone ringing and think that surely if they weren't within hearing range of the cell phone the vast bulk of the time no damage would be done. Their spouses call up and unload on them about some worry or problem that the spouse could handle or wait to tell them later. So the results of the study above sound very plausible to me.

People need time to relax and an absence of interruptions at both work and home. There ought to be way for people to call up with differing levels of urgency signalled by how they dial the number they are calling. That way a person could set their interrupt level higher when they need to avoid interrupts while still being available for emergencies. Granted, some would abuse the ability to signal an emergency. But others would respect the priority levels and not abuse the top priorities except when necessary.

I've yet to get a cell phone and some people act surprised when I say this. But I see it as a productivity degrader and stress enhancer. I get too many phone calls as it is and I have no spare time. Why make the problem worse?

By Randall Parker 2006 January 09 10:12 PM  Comm Tech Society
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2006 January 08 Sunday
Coming To End Of Era For Appointment-Based Television?

W.R. Hearst III would have us believe that we are coming to the end of the era of simultaneous watching of new TV show episodes.

"Appointment-based television is dead," said William Randolph Hearst III, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm. "The cable industry is really in danger of becoming commoditized."

Mr. Hearst sits on the board of Akimbo, a provider of an Internet service that permits users to download video content via the Internet to a set-top box digital video player. This week, Akimbo announced its first mainstream content deal to enable its customers to download Hollywood movies for later viewing on their televisions.

The "appointment-based television" does have one big advantage in popular culture: It allows a large group of people to simultaneously have the same experience and then to share their reactions to it at work or at play the next day. Part of the pleasure that many people derive from viewing some popular show is the ability to react to it together when socializing. I can recall guys at work discussing a new X Files episode and I've certainly heard women discuss a Desperate Housewives episode. Will all TV shows continue to have synchronised first viewings before becoming available for download?

Every year broadband connections get faster and cheaper and that trend looks set to continue for some years to come. Video on demand is now reaching the point where the download times are getting reasonable. Also, lots of other enabling technologies such has hard drive capacities, video browsing software, and display device improvements make the availability of TV shows and movies by download offer a lot of advantages. There's no need to stick to a single broadcast standard for resolution of shows. Every show could get downloaded at whatever resolution your display device reports itself as supporting.

Experience with downloadable music web stores has probably helped warm up the entertainment industry to the idea of downloading video for sale as well. CD recordings can already be copied illegally. The video downloads for sale do not make the pirating problem much worse. But they do open up the possibility of a lot more impulsive purchases by customers who can instantly order something without going to a video store.

Google has just announced their own service for selling video on the internet.

The Google video service will allow content providers to post videos for downloading on the company's online store. Providers will decide on pricing and levels of copy protection, but all video would be viewed via Google's own media player.

"It lets anyone sell video," Mr Page said. "The content producers decide what to charge."

Google sees their service as allowing a far larger number of people to get into the video content production biz.

"Google video will let you watch lots of high quality video on the web for the first time. You can search and browse, and we make it fast and easy for you to watch," said Larry Page, Google's co-founder and president, Products. "For video producers and anyone with a video camera, Google Video will give you a platform to publish to the entire Google audience in a fast, free and seamless way."

I expect this technology will allow independents to get distribution for things that large companies won't want to bother with. So more niche video will get made.

Google has already lined up some big media players including CBS for TV shows and a Sony music division that will provide music videos of many big names such as Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera (whose impressive vocal range unfortunately comes combined by her attempt to be as tasteless as possible).

"This is yet another exciting platform in which CBS can leverage its market-leading content to a whole new audience," said Leslie Moonves, President and CEO, CBS Corporation. "Making our programming accessible to the Google Video Store guarantees our shows significant new exposure to millions of users who are likely to access this Web service and who may not be traditional TV viewers. As the industry's most prolific generator of popular TV content, it's only natural that CBS would partner with Google on this service, which is destined to become one of the web's most popular destinations."

Google is such a heavyweight with so many web site visitors each day that they have an enormous ability to launch a new web service.

Both cable TV companies and satellite TV companies stand to lose marketshare to internet video. But the satellite people have it worse since they can not provide separate feeds to millions of people. At least the cable TV companies can compete against phone companies to provide broadband services.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 08 10:39 PM  Comm Tech Society
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New Fad: Implantable RFID To Unlock Cars And Homes

Some people are getting Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs) implanted into themselves so that they never have to worry about forgetting their car key or house key.

Cyborgs have stepped out of science fiction and into real life with a small but growing group of tech aficionados who are getting tiny computer chips implanted into their bodies to do everything from opening doors to unlocking computer programs.

Amal Graafstra and his girlfriend Jennifer Tomblin never have to worry about forgetting the keys to her Vancouver home or locking themselves out of Graafstra's Volkswagen GT.

They can simply walk up to the door and, with a wave of a hand, the lock will open. Ditto for the computer. No more struggling to remember complicated passwords and no more lost keys.

Click through on the article to see a picture of a hand with the chip implant pushed near the surface of the skin. Same picture here.

Graafstra divides his time between Bellingham Washington and Vancouver BC. But he got the RFID implant done in Los Angeles.

The implantable tags cost only a couple of dollars. But the surgeon's fee was probably in the hundreds of dollars. Still, you could implant it yourself (perhaps team with a friend and do implants on each other) if you wanted to do the research on what tools were needed and buy them and sterilize them. Graafstra has a forthcoming book RFID Toys that'll teach you some of what you need to know to take your first step toward cyborgism.

Graafstra used RFID tags and readers from Canadian company Phidgets and bought them from Phidgets USA.

A small but substantial segment of the populace will probably go for implantable RFID once a critical mass of both doctors to install it and technicians to upgrade houses and cars are available. Someone with a more technical bent can get into it now as Graafstra did. But you have to get the RFID reader and get it installed into your house door and car door in both cases with electric power attached to do the door unlocking.

But this idea seems a bit problematic. When you are leaving the house do you just keep one hand away from the door to prevent yourself from unlocking it? Also, do you have to worry when driving that your hand might unlock the door if you go to buckle your seat belt in a dangerous neighborhood?

By Randall Parker 2006 January 08 05:26 PM  Cyborg Tech
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High Fossil Fuels Prices Drive People To Wood Pellet Stoves

High oil and natural gas costs are leading to a shift toward biomass for heating. Stoves which burn wood pellets and whole wood are especially popular. The Carlisle Sentinel in Pennsylvania reports sales of wood pellet stoves are up for home heating.

Dogas says stove business is up because people “don’t want to pay the high prices” for heating oil— which, he estimates costs $1,200 to $1,500 per year.

The average person needs three tons of wood pellets per year to heat a home, which comes to only about $600, he says.

Or, cut your own wood

Wood stoves are even cheaper. They cost $450 per year, or less if a person cuts the wood, he adds. However, Dogas adds wood stoves require more work.

Wood pellet stoves are hard to come by due to a large recent increase in demand. Wood pellet prices have soared as well.

At Miller’s Stove Shop in Shippensburg, owner Richard Miller ran out of pellet stoves six weeks ago.

He also notes the price wood pellets went from $165 per ton last year to $250 per ton this year.

Weiss picked up 4 tons of coal in September, at $110 per ton, and simply dumped it through the basement window. Getting coal delivered costs more - about $180 per ton, said Groff.

A Binghamtom New York newspaper also reports higher fuel pellet prices.

Pellet stoves cost $1,500 to $3,500, depending on the model, dealers said. It takes 3 to 5 tons of pellets, on average, to heat a home over the typical Southern Tier heating season. Usually, one 40-pound bag is enough to heat a home for the day.

The shortage also has caused a rise in the price of pellets. A ton of pellets, which cost between $150 to $180 this summer, is now going for $220 — if you can get it.

At 2000 lb per ton a house that needs 5 tons of wood pellets for heating would cost about $1000 to heat for a winter.

Prices of wood around Annapolis Maryland have gone up even more steeply in part due to fuel costs for delivery.

Even when consumers find bags of pellets, they're often hit by sticker shock. Last year, bags sold for as little as $3, or $150 for a ton. But the additional cost of truck fuel for delivery of the pellets to the stores is being passed on to consumers. One Bowen Farm Supply employee said she'd heard of a gas station selling them for as high as $8 a bag.

But a $5 bag of pellets can keep the home fires burning for 24 hours. That would translate to a monthly bill of $150.

Wood stoves are enjoying a resurgence in Kansas too and the new stoves are much more efficient.

Chimney sweep Jeremy Biswell, owner of Flues Brothers in Overland Park, Kan., says a wood stove is always a better choice for heating than an open hearth, even for occasional use.

"Typically in an open fireplace, you're losing 90 percent of the heat up the flue," Biswell said. That translates to 10 percent efficiency. By comparison, he said, older wood stoves are 50 percent to 60 percent efficient, and new ones are 71 percent to 78 percent efficient. "With a wood stove, you're getting more of that heat back into the house."

But old wood stoves and fireplaces are big polluters. 10% of Washington state's air pollution is reported to be from burning wood and the American Lung Association of Washington discourages wood burning inside the home due to potential health harms. However, wood is popular in the Puget Sound area and newer stoves are at least an order of magnitude cleaner than older stoves and fireplaces.

But burning wood as an alternative fuel already has a following here. According to the federal government's 2004 American Housing Survey, 7,000 King County households — 1.6 percent — use wood as their main heating fuel. In Snohomish County, 14,600 homes do, or 5.6 percent.

If you burn wood, you owe it to your neighbors to minimize emissions.

Make sure you have a wood stove certified by the EPA that also meets Washington state standards. (Check the list at www.orcaa.org/woodstovecert.html.) Uncertified stoves (sold before 1992) and fireplaces may release 40 to 60 grams of smoke per hour, compared with 2 to 5 grams per hour from a newer EPA-certified stove. If you're getting rid of an old, uncertified wood stove, take it to a scrap-metal recycler; it's illegal to sell it or give it away.

But there's a worse polluter for heating: Unfortunately coal is also making a comeback for home heating.

Numbed by the thought of $400 heating bills, people are turning back to the age-old fossil fuel that kept their parents and grandparents warm. While not the cleanest option, the black stuff is so cheap that some customers are waiting three months to buy a coal stove or furnace.

"We can't get the stoves fast enough," said Brenda Groff, owner of Groff's Stove Shop in Boyertown, Pa. "People are so desperate they want the display model."

Better wood pellets or corn for heating than coal. At least the corn and wood do not emit lots of mercury and arsenic.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 08 04:07 PM  Energy Policy
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Organic Photovoltaics Absorb From Near Infrared Frequencies

A research group has developed organic nanostructures photovoltaics that can absorb photons near the infrared frequency.

Ewing, NJ | 4 January 2006 -- Global Photonic Energy Corporation (GPEC), developer of organic photovoltaic (OPVtm) technology for ultra-low cost high power solar cells, announced that the company's research partners at Princeton University and the University of Southern California (USC) have achieved a new record in an organic solar cell that is responsive to light in the near infrared (NIR) range of the solar spectrum. NIR radiation is invisible to the human eye.

Many so-called "night vision" devices operate by sensing infrared light which is emitted by warm objects and makes up a substantial portion of all energy reaching the earth from the sun. Under only NIR radiation, the Princeton solar cell would appear to be generating power in the dark -- as the human eye is only sensitive to visible light.

This latest achievement is the highest level of conversion performance yet achieved for an organic solar cell in the IR portion of the solar spectrum. The Company's researchers detail this latest achievement in the December 2 issue of Applied Physics Letters.

The Global thirst for energy is continually expanding. Renewable energy sources have experienced rapid growth in recent years as costs have improved. Global solar cell production has grown over 20% annually for the last 20 years, reaching sales of $6 billion in 2004. This strong growth has resulted in a world-wide shortage of semiconductor silicon driving 2005 solar cell prices higher. Cost is a critical factor in the continued expansion of the solar cell industry. Currently, solar-generated power is four to six times more expensive to consumers than coal-generated power.

Silicon crystals are too expensive as a starting material for making photovoltaics cells. The development of organic photovoltaic materials holds the potential for much cheaper photovoltaics. These Princeton and USC researchers (see below) are not only pursuing organically based photovoltaics but they are also pursuing the development of much higher efficiency photovoltaics. The odds are developing a way to double or triple the conversion efficiency of organic photovoltaics will not increase costs per square meter of materials anywhere near as much. So cost per unit of energy produced will drop.

Recent efforts have focused on the use of "organic" materials. Organic semiconductors contain the ubiquitous element carbon and are capable of achieving ultra-low cost solar power generation that is competitive with traditional fossil fuel sources. Organic materials have the potential to achieve ultra-low cost production costs and high power output. The materials are ultra-thin and flexible and can be applied to large, curved or spherical surfaces. Because the layers are so thin, transparent solar cells can be applied to windows creating power-generating glass that retains its basic functionality.

GPEC sponsors research by Professor Stephen R. Forrest at Princeton and Professor Mark E. Thompson at USC. Professor Forrest's research team has focused on organic "small-molecule" devices that are assembled literally a molecule at a time in highly efficient nanostructures. These devices have layers and/or structural elements that can be extremely small -- at only 0.5 billionth of a meter thick and can be applied to low-cost, flexible plastic surfaces.

These scientists want to boost absorption of photons near the infrared frequency range because that is where much of the energy in sunlight is found.

One challenge for organic solar cells has been the efficient capture and conversion of sunlight. Sunlight consists of photons (particles of light) that are delivered across a spectrum that includes invisible ultraviolet (UV) light, the visible spectrum of colors -- violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red -- and the invisible infrared or IR spectrum. The amount of incoming photons across the UV, visible and IR spectrums is about 4%, 51% and 45%, respectively. The photons absorbed by a solar cell directly impacts the power output. To achieve high power output, solar devices must take advantage of as much of the solar spectrum as possible. Typical organic solar cells absorb only a fraction of the visible portion of the solar spectrum. In fact, the best organic solar cells absorb and convert only about 1/3 of the total available light utilizing primarily the visible portion of the spectrum.

"This latest device demonstrates that significant power can be harvested from the IR and near-IR portion of the solar spectrum.", said Dr. Stephen R. Forrest. "In fact, this novel approach has the potential to double the power output of organic solar devices with power harvested from the near-IR and IR portion of the solar spectrum. With this approach we are well on our way to power levels exceeding 100 watts per meter", Forrest concluded.

Imagine organic photovoltaics coating windows especially in hot climates. Instead of letting in the infrared frequencies the photovoltaics convert those photons to useful electricity. So instead of heating a building and thereby increasing the demand for air conditioning the photovoltaic coating could keep out heat and turn it into electricity that would power air conditioners.

In the longer run imagine nanomaterials-based photovoltaic coatings that could adjust how much electricity they let into a room or into a car depending on whether a human was in the room or car. When a human was present the material could become transparent to allow ing lighting or provide the ability to look outside. House and car windows could be turned dark or transparent by dynamically changing nanostructures. When no one was in a car or house room the windows could become dark and that would mean the nanocoatings were absorbing the light that hit them and turning them into electric to charge batteries (which of course will be made from some nanomaterials as well). So on a hot summer day your car's seats wouldn't get as hot. Also, the inside trim wouldn't degrade as rapidly due to sun damage.

GPEC is funded by electric power industry venture capitalists Kuhns Brothers.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 08 02:29 PM  Energy Solar
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Los Alamos Group Continues Progress Toward Better Photovoltaics

Yet another interesting discovery from a LANL group working on ways to use nanomaterials to boost output from photovoltaic solar cells.

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., January 4, 2006 -- Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists have discovered that a phenomenon called carrier multiplication, in which semiconductor nanocrystals respond to photons by producing multiple electrons, is applicable to a broader array of materials that previously thought. The discovery increases the potential for the use of nanoscrystals as solar cell materials to produce higher electrical outputs than current solar cells.

In papers published recently in the journals Nature Physics and Applied Physics Letters, the scientists demonstrate that carrier multiplication is not unique to lead selenide nanocrystals, but also occurs with very high efficiency in nanocrystals of other compositions, such as cadmium selenide. In addition, these new results shed light on the mechanism for carrier multiplication, which likely occurs via the instantaneous photoexcitation of multiple electrons. Such a process has never been observed in macroscopic materials and it explicitly relies on the unique physics of the nanoscale size regime.

According to Richard Schaller, a Los Alamos scientist on the team, "Our research of carrier multiplication in previous years was really focused on analyzing the response of lead selenide nanocrystals to very short laser pulses. We discovered that the absorption of a single photon could produce two or even three excited electrons. We knew, somewhat instinctively, that carrier multiplication was probably not confined to lead selenide, but we needed to pursue the question."

Lead project scientist Victor Klimov explains, "Carrier multiplication actually relies upon very strong interactions between electrons squeezed within the tiny volume of a nanoscale semiconductor particle. That is why it is the particle size, not its composition that mostly determines the efficiency of the effect. In nanosize crystals, strong electron-electron interactions make a high-energy electron unstable. This electron only exists in its so-called 'virtual state' for an instant before rapidly transforming into a more stable state comprising two or more electrons."

Sooner or later some scientists are going to discover high efficiency photovoltaic materials that can be made very cheaply. This sort of research should get more funding. The benefits will be enormous when they come. Why not get the benefits sooner?

Also see my previous post on the work of Schaller and Klimov from May 2005: "Quantum Dots May Boost Photovoltaic Efficiency To 65%".

By Randall Parker 2006 January 08 01:25 PM  Energy Solar
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2006 January 05 Thursday
Genetic Risk For Alzheimers Causes Brain Insulation Decay

Genetic variations that contribute to risk of Alzheimer's also cause brain nerve insulation to decay.

A new UCLA imaging study shows that age-related breakdown of myelin, the fatty insulation coating the brain's internal wiring, correlates strongly with the presence of a key genetic risk factor for Alzheimer disease.

The findings are detailed in the January edition of the peer-reviewed journal Archives of General Psychiatry and add to a growing body of evidence that myelin breakdown is a key contributor to the onset of Alzheimer disease later in life.

In addition, the study demonstrates how genetic testing coupled with non-invasive evaluation of myelin breakdown through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may prove useful in assessing treatments for preventing the disease.

The idea of losing the insulation of the nerves of one's brain with aging strikes me as thoroughly disgusting. We should heavily fund attempts to develop treatments to prevent and reverse brain aging.

A genetic variation in Apolipoprotein E causes the myelin insulating sheaths to break down more rapidly with age.

As the brain continues to develop in adulthood and as myelin is produced in greater and greater quantities, cholesterol levels in the brain increase and eventually promote the production of a toxic protein that attacks the brain. The protein attacks myelin, disrupts message transfer through the axons and eventually can lead to the brain/mind-destroying plaques and tangles visible years later in the cortex of Alzheimer patients.

The Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) genotype is the second most influential Alzheimer risk factor, after only advanced age. The study used MRI to assess myelin breakdown in 104 healthy individuals between ages 55 and 75 and determine whether the shift in the age at onset of Alzheimer disease caused by the ApoE genotype is associated with age-related myelin breakdown.

The results show that in later-myelinating regions of the brain, the severity and rate of myelin breakdown in healthy older individuals is associated with ApoE status. Thus both age, the most important risk factor for Alzheimer disease, and ApoE status, the second-most important risk factor, seem to act through the process of myelin breakdown.

Some people argue that aging is a natural process or a sacred process which we can experience with dignity. But where's the dignity of suffering from a progressive breakdown of the insulation on the nerves of your brain? One doesn't just become gray and wrinkly and move more slowly with age. One's brain goes. One loses the ability to think as well. One is more prone to confusion, less able to deal with the problems of life, less able to recall memories of past events or to remember what one has to accomplish on any given day. There's nothing the least bit dignified about brain decay. It does not bring wisdom. It takes away the ability to recall lessons learned.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 05 10:46 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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2006 January 04 Wednesday
Reduced Aerosol Pollution May Accelerate Global Warming

Aerosols cause much greater cooling than previously estimated.

Writing in the journal Nature today, scientists at the Meteorological Office and the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that climate models used to predict future global warming have badly underestimated the cooling effect of aerosols.

"We found that aerosols actually have twice the cooling effect we thought," said Nicolas Bellouin, a climate modeller at the Met Office. The consequence is that as air quality improves and aerosol levels drop, future warming may be greater than we currently think."

Pollutants are a source of aerosols that have been decreased by environmental regulations - at least in the more industrialized countries. A decline in pollutant aerosols might cause a much higher level of global warming.

The group has produced the most precise estimates yet of how tiny particles, known as aerosols, could affect the world's climate. Aerosols, which include pollutants, have a cooling effect on the atmosphere, and the team's work suggests that the cooling effect is strong - nearly as strong as the top estimates of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Thus, the dwindling presence of aerosols means that global average temperatures could rise faster than previously estimated and reach toward the high end of projections for the end of the century.

Those estimates currently range from 2.7 to 7.9 degrees F., depending on how emissions of greenhouse gases and other factors play out in coming years.

The second article says some of the effects of aerosols still haven't been puzzled out. So the story could change. But suppose the aerosol effect turns out to be as these researchers say. Would it be possible to come up with an artificial aerosol that would have no negative health impacts yet which could lower the Earth's temperature? If such an aerosol was discovered would environmentalists oppose its widespread release?

There's an interesting angle to this report that I haven't seen reported: Rapid economic growth in China is greatly boosting particulate emissions from coal burning. But when living standards in China rise far enough the population will start demanding cleaner air. At that point a decline in Chinese aerosol emissions would happen under much higher atmospheric CO2 conditions. This could cause a temperature spike at that point.

You can read the Nature abstract here.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 04 10:59 PM  Climate Trends
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2006 January 02 Monday
Aging Baby Boomers Begin To Turn 60

The earliest post World War 2 baby boomers have begun turning 60 years old.

The baby boom, a post World War II population explosion, began 60 years ago today, on Jan. 1, 1946. By the time it ended in 1964, 75.8 million children had been born in the United States. By Dec. 31, about 2.8 million boomers will have turned 60, the leading edge of a demographic shift that will make America, and the world, statistically older than ever before.

I am hopeful that the boomers are far less willing to resign themselves to aging than previous generations and as the fact of their aging sinks in that they will begin to push harder for acceleration of research into rejuvenation therapies. Aubrey de Grey's appearance on the very popular CBS 60 Minutes TV news show just introduced tens of millions of boomers to the idea of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). The 60 Minutes show introduced the Methuselah Mouse Prize as a way to incentivize anti-aging research just as the X Prize accelerated the development of technology for space exploration. Those of us who promote the idea of full body rejuvenation as an achievable goal have seen this cause come a long way from the fringe to the mainstream. About 8 or 9 years ago Aubrey was discussing rejuvenation with a small handful of us on the Usenet group sci.life-extension. Gradually he's made it into major print publications and TV with the idea that aging is curable.

The rise in the average age of Western populations increases the economic value of rejuvenation therapies. When only a very small fraction of societies were old the economic return on rejuvenation was much less. But with so many highly skilled people basically wearing out and deterioriating the loss of human capital from aging is immense. Efforts to rejuvenate humans would have an economic return that is analogous to the return from rebuilding worn out capital equipment.

The reason I see rejuvenation as an achievable goal is that aging is just a changing of the arrangement of matter and our ability to rearrange matter is advancing very rapidly. Ray Kurzweil (see The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology) makes this argument with logarithmic charts and graphs showing continuing accelerations of CPU speeds, hard disk capacities, fiber optic bandwidths and other measures. While none of his trends will continue unbroken indefinitely (e.g. we will reach the point where electronic devices can't get any smaller than atoms) the trends will continue along far enough to eventually produce nanotechnological devices that make full body rejuvenation and enhancement very easy to do. Barring the destruction of human civilization (which could happen any of several plausible ways including a massive supernova or other interstellar event reaching Earth) the development of rejuvenation therapies is not a question of if. It is a question of when. Current demographic trends provide a powerful argument for accelerating the development of rejuvenation therapies. Of course, the personal desire to not grow old and decrepit is another powerful argument for reversing the aging process.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 02 10:43 PM  Trends Demographic
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2006 January 01 Sunday
Genetic Regions Involved In Brain Aging Rates Identified

Really old folks have genetic variations that help keep their brains humming.

A study released today at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology's Annual Meeting revealed that scientists have identified genes related to reaching age 90 with preserved cognition. The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, is among the first to identify genetic links to cognitive longevity.

"While successful aging has been defined in many ways, we focused on individuals who had reached at least 90 without significant decline in mental capacity," said lead researcher George S. Zubenko, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "Not only is this a goal that many of us share, this definition of 'successful aging' can be determined objectively and consistently across subjects--an important requirement of scientific studies."

While previous research found that genes make important contributions to exceptional longevity, the goal of this study was to identify regions of the human genome that contributed, along with lifestyle factors, to reaching age 90 with preserved cognition.

The study involved 100 people age 90 and older with preserved cognition, as measured by clinical and psychometric assessments. Half of the subjects were male, half were female. Using a novel genome survey method, scientists compared the DNA of the study sample with that of 100 young adults, aged 18-25 years old, who were matched for sex, race, ethnicity and geographic location. Specifically, Dr. Zubenko and his research team attempted to identify specific genetic sequences present in older individuals that may be linked to reaching older ages with preserved cognitive abilities, or conversely, specific genetic sequences present in younger individuals (and not present in those over age 90) that may impede successful aging. The study also looked at a variety of lifestyle factors, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, with the goal of eventually exploring the interactive effects of genes and lifestyle on successful aging.

As expected, the study identified an increased frequency of the APOE E2 allele and a decreased frequency of the APOE E4 allele among the elders compared to the group of young adults. These gene variants confer protection and risk, respectively, of Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia in late life. The study also identified novel genetic regions associated with successful aging, including DYS389 and DYS390, some of which affected men or women, but not both.

The problem for us is that we already have our versions of genes in our brains. Also, gene therapy is very hard to do and especially hard to do in the brain. However, identification of specific genes that influence aging rate leads to the investigation of mechanisms by which some variants slow or accelerate aging.

Genes that influence brain aging are especially important. Probably in 20 or 30 years time we will be able to grow replacements for all the internal organs. Old parts will be replaced with new parts. But the brain is our identity and needs to be repaired, not replaced. Preferably individual neurons should even be repaired rather than replaced. This makes brain rejuvenation much harder than rejuvenation of the rest of the body. We need to slow brain aging because effective rejuvenation therapies for the brain are going to take longer to develop than rejuvenation therapies for the rest of the body. Also, brain aging has a big economic impact long before we die. Declines in intellectual ability translate into declines in job performance and income.

Even if you are very confident that a cure for aging will be found before you die that is not a reason to be complacent about your diet and lifestyle. Your brain will age and your cognitive abilities will decline while we wait for the realisation of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) therapies. Also, a lot of afflictions of middle age and later are no fun at all. Best to delay the onset of assorted maladies as long as you can.

By Randall Parker 2006 January 01 06:51 PM  Aging Brain Genetic Studies
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