2007 October 31 Wednesday
Aubrey de Grey Wants To Cure Aging

Biogerentology theorist Aubrey de Grey is co-author of a new book arguing we can defeat aging Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging In Our Lifetime. Aubrey is also the focus of an article by Joel Garreau in the Washington Post: The Invincible Man: Aubrey de Grey, 44 Going on 1,000, Wants Out of Old Age

Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey, 44, recently of Britain's Cambridge University, advocates not myth but "strategies for engineering negligible senescence," or SENS. It means curing aging.

With adequate funding, de Grey thinks scientists may, within a decade, triple the remaining life span of late-middle-age mice. The day this announcement is made, he believes, the news will hit people like a brick as they realize that their cells could be next. He speculates people will start abandoning risky jobs, such as being police officers, or soldiers.

Aubrey believes (and FuturePundit agrees) that we can develop biotechnologies that will allow us to reverse aging and make us young again. This goal will be achieved within the lifetimes of at least some of the people currently alive. The sooner the general public realizes this the faster this goal will be realized.

Aubrey is attracting large donations toward the goal of reversing aging.

De Grey's original academic field is computer science and artificial intelligence. He has become the darling of some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who think changing the world is all in a day's work. Peter Thiel, the co-founder and former CEO of PayPal -- who sold it in 2002 for $1.5 billion, pocketing $55 million himself -- has dropped $3.5 million on de Grey's Methuselah Foundation.

"I thought he had this rare combination -- a serious thinker who had enough courage to break with the crowd," Thiel says. "A lot of people who are not conventional are not serious. But the real breakthroughs in science are made by serious thinkers who are willing to work on research areas that people think are too controversial or too implausible."

Aubrey thinks once aging is conquered we will periodically retire and retool for different occupations.

"Another thing that's going to have to change completely is retirement. For the moment, when you retire, you retire forever. We're sorry for old people because they're going downhill. There will be no real moral or sociological requirement to do that. Sure, there is going to be a need for Social Security as a safety net just as there is now. But retirement will be a periodic thing. You'll be a journalist for 40 years or whatever and then you'll be sick of it and you'll retire on your savings or on a state pension, depending on what the system is. So after 20 years, golf will have lost its novelty value, and you'll want to do something else with your life. You'll get more retraining and education, and go and be a rock star for 40 years, and then retire again and so on."

Aubrey thinks people are heavily invested in believing that death from aging is inevitable. This position made sense back when death from aging really was inevitable. Best to rationalize that aging is a good thing if there's nothing you can do about it. Make your peace and find reasons to be happy with what you can't change. But the rate of advance of biotechnology is accelerating with DNA sequencers and microfluidic devices becoming more powerful in ways analogous to the rate of progress with computers. We can strive for goals that used to seem unattainable. We should start trying to conquer aging. It is a solvable problem.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 31 10:46 PM  Aging Debate
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Brain Scans Show Many Otherwise Undetected Abnormalities

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds many of us unknowingly have abnormalities such as mini-strokes in our brains.

Methods The subjects were 2000 persons (mean age, 63.3 years; range, 45.7 to 96.7) from the population-based Rotterdam Study in whom high-resolution, structural brain MRI (1.5 T) was performed according to a standardized protocol. Two trained reviewers recorded all brain abnormalities, including asymptomatic brain infarcts. The volume of white-matter lesions was quantified in milliliters with the use of automated postprocessing techniques. Two experienced neuroradiologists reviewed all incidental findings. All diagnoses were based on MRI findings, and additional histologic confirmation was not obtained.

Results Asymptomatic brain infarcts were present in 145 persons (7.2%). Among findings other than infarcts, cerebral aneurysms (1.8%) and benign primary tumors (1.6%), mainly meningiomas, were the most frequent. The prevalence of asymptomatic brain infarcts and meningiomas increased with age, as did the volume of white-matter lesions, whereas aneurysms showed no age-related increase in prevalence.

More details here.

An aneurysm is a bulge in the wall of a blood vessel. A brain infarct is a stroke where blood got cut off to some part of the brain. Basically, a lot of people are walking around with small strokes in their brains without knowing it. Others have circulatory problems that might eventually cause damage.

Regarding benign tumors: Harvard Medical School researcher Judah Folkman, the pioneer in the use of anti-angiogenesis drugs (which block blood vessel growth) to stop cancer, includes slides in his lectures of cross sections of organs of adult humans stained to show tumors. Well, we have lots of little tumors which are stuck at small size because the tumors haven't yet mutated to secrete lots of angiogenesis compounds. So the tumors can't grow the blood vessels needed to fuel their growth and they get stuck at small sizes. Well, that's what these benign brain tumors probably are.

What this report illustrates is how much our brains decay as we get older. If you feel at peace with your aging keep in mind that you are losing brain cells and some of the remaining brain cells that aren't dying are at least becoming senescent or damaged.

Stem cell and gene therapies to rejuvenate our blood vessels will some day prevent and reverse the brain circulatory system decay. The sooner these therapies come the less of your brain you'll have to lose while waiting. So support accelerated development of rejuvenation therapies.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 31 08:42 PM  Brain Aging
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2007 October 30 Tuesday
Hydrogen Seen As Much Less Efficient Than Batteries For Cars

An article in BusinessWeek surveys the pros and cons of hydrogen and argues that batteries beat hydrogen when compared for energy efficiency.

Electrolysis of water is the easiest method for producing hydrogen -- but only about 70% of the electric power used in the process gets stored in the hydrogen it creates. Hydrogen then needs to be either compressed or cooled to a liquid in order to store large enough volumes to be useful in a car -- gas compression is the more efficient of the two processes, but still costs a further 10% of the stored energy. The efficiency of the fuel cell storage unit itself is realistically estimated at around 36% under normal driving load -- leading to a dismal overall power-grid-to-wheels efficiency of less than 25%. That is, less than a quarter of the power used to produce the hydrogen is ever actually used to propel the car.

Batteries are a clear winner in the grid-to-wheels efficiency battle. Conventional Lithium-ion batteries charge at about 93% efficiency and operate at about the same efficiency, leading to an overall efficiency of over 85%. For the same energy input, you'll get three times the power out of a battery than out of a fuel cell.

If someone can explain how hydrogen as an energy source makes sense I'd really like to hear it. So much effort is going into a hydrogen push that I figure I must be missing something.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 30 10:51 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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Vitamin D Only Reduces Colorectal Cancer?

Does vitamin D reduce the risk of many types of cancer as many studies suggest? A new study finds that high vitamin D in blood serum only reduces the risk of colorectal cancer.

No relationship was found between vitamin D levels and the overall risk of dying from cancer, according to a study published online October 30 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. However, higher vitamin D levels were associated with a decreased risk of colorectal cancer death.

Several epidemiological studies have supported the hypothesis that vitamin D can reduce cancer mortality by decreasing cancer incidence or improving survival. Animal and cell studies suggest that vitamin D may reduce tumor growth and induce cancer cell death. Diet and exposure to sunlight are the major sources of vitamin D.

D. Michal Freedman, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues analyzed data from the third national Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to examine the relationship between levels of circulating vitamin D in the blood and cancer mortality in a group of 16,818 participants aged 17 and older.

After about a decade of follow-up, 536 participants had died of cancer. Cancer mortality was not related to the level of circulating vitamin D for the overall group, nor was it related when the researchers looked at the data by sex, race, or age. But higher levels of vitamin D (80 nmol/L or more) were associated with a 72 percent reduced risk of colorectal cancer mortality, compared with lower levels (less than 50 nmol/L).

“To our knowledge, this study is the first to examine the relationship between measured serum vitamin D levels and cancer mortality for selected site and for all sites combined,” the authors write.

A single study can't decisively resolve this question. Fortunately, other studies on vitamin D and total cancer risk are underway.

"Among the questions to be addressed in future studies is the relationship between vitamin D levels and future cancer risk both for individual cancer sites and for total cancer risk." The NCI and other institutes currently have a number of these studies underway, Freedman said.

A previous study found a negative association between blood serum vitamin D and both breast and colorectal cancer.

Keep in mind that vitamin D delivers other health benefits: Vitamin D Supplements Lower Risk Of Death, Low Vitamin D Linked To More Hip Fractures In Women, Low Vitamin D Ups Chronic Back Pain?, and Low Vitamin D Speeds Muscle Decline In Old Age?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 30 09:32 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Vibrated Mice Form More Bone And Less Fat

Science sometimes turns up weird results. Clinton T. Rubin has discovered that placing mice on vibrating plates for short periods of time strengthens bones and decreases fat.

Dr. Rubin, director of the Center for Biotechnology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is reporting that in mice, a simple treatment that does not involve drugs appears to be directing cells to turn into bone instead of fat.

All he does is put mice on a platform that buzzes at such a low frequency that some people cannot even feel it. The mice stand there for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Afterward, they have 27 percent less fat than mice that did not stand on the platform — and correspondingly more bone.

Bone marrow accumulates fat as we age. Should we sit in vibrating plates a few times a week to maintain bone health and reduce fat? This could become the next weight loss rage.

Rubin has spent years investigating why bones decay with age and found that more intense impacts don't appear to be the biggest cause of increases in bone strength. This led him in the direction of looking at low frequency vibrations.

Over the years, he and his colleagues discovered that high-magnitude signals, like the ones created by the impact as foot hits pavement, were not the predominant signals affecting bone. Instead, bone responded to signals that were high in frequency but low in magnitude, more like a buzzing than a pounding.

That makes sense, he went on, because muscles quiver when they contract, and that quivering is the predominant signal to bones. It occurs when people stand still, for example, and their muscles contract to keep them upright. As people age, they lose many of those postural muscles, making them less able to balance, more apt to fall and, perhaps, prone to loss of bone.

Rubin suspects that the vibrations send signals to stem cells to tell them to become bone cells rather than fat cells.

The US National Institutes of Health are sufficiently intrigued to fund a large study to see if this effect works on elderly people.

If this can work in humans the optimal frequency and intensity might take some work to discover. Some frequencies and intensities might even cause harm. So think twice before you start constructing your own vibrating plate for weight loss.

I'm reminded of those electric vibrator belt machines where people lean into the belt which is connected to an electric motor on a pedestal. The sellers of those machines are derided as con artists selling junk. But maybe those machines provide some real benefit?

I also wonder whether operating machinery that vibrates your body (e.g. tillers, jack hammers, saws, even some ride mowers and motorcycles) might help keep bones strong and fat off.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 30 08:40 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2007 October 29 Monday
Subsidized Gasoline Prices Eat Into Venezuelan Oil Exports

Venezuelans are buying big cars because their gas is subsidized and cheap.

Motorists in the United States smarting from rising gasoline prices, take note: Mr. Taurisano pays the equivalent of $1.50 to fill his Hummer’s tank. Thanks to a decades-old subsidy that has proven devilishly complex to undo, gasoline in Venezuela costs about 7 cents a gallon compared with an average $2.86 a gallon in the United States.

What do low prices do? They boost consumption of course. The same pattern of lower prices and rising consumption is seen in Iran.

Venezuela is not alone among oil-rich countries grappling with subsidized gasoline. Iran, a close ally, was shaken by unrest in June when its government rationed gasoline, which cost 34 cents a gallon at the time.

Some analysts expect Iran to stop exporting by 2014. Well, Venezuela appears to be on a similar path with very rapidly rising consumption.

Fuel smuggling into neighboring Colombia, where prices are much higher, is also rife. Domestic fuel consumption is up 56 percent in the past five years, to 780,000 barrels a day, said Ramón Espinasa, a former chief economist at Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company. One-third of oil production now goes to meet the subsidy, he said.

Perversely, higher world oil prices makes domestic consumption more affordable for oil exporting countries. The money flooding in due to the huge oil price rise raises living standards and gives people more cash for cars and gasoline. So what this lead to? The Export Land Model where oil exporters cease to export. In the Export Land Model the big oil exporters (grouped together in Export Land) have rapidly rising consumption and then when their oil production peaks their exports decline far more rapidly than their oil production. Us residents of Import Land (countries which are net oil importers) then find ourselves in a world of hurt.

The Export Land Model underscores why I believe our future quality of life and living standards hinge on how rapidly battery technology advances. We are headed for a big liquid fuels shortage. We need a substitute for liquid fuels for transportation.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 29 10:37 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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Life Expectancies Stagnate For Rheumatoid Arthritis Sufferers

Autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis is not just painful and debilitating. Sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis are not benefiting from the rising life expectancies which the rest of the American population is experiencing.

An autoimmune inflammatory disease that takes a progressive toll on the heart, kidney and liver as well as the joints, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is associated with a high risk of early death. This sobering fact is well known. Less is known about whether longevity has improved for RA patients over the past few decades of remarkable improvements in longevity in the general population. Are earlier diagnosis, breakthrough drugs, and more aggressive antirheumatic treatment regimens paying off in terms of survival"

Okay, so RA doesn't just tear up your joints. It attacks your internal organs. No wonder RA sufferers have shorter life expectancies. But has the advance of modern medicine since the late 1950s done anything to increase the life expectancies of RA sufferers? No.

For answers to this vital question, researchers at the Mayo Clinic conducted a sweeping comparison of mortality trends among RA subjects with those in the general population. Their unsettling results, presented in the November 2007 issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism (http://www.interscience.wiley.com/journal/arthritis), underscore the urgent need to find strategies that will work to reduce the excess mortality consistently associated with RA.

Drawn from the comprehensive medical records of all residents of Olmsted County, Minnesota, 822 RA subjects were identified. The subjects included all residents of Rochester, Minnesota, first diagnosed with RA between January 1, 1955, and January 1, 1995, as well as all Olmsted County residents diagnosed with RA between January 1, 1995, and January 1, 2000. The subjects were 71.5 percent women, with a mean age of 57.6 years at RA incidence. All were followed up through their entire medical records until death or January 1, 2007. The median time of follow-up was 11.7 years, during which 445 of the RA subjects died.

Researchers compared the survival rates of patients diagnosed with RA in 5 time periods: 1955-1964, 1965-1974, 1975-1984, 1985-1994, and 1995-2000 using Cox regression models, adjusting for age and sex. In the 5 time periods, there was no significant difference in survival rates for RA subjects—which also means no significant gains in longevity.

Well that's bad. So what to do about it? If you don't already have rheumatoid arthritis (or other auto-immune disorders) then get more vitamin D for reduced RA risk (abstract here). Also, eat less red meat. Reduce your risks of debilitating and life shortening diseases. Eat a better diet.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 29 07:40 PM  Aging Studies
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2007 October 28 Sunday
Venture Capital Start-Up Targets Electric Car Recharging

Time to start planning the infrastructure to support electric cars.

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 28 — Shai Agassi, a Silicon Valley technologist who was in competition to become chief executive of SAP, one of the world’s largest software companies, has re-emerged with a grand plan to reinvent the world’s automobile industry around battery-powered all-electric cars.

Others are developing green cars, like the Tesla and Chevrolet Volt. However, Mr. Agassi is not planning to make cars, but instead wants to deploy an infrastructure of battery-charging

He's got deep pocket investors lined up to the tune of $200 million.

Maybe A123Systems isn't really ready to start selling next gen lithium nanophosphate batteries to GM. But maybe existing lithium ion batteries are good enough for electric cars. Big maybes.

“If you listen to the car companies, they suggest there is a fix, but it’s not there yet,” said Stephen J. Girsky, a partner at the investment firm Centerbridge Partners who formerly served as an adviser to General Motors.

However, the new venture, which Mr. Agassi has named, for now, Better Place, would be viable even with existing lithium-ion battery technology, he said.

To make this venture viable it seems to me pure electric cars are needed. People will recharge their pluggable hybrids at home and run them on gasoline for longer trips. They'll even recharge their pure electric cars at home. So why electric recharging stations? A few reasons: Long trips most obviously. Also, some people live in places where they can't easily recharge while at home. Some people live in apartment buildings. Some park on streets and can't be guaranteed to find a parking space in front of their house. Some live in neighborhoods bad enough that an electric cable running from house to car would pose security problems.

Maybe Agassi can make a business out of home upgrades to install home electric charging equipment for electric cars. That seems like a hard business to do well though.

GM is talking a good game on their Volt pluggable hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).

The Volt’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that there is a lot at stake. G.M.’s environmental image suffered when it backpedaled on plans to build hydrogen-powered cars and stepped away from an earlier battery-powered car, the EV1.

“The company has taken a risk,” said Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt.

GM needs the battery technology to make this happen. They've hooked up with A123Systems as their battery supplier. But can A123Systems deliver? I haven't come across good public information that addresses just where they are at with their lithium nanophosphate battery.

GM is talking a really upbeat line on the Volt pluggable hybrid that they claim will go 40 miles between recharges.

“I’ve been unbelievably enthusiastic about this vehicle,” said Robert A. Lutz, vice chairman for product development at G.M. and arguably the vehicle’s most vocal promoter, despite his reputation as a fan of cars big and fast.

“I would be surprised, shocked and dismayed if we decide not to do it,” he said.

GM's expected battery supplier, A123Systems, has just got another round of VC financing. So are they ready? Have they solved the battery problem?

A123Systems, developer and producer of patent-pending Nanophosphate™ lithium ion batteries, today announced it has completed a $30 million round of funding, bringing the total capital invested in the company to $132 million. A123Systems will use these funds to increase production capacity for new contract awards for hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric and extended range electric vehicle design wins with major automakers including a contract to co-develop proprietary cells for the GM E-FLEX program. A123Systems continues to expand its fast growing power tool battery business with Black & Decker Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of cordless tools, where the company is helping drive the transition from nickel technology to doped Nanophosphate lithium ion technology.

Suppose GM manages to pull this off. I don't see the market for battery recharging stations. People could maybe stand to plug in their car when they get home every night. But they aren't going to go to an electric recharge station 3, 4, 5 times a week to recharge a vehicle that has only 40 miles range in pure electric mode. The Volts with 40 miles electric range will also have a gasoline burning engine to partially power the car and to recharge the batteries while cruising down the road. People will prefer filling up the tank for that engine at a much lower frequency.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 28 11:54 PM  Energy Transportation
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How Big A Carbon Tax To Dampen Gasoline Demand?

An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor discusses the carbon tax idea as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Economists agree that the real cost of burning fossil fuels – damage to the environment and health, not to mention the cost of replacing them as they run out – isn't reflected in today's prices. A carbon tax would directly send a market signal to reduce carbon use. And it would provide an incentive for investment in renewable sources, especially if the tax is set at the source: for natural gas, at the wellhead; for coal, at the mine entrance. Oil would be charged at the refinery because petroleum products create different levels of emissions when burned.

The World Resources Institute calculates that a tax of $15 per ton of carbon-dioxide emissions would double the costs for coal use and raise gasoline prices about 13 cents a gallon (or about 5 percent, at today's prices). Natural-gas prices would rise less than 7 percent. That would result in a 12 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.

So get this: Some carbon tax advocates who want to prevent global warming advocate a carbon tax that will increase the cost of gasoline by a mean 13 cents a gallon. Is that all we are arguing over when we argue about whether to take any expensive steps to stop global warming? I've previously read references to an even higher $30 per ton carbon tax. That's double the $15 per ton and so lets go with that for a 26 cents a gallon increase in gasoline cost. Now we need some historical perspective on gasoline costs to see if 26 cents amounts to much in terms of reduced gasoline demand.

Check out this table of refiner wholesale gasoline costs from 1998 to 2007. Back in the good old days of 1998 gasoline sold at wholesale for a mere 53 cents per gallon. The cost has more than quadrupled to $2.13 per gallon for 2007 and probably right now it is even higher. At the retail level gasoline bottomed out slightly below $1 per gallon in late 1998 and early 1999 and is around $2.80 as of this writing. So the price of gasoline increased by $1.80 per gallon just due to market forces (though by only about $1.50 per gallon if adjusted for inflation). Doesn't that make a 26 cent a gallon increase from a carbon tax seem, well, somehow inadequate for the goal of reduced consumption it is meant to achieve? Recently gasoline demand in the United States went down .2% as compared to early October 2006. The rising price of gasoline has finally stopped consumption growth. But a pretty big increase was necessary to stop consumption growth. If a far larger increase in gasoline prices has only barely stopped gasoline consumption growth why should a carbon tax of 13 or 26 cents a gallon make a big difference? Granted, it will make a difference. But the difference won't be large.

Maybe a carbon tax of between $15 and $30 per ton will have a much bigger impact on the use of coal for electric generation. I'd really like to know how much a dollar of carbon tax increases the price of coal electric per kilowatt-hour. How big a carbon tax on coal would make nuclear power cheaper than coal electric?

But if a carbon tax isn't going to make much difference in US demand far more powerful forces are already pushing up the price of oil, reducing US demand, and these forces promise to push up oil prices even higher. Can anyone guess what I'm thinking about the future when reading this paragraph?

Market Saturation -- The U.S. has reached the unusual position of having more vehicles than licensed drivers -- 1,148 registered personal vehicles (cars and light trucks) for every 1,000 licensed drivers. Britain has 700; Mexico, 208. Brazil has 137 per thousand eligible drivers, and India has 11 per thousand. while China has just nine cars per thousand eligible drivers.

What happens to the price of oil when China reaches 100 cars per thousand eligible drivers? Chinese drivers are going to force US drivers into smaller cars, public transit, electric cars, and electric mopeds.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 28 11:14 PM  Climate Policy
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Mercedes Benz Diesel Hybrids Coming

Mercedes Benz is claiming 35 mpg on the highway for their new E class diesel car.

Since the nation-wide introduction of low-sulfur diesel fuel in October 2006, the E 320 BLUETEC has already been available in 45 U.S. states. The E 320 BLUETEC with its 165 kW/224 hp V6 engine has a fuel consumption as low as 6.7 liters per 100 kilometers (35.11 mpg) and covers a distance of up to 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) on one tank filling. These figures have been impressing American buyers – the proportion of the E 320 BLUETEC in E-Class sales in the U.S.A. is currently as high as 17 percent.

But even more impressive, Mercedes says they are going to come out with diesel hybrids in 2010 and the E class diesel hybrid will get as high as 46 mpg.

The combination of BLUETEC and modular hybrid drive will from 2010 tap additional potential in several Mercedes-Benz model series. This will start with the E-Class whose powertrain with a total output of 164 kW (224 hp) and maximum torque of 560 Newton meters will ensure unrestricted motoring pleasure. The fuel consumption of the BLUETEC hybrid in the E-Class will be as low as 5.1 liters of diesel fuel per 100 kilometers (46.12 mpg). The first gasoline hybrid – the ML 450 – will set a new benchmark among gasoline-engined cars in the SUV segment from 2009 with average consumption of 7.7 liters per 100 kilometers (30.55 mpg).

Granted, the Prius gasoline hybrid gets similar mileage burning gasoline. But the E320 is a bigger car with a much nicer ride and better performance.

These numbers should be compared to the gasoline Mercedes Benz E350 which gets 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. This suggests that a diesel hybrid combination can almost double fuel mileage.

Diesel hybrids will make sense in the post oil peak period. Also, galloping Chinese demand for fuel looks set to drive oil prices even higher.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 28 10:30 PM  Energy Transportation
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In Vitro Maturation Advantages Over IVF As Pregnancy Starter

Here's a technological step that will eventually make offspring genetic engineering easier to do. Though that's not why the technology was developed. In Vitro Maturation (IVM), which involves extracting eggs from an ovary at an earlier stage than In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), has been performed at a British hospital with successful births.

The first British babies - boy and girl twins - to be conceived using a new fertility technique have been born at the John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford.

...

In IVM, eggs are collected from the ovaries while they are still immature. They are then matured in a laboratory for up to 48 hours before being injected with a single sperm - a process called intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). A few days after fertilisation, the embryos are implanted into the mother's womb. Because fewer drugs are used, the cost of each IVM cycle is lower - at £1,700 - than standard IVF which can reach £4,300 per attempt.

IVM also really involves fertilization in vitro (i.e. outside of the body). So it is a form of IVF but called IVM.

IVM is important because it lower costs, reduces pain, reduces time, and lowers risk. Plus, it might work in cases where standard IVF fails. The advances in IVM development fit into a larger trend of improvements in so-called assisted reproduction technologies (ART). The techniques for cost and risk reductions are going to be ready and available when declining costs of gene testing technologies make artificial means of starting pregnancies far more desirable.

The existing IVF procedure requires 5 weeks of taking powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.

In standard IVF, the woman takes fertility drugs for five weeks to stimulate production of her eggs, which are then collected direct from her ovaries under the guidance of ultrasound, before being fertilised in the laboratory. The drugs cost between £600 and £1,500, with charges often higher in London.

The procedure is time consuming and uncomfortable and for the third of women with polycystic ovaries there is a one in 10 risk of severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a dangerous side-effect that in rare cases can prove fatal.

Since IVM will reduce risks and costs more women will opt for medical assistance to start pregnancies. The lowered risks will also play a big role in enabling much more widespread use of in vitro techniques once genetic testing advances to the point that women and couples gain the ability to select desired genetic traits. We need cheap DNA testing first to use to discover what all the genetic variations mean. Then with that knowledge prospective parents will use genetic testing to select embryos for implantation. Then selective pressures on human evolution will skyrocket. I figure given the continued rapid decline in the cost of DNA testing technologies we are somewhere between 5 and 15 years away from that turning point.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 28 08:55 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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Human Migrations Into Wilderness Areas

The wilderness areas around US national forests and parks are going to see a huge surge in human populations in the next 50 years.

PORTLAND, Ore. October 25, 2007. America’s national forests and grasslands provide the largest single source of freshwater in the United States, habitat for a third of all federally listed threatened or endangered species, and recreation opportunities for people (about 205 million visits are made annually to national forests).

These and other benefits could be altered by increased housing growth. The population of the United States is projected to increase by 135 million people between 2000 and 2050. Americans are moving closer to national forests and other public lands because of the amenities they provide. As a result, housing density is expected to increase on more than 21.7 million acres of rural private lands located within 10 miles of national forests and grasslands by 2030, according to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

“Forests, farms, ranches, and other open spaces are rapidly being developed as more people are choosing to live at the urban fringe and in scenic, rural areas,” says Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell. “This development is affecting our ability to manage national forests and grasslands as well as our ability to help private landowners and communities manage their land for public benefits and ecosystem services.”

The full report is downloadable as a couple of PDFs.

Modest proposal: Put a halt to immigration and prevent most of that projected population growth. America doesn't need more people. Neither does the rest of the world. Adding a few billion more to the entire world's human population will only lower our quality of life and drive many species to extinction. More people means bigger footprints of land used by humans rather than wildlife. More people means more competition for dwindling fossil fuels and other resources. More people means more crowded highways and more polluted air.

Humans are driving lots of species extinct.

Hainan, China – Mankind’s closest living relatives – the world’s apes, monkeys, lemurs and other primates – are under unprecedented threat from destruction of tropical forests, illegal wildlife trade and commercial bushmeat hunting, with 29 percent of all species in danger of going extinct, according to a new report by the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC) and the International Primatological Society (IPS), in collaboration with Conservation International (CI).

Titled Primates in Peril: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates—2006–2008, the report compiled by 60 experts from 21 countries warns that failure to respond to the mounting threats now exacerbated by climate change will bring the first primate extinctions in more than a century. Overall, 114 of the world’s 394 primate species are classified as threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List.

Hunters kill primates for food and to sell the meat; traders capture them for live sale; and loggers, farmers, and land developers destroy their habitat. One species, Miss Waldron’s red colobus of Ivory Coast and Ghana, already is feared extinct, while the golden-headed langur of Vietnam and China’s Hainan gibbon number only in the dozens. The Horton Plains slender loris of Sri Lanka has been sighted just four times since 1937.

Many of these endangered species are doomed.

All the people who imagine themselves as greens for advocating biomass energy need to wake up. Lands cleared of tropical forests to make room for agriculture expansion are a major cause of habitat loss. Clearing loands to grow more sugar cane for ethanol just makes that problem worse.

Habitat loss due to the clearing of tropical forests for agriculture, logging, and the collection of fuel wood continues to be the major factor in the declining number of primates, according to the report. Tropical deforestation also emits 20 percent of total greenhouse gases that cause climate change, which is more than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains and airplanes combined.

See the bottom of this page for pictures of threatened species.

A new UN report sees only unfavorable trends on major issues related to nature.

Since 1987 annual emissions of carbon dioxide—the leading greenhouse gas warming the globe—have risen by a third, global fishing yields have declined by 10.6 million metric tons and the amount of land required to sustain humanity has swelled to more than 54 acres (22 hectares) per person. Yet, Earth can provide only roughly 39 acres (15 hectares) for every person living today, according to the United Nation's Environmental Program's (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook, released this week. "There are no major issues," the report's authors write of the period since their first report in 1987, "for which the foreseeable trends are favorable."

The BBC has some graphs and tables from the Global Environment Outlook. Check out the Biodiversity Ecosystems map for where the damage is greatest. They also have the Global Environment Outlook itself (PDF).

UNEP expects a combination of population growth and rising affluence will triple demand for food. Well, bye bye other species. Good bye animals. Make room for an explosion of human demand on habitats all over the world.

When will environmentalists wake up and remember how back in the 1970s they understood that human population growth is a big problem? When will they regain this lost knowledge?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 28 05:01 PM  Trends Demographic
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2007 October 27 Saturday
Parkinsons Brain Implant Causes Impulsive Behaviors

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) electronic implants to relieve symptoms of Parkinson's Disease causes many patients to exhibit compulsive behaviors.

For those who suffer with the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease, Deep Brain Stimulation offers relief from the tremors and rigidity that can't be controlled by medicine. A particularly troublesome downside, though, is that these patients often exhibit compulsive behaviors that healthy people, and even those taking medication for Parkinson's, can easily manage.

Michael Frank, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for Neural Computation and Cognition at The University of Arizona, and his research colleagues have shed some light on how DBS interferes with the brain's innate ability to deliberate on complicated decisions. Their results are published in the current (Oct. 26) issue of the journal Science.

A recent episode of The Bionic Woman featured people operating under orders from neural implants controlled by terrorists. These Parkinson's patients are behaving differently due to implants. Okay, the connection here is weak. The TV show plot assumes technology that is probably decades in the future.

The electronic implants for Parkinson's mess up the function of the brain's subthalamic nucleus (STN) and that probably causes greater impulsiveness.

DBS implants affect the region of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus (STN), which also modulates decision-making.

"This particular area of the brain is needed for what's called a 'hold-your-horses' signal," Frank said. "When you're making a difficult choice, with a conflict between two or more options, an adaptive response for your system to do is to say 'Hold on for a second. I need to take a little more time to figure out which is the best option.'"

We know that people differ greatly in ability to inhibit impulsive desires to carry out various acts. Do naturally occurring variations in the STN cause the naturally occurring variations in impulsiveness?

The STN, he said, detects conflict between two or more choices and reacts by sending a neural signal to temporarily prevent the selection of any response. It's this response that DBS seems to interrupt. DBS acts much like a lesion on the subthalamic nucleus. Frank's hypothesis predicted that DBS would negate the "hold-your-horses" response to high-conflict choices. Surprisingly, it actually sped up the decision-making process, a signature, he said, indicated of impulsive decision making.

Drugs used to treat Parkinson's also cause behavioral problems, but of a different sort. The Parkinson's drugs appear to prevent learning from negative experiences. Hey, what if some people who aren't even on Parkinson's drugs have a limited ability to learn from negative experiences? That might explain self-destructive behaviors that plague some people.

The tendency toward impulsive behavior in Parkinson's patients is well-documented but only dimly understood. How is the STN involved in decision-making and why should things go awry when you stimulate it"

For those taking them, medications did not slow down decision-making conflict. Regardless of whether these patients are on or off medication, for the purposes of the experiment they looked like healthy people or people who are off DBS.

But what Frank found was that medications prevent people from learning from negative outcomes of their choices. That could be one explanation for why patients develop gambling habits. If you learn from the positive outcomes instead of the negative, it could cause you to become a gambler.

"Whereas the DBS had no effect on positive v. negative learning, but it had an effect on your ability to 'hold your horses,' so it was a dissociation between two treatments which we think reveal different mechanisms of the circuit of the brain that we're interested in.

Know anyone who can't learn from their mistakes? Maybe they've got naturally occurring versions of negative outcomes learning disability.

Here is the abstract and paper.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 27 11:28 PM  Brain Disorder Repair
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Creative Brains Have Different Resting EEG Patterns

A new study attempts to answer the question of whether people who are creative problem solvers have different brain activity patterns than the less creative.

A new study led by John Kounios, professor of Psychology at Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University answers these questions by comparing the brain activity of creative and noncreative problem solvers. The study, a published “Article in Press” in the journal Neuropsychologia, reveals a distinct pattern of brain activity, even at rest, in people who tend to solve problems with a sudden creative insight -- an “Aha! Moment” – compared to people who tend to solve problems more methodically.

At the beginning of the study, participants relaxed quietly for seven minutes while their electroencephalograms (EEGs) were recorded to show their brain activity. The participants were not given any task to perform and were told they could think about whatever they wanted to think about. Later, they were asked to solve a series of anagrams – scrambled letters that can be rearranged to form words [MPXAELE = EXAMPLE]. These can be solved by deliberately and methodically trying out different letter combinations, or they can be solved with a sudden insight or “Aha!” in which the solution pops into awareness. After each successful solution, participants indicated in which way the solution had come to them.

The creative types had patterns of resting brain activity that were different from the patterns of brain activity seen in non-creative types.

The participants were then divided into two groups – those who reported solving the problems mostly by sudden insight, and those who reported solving the problems more methodically – and resting-state brain activity for these groups was compared. As predicted, the two groups displayed strikingly different patterns of brain activity during the resting period at the beginning of the experiment – before they knew that they would have to solve problems or even knew what the study was about.

One difference was that the creative solvers exhibited greater activity in several regions of the right hemisphere. Previous research has suggested that the right hemisphere of the brain plays a special role in solving problems with creative insight, likely due to right-hemisphere involvement in the processing of loose or “remote” associations between the elements of a problem, which is understood to be an important component of creative thought. The current study shows that greater right-hemisphere activity occurs even during a “resting” state in those with a tendency to solve problems by creative insight. This finding suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals, such as in their daydreams, contains more remote associations.

What I want to know: does the creative style of thinking have a genetic cause? If it does then when people start genetically engineering their offspring will they choose the genetic variations that cause creativity more often or less often than it now occurs naturally? In other words, will genetic engineering boost the amount of creative thinking in the world?

Second, creative and methodical solvers exhibited different activity in areas of the brain that process visual information. The pattern of “alpha” and “beta” brainwaves in creative solvers was consistent with diffuse rather than focused visual attention. This may allow creative individuals to broadly sample the environment for experiences that can trigger remote associations to produce an Aha! Moment.

This pattern of diffuse attention reminds me of low latent inhibition. See my post Low Latent Inhibition Plus High Intelligence Leads To High Creativity?

Update: Are EEG patterns sensitive enough to do much categorization of different kinds of brains? Are EEGs an appropriate tool for the research reported above? Or did they just EEGs because they are far cheaper than more powerful alternatives and their results can't be conclusive without use of various brain scanning technologies?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 27 06:23 PM  Brain Creativity
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Most Women Interested In Plastic Surgery

There's no big well of resistance to medical techniques that alter appearances. So people are going to be much more attractive in the future - even before they start genetically engineering their offspring. Most women and a substantial fraction of men are sufficiently dissatisfied with their appearances to consider plastic surgery.

Most women, and large numbers of men, are interested in having cosmetic surgery, UCLA scientists report in the October issue of the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Forty-eight percent of women surveyed said they would be interested in cosmetic surgery, liposuction or both, and another 23 percent said they would possibly be interested.

Among men, 23 percent said they would be interested in surgery, with 17 percent expressing possible interest.

Celebrity use of plastic surgery and TV shows like Dr. 90210 have probably played a big role in bringing about public acceptance of plastic surgery. Women are ready to go under the knife.

"Interest in cosmetic surgery is far more widespread than we had anticipated," said David Frederick, a UCLA psychology graduate student and lead author of the study. "The majority of women expressed some interest in cosmetic surgery, and more than one-third of men expressed some degree of interest, which I found really surprising. We know there is tremendous pressure for women to be thin and have a certain appearance and for men to be fit and muscular, but I would not have guessed that so many people would be interested in surgical body alteration."

In addition, 21 percent of women and 11 percent of men described themselves as unattractive, and 31 percent of women and 16 percent of men reported feeling so uncomfortable in a swimsuit that they avoid wearing one in public, Frederick and his colleagues reported.

The cost of appearance alteration will drop with the development of more automated means to doing surgery. Plus, cell therapies and gene therapies will eventually cut costs even further and reduce the pain and risk of appearance enhancement. The lower costs, lower risks, and lower pain will lead many more people to get their appearances altered.

Over 3% of the American population had cosmetic surgery in 2006.

According to the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, nearly 11 million cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in 2006 — a 48 percent increase from 2000. Roughly 90 percent of cosmetic surgeries in 2004 were performed on women.

Resculpting of bodies will also become more common place as a side effect of the development of rejuvenation therapies. Gene therapy and cell therapy will be developed for rejuvenation. But both types of therapy will allow people to permanently change their hair color, skin color, and other aspects of appearances that are hard or impossible to permanently alter now. Gene therapy and cell therapy will make alterations much easier as well. People who (not irrationally) fear surgery will some day be able to alter their appearances without surgery. As biotechnological advances enable a larger assortment of modifications the appeal of appearance enhancement will grow. Some day natural appearances will become the exception as most people choose to have their appearances altered.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 27 12:28 AM  Bodies Perfected Appearance
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2007 October 26 Friday
India Embracing Nuclear Power While China Sticks With Coal

More coal means even more pollution.

A new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency forecasts India will increase nuclear production eight-fold by 2030 to account for 26 percent of its power grid.

However, China plans to use nuclear power for only 4 percent of electricity generation by 2030. Globally, the IAEA estimates there'll be drop an overall drop in nuclear energy from around 15 percent in 2006, down to 13 percent in 2030.

China's industrialization is one of the biggest threats to the world's environment. If China reversed on coal and shifted toward nuclear we'd be a lot better off.

The ramp-up of coal electric plant construction in the United States might not happen.

Just nine months ago, the federal government listed more than 150 coal-power plants as "in development." Since then, at least 16 have been canceled, and many others have been put on hold, according to data from the US Department of Energy (DOE).

If political pressures against coal in the United States continue to build we will see a lot more nuclear power plants and wind towers.

Back in February 2007 TXU cancelled plans for 8 coal electric plants.

If shareholders approve the acquisition, TXU would back federal legislation that would require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through a cap-and-trade system. It would shelve plans for eight of 11 coal-fired plants that current TXU executives had proposed for Texas and would drop plans to build new coal plants in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The company would also double its spending to promote energy efficiency, to $80 million a year, for five years.

Opposition to coal helps spur development of technologies which can replace fossil fuels. Down with coal. Up with the coming post-fossil fuels era.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 26 12:04 AM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2007 October 25 Thursday
Some Neanderthals Were Redheads

Geico should run a cave man commercial with a red head cave man. Or one of the caveman TV show actors should have red hair.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Ancient DNA retrieved from the bones of two Neanderthals suggests that at least some of them had red hair and pale skin, scientists report this week in the journal Science. The international team says that Neanderthals' pigmentation may even have been as varied as that of modern humans, and that at least 1 percent of Neanderthals were likely redheads.

The scientists -- led by Holger Römpler of Harvard University and the University of Leipzig, Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona, and Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig -- extracted, amplified, and sequenced a pigmentation gene called MC1R from the bones of a 43,000-year-old Neanderthal from El Sidrón, Spain, and a 50,000-year-old individual from Monti Lessini, Italy.

"Together with other genes, this MC1R gene dictates hair and skin color in humans and other mammals," says Römpler, a postdoctoral researcher working with Hopi E. Hoekstra in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. "The two Neanderthal individuals we studied showed a point mutation not seen in modern humans. When we induced such a mutation in human cells, we found that it impaired MC1R activity, a condition that leads to red hair and pale skin in modern humans."

By Randall Parker 2007 October 25 11:39 PM  Trends, Human Evolution
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Two Scientists Predict Climate Models Never Can Be Accurate

Some phenomena of nature are too complex to predict?

It now appears that the estimates will never get much better. The reason lies with feedbacks in the climate system. For example, as the temperature increases, less snow will be present at the poles. Less snow means less sunlight reflected back into space, which means more warming.

These positive feedbacks accelerate global warming and also introduce uncertainty into estimates of climate sensitivity, say Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Lucky (or unlucky) for us, I think we are going to run out of oil before we can melt the polar ice caps. The (not very accurate) models that assume big atmospheric carbon dioxide increases in the 21st century are making an unrealistic assumption. The big run-up in oil prices is signalling the coming end of the oil era. We should move past the oil era debates and start focusing on how to move more easily into the post-fossil fuels era.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 25 11:25 PM  Climate Trends
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2007 October 24 Wednesday
Video Games Reduce Perception Of Social Threats

By learning with video games people can be trained to feel less stress and produce less cortisol stress hormone.

A video game designed by McGill University researchers to help train people to change their perception of social threats and boost their self-confidence has now been shown to reduce the production of the stress-related hormone cortisol. The new findings appear in the October issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"We already knew that it was possible to design games to allow people to practise new forms of social perception, but we were surprised by the impact this had when we took the games out of the lab and into the context of people's stressful lives," said McGill psychology professor Mark Baldwin.

Prof. Baldwin and his team - McGill PhD graduates Stephane Dandeneau and Jodene Baccus and graduate student Maya Sakellaropoulo - have been developing a suite of video games that train players in social situations to focus more on positive feedback rather than being distracted and deterred by perceived social slights or criticisms. The games are based on the emerging science of social intelligence, which has found that a significant part of daily stress comes from our social perceptions of the world.

These video games could be useful.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 24 10:37 PM  Brain Emotions
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Women Who Try To Suppress Chocolate Thoughts Eat More Of It

Expect the "Chocolate Talk Diet" book coming to a store near you.

The researchers found that women who were asked to suppress their thoughts about chocolate consumed 50 per cent more when offered it, compared with women who were told to express their feelings about chocolate.

James Erskine, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, believes his findings may help people who are struggling to give up unhealthy foods or smoking.

By contrast, when men were told to express their feelings about chocolate they ate more of it.

Men who took part in the study were less prone to the effect, instead eating more when told to express their feelings about chocolate.

Hey, maybe the act of expressing their feelings about anything makes guys more anxious and this made them eat more chocolate. I'm only half joking about that.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 24 10:21 PM  Brain Appetite
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Humans Do Not Adjust To Daylight Savings Time

If I was king one of the things I'd do is abolish Daylight Savings Time (though I'd ban car lock and car alarm horn beeping first). In my view Daylight Savings Time is a manifestation of the modern tendency of humans to try to deny their biological nature. No, we can't just en masse shift our sleep cycles without some cost to be paid. I like it when science produces evidence that confirms my intuitions. Well, here is some scientific evidence for the idea that Daylight Savings Time is a bad idea.

In a large survey, which examined the sleep patterns of 55,000 people in Central Europe, Roenneberg’s group now shows that the timing of sleep on free days follows the seasonal progression of dawn under standard time, but not under DST.

In a second study, they analyzed the timing of sleep and activity for eight weeks around each of the two DST transitions in 50 people, taking into account each individual’s natural clock preferences, or “chronotypes,” ranging from morning larks to night owls. They found that the timing of both sleep and peak activity levels readily adjust to the release from DST in autumn, but that the timing of activity does not adjust to the start of DST in spring, especially in those who like to stay up late and sleep in.

“While we generally think that the time changes enforced by the DST transitions are ‘only an hour,’ they have far more drastic effects if viewed in the context of the circadian clock’s seasonal changes,” Roenneberg said. “This seemingly small hour translates to a repeat of 10 weeks in the annual progression of the relationship between our sleep-wake cycle and dawn—four weeks in spring and six weeks in autumn. In effect, it’s as if the entire population of Germany, for example, is transported to Morocco in spring and back again in autumn.”

Indeed, “after taking the seasonal adjustment into account, our results show that the human circadian clock does not adjust to the DST transition,” Roenneberg said. “This is especially obvious in the late chronotypes in spring when one looks at their daily activity patterns. Essentially, their biological timing stays on standard, winter time, while they have to adjust their social schedules to the advanced clock time throughout the summer.”

A lot of high school kids are probably the ones most in need of escape from what some adults foolishly think is a good idea. Forcing kids to adhere to schedules that make them really sleepy in class is a big waste.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 24 10:11 PM  Brain Sleep
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Neural Network For Optimism Found In Brain

If you are feeling optimistic it is all down to your rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and amygdala.

A neural network that may generate the human tendency to be optimistic has been identified by researchers at New York University. As humans, we expect to live longer and be more successful than average, and we underestimate our likelihood of getting a divorce or having cancer. The results, reported in the most recent issue of Nature, link the optimism bias to the same brain regions that show irregularities in depression.

Every report like this one reminds me that we are eventually going to gain the ability to very precisely manipulate our emotions. If we precisely manipulate our own emotions rather than governments or other organizations doing it to us (which is a real possibility) will we become more free?

Anyone want a switch to flip in your brain that activates the optimism circuitry?

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the laboratory of NYU Professor Elizabeth Phelps. The lead author is Tali Sharot, now a post-doctoral fellow at University College London.

The NYU researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain function while participants thought of possible future life events (such as “winning an award” or “the end of a romantic relationship”).

“When participants imagined positive future events relative to negative ones, enhanced activation was detected in the rostral anterior cingulate and amygdala, which are the same brain areas that seem to malfunction in depression,” said Sharot. “Activation of the rostral anterior cingulate was correlated with trait optimism, with more optimistic participants showing greater activity in this region when imagining future positive events.”

What I wonder: can avoidance of depression somehow be uncoupled from optimism? I'm thinking optimism causes people to mispredict the future and make less than optimal choices.

Remember that scene at the end of Life Of Brian when they are all up on the crosses singing? The updated scientific version of the song would go "use your amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulated cortex to always look on the bright side of life".

By Randall Parker 2007 October 24 10:00 PM  Brain Emotions
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2007 October 23 Tuesday
More Megafires In California Future?

The US West might be facing long massive droughts and the megafire problem now plaguing Southern California might portend even worse problems to come.

Longer term, climate change across the West is leading to hotter days on average and longer fire seasons. Experts say this is likely to yield more megafires like the conflagrations that this week forced evacuations of at least 300,000 resident in California's southland and led President Bush to declare a disaster emergency in seven counties on Tuesday.

Hollywood producers ought to start thinking about a movie script where a megafire threatens to burn all of California. But make a movie better than that one where all an earthquake threatened to dump all of the West Coast into the ocean.

Megafires, also called "siege fires," are the increasingly frequent blazes that burn 500,000 acres or more – 10 times the size of the average forest fire of 20 years ago. One of the current wildfires is the sixth biggest in California ever, in terms of acreage burned, according to state figures and news reports.

Megafires seem like a technologically solvable problem. People living in the American West need to start thinking seriously what to do about these fires. Houses can be built with more flame resistant designs and materials. Zoning and forest management practices can reduce the risks as well. Larger amounts of equipment (e.g. airplanes, water trucks) for delivering large amounts of water and flame retardant chemicals can be stockpiled and methods can be worked out to mobilize the equipment more rapidly. Canyon areas could even have water towers and water pumps for delivering much larger quantities of water onto fires.

Malibu seems especially suitable for some large scale projects to extinguish fires. The Pacific Ocean is right there with plenty of water. What is needed is a way to very rapidly pump huge amounts of sea water up into canyons. What would such a capability cost?

These fires don't just create problems while they are burning. The 240,000 acre Zaca fire burned in the hills behind Santa Barbara for months this summer but was put out in early September. The same Santa Ana winds which have been spreading fires down around LA and San Diego have also been blowing up the ash from extinguished Zaca fire. On some recent days that ash has totally hid the mountains behind Santa Barbara from view. I had no idea that airborne ash from an extinguished fire could reach such thick concentrations and cause such limited visibility over such a wide area. The ash gets in one's eyes and makes the air pollution rating very bad.

The ratio of people evacuated to homes burned is instructive. While 1300 homes have burned so far the estimates for evacuees run from a half million to nearly 1 million.

SAN DIEGO — As a dozen fires raged along the coast of Southern California Tuesday for a third day, San Diego County took the brunt of the wind-whipped fury that forced the evacuation of more than 350,000 houses, encompassing nearly 950,000 people based on average household size, including 10,000 evacuees huddled in QualComm stadium.

The massive size of the evacuations argues for the development of much better methods for controlling fires. The economic disruption hundreds of thousands evacuated costs a lot of lost production. How best to minimize the impact of fires in the future? Anyone have some good ideas?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 23 11:14 PM  Dangers Natural General
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2007 October 22 Monday
Educated People Develop Dementia Later But More Rapidly

Any thoughts on the mechanism behind this?

BRONX, NY – People with more years of education lose their memory faster than those with less education in the years prior to a diagnosis of dementia, according to a study by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, published in the October 23rd issue of the medical journal Neurology.

The study included 117 people who developed dementia out of an original cohort of 488. The researchers, led by Charles B. Hall, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology and population health at Einstein, followed study participants for an average of six years using annual cognitive tests. Study participants ranged in formal education levels of less than three years of elementary school to individuals with postgraduate education.

The study found for each additional year of formal education, the rapid accelerated memory decline associated with oncoming dementia was delayed by approximately two and one half months. However, once that accelerated decline commenced, the people with more education saw their rate of cognitive decline accelerate 4 percent faster for each additional year of education. The latter portion of this finding corroborates previous research, which had shown that people with more education had more rapid memory loss after diagnosis of dementia.

Maybe the smarter people can lose more neurons before they show symptoms of decay. Then their disease is more developed when they finally start showing symptoms and by then they are on a steeper later part of the declining slope.

I really want rejuvenation therapies for my brain. I'm so not looking forward to the intellectual decline of old age. But I'm hopeful that the accelerating pace of biotechnological advance will provide solutions before most of us become demented.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 22 11:11 PM  Aging Studies
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Sunglasses Display Heart Rate

The German company Rodenstock has developed what I've always wanted: sunglasses that show you some of your vital signs. But the sunglasses don't yet report your bionic legs moving you at 60 miles an hour.

Sunglasses that can show athletes' performance and heart rate data in their peripheral vision have been developed by a German company.

The sunglasses – dubbed "Informance" – display a stopwatch and heart rate at one edge. The extra components needed to do this add just 7 grams to the glasses' overall weight – which is much less than previous head-up displays.

This is just the start of a trend toward far greater data collection and display power in glasses. Imagine embedded sensors that would report blood chemistry vitals to the glasses by very low power radio signals. Watches will also collect information about blood chemistry and will have sensors that measure chemicals in your sweat.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 22 10:47 PM  Cyborg Tech
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Positive Thinking Does Not Help Survival Against Cancer

Mind over matter can only work by smart minds figuring out how to better manipulate matter.

A patient’s positive or negative emotional state has no direct or indirect effect on cancer survival or disease progression, according to a large scale new study. Published in the December 1, 2007 issue of CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the study found that emotional well-being was not an independent factor affecting the prognosis of head and neck cancers.

We need immune therapies and gene therapies against cancer. We need more science and more biotechnology. Wishful thinking won't cut it.

Cancer kills a lot of people.

Update: Spending more on therapies don't help increase survival times much either.

A new study finds that survival for elderly patients with lung cancer has changed little despite large increases in healthcare expenditures for lung cancer treatment. The study by Harvard University, National Cancer Institute, and National Bureau of Economic Research researchers, published in the December 1, 2007 issue of CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, finds that average life-expectancy rose by less than one month between 1983 and 1997, while costs rose by over $20,000 per patient.

But the study period ended in 1997. The bigger effects of the money come in the longer term.

Lung cancer remains the top cause of cancer death in the United States, with an estimated 160,390 deaths expected to occur in 2007.

The U.S. spends more than five billion dollars a year on detection, determining the disease severity, and treatment of lung cancer. This is a significant increase over the last few decades, mirroring similar increases in general healthcare spending over the same period.

But throwing lots of money at treatments has one really beneficial effect: The lure of that money encourages drug companies and venture capitalists to spend money to develop newer and better treatments. Big markets attract new players. In a way it is disappointing that only $5 billion a year spent on lung cancer in the United States. All else equal I'd rather that the venture capitalists would see lung cancer as a $25 billion a year market. Fortunately the other forms of cancer also cost billions to treat. So we are probably looking at tens of billions a year spent on all forms of cancer. Lots of money for drug companies and VCs to chase.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 22 09:58 PM  Policy Medical
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Sleep Deficiency Causes Emotional Overreaction

Skimp on the sleep and your emotional control will decay.

Without sleep, the emotional centers of the brain dramatically overreact to negative experiences, reveals a new brain imaging study in the October 23rd issue of Current Biology, a publication of Cell Press. The reason for that hyperactive emotional response in sleep-deprived people stems from a shutdown of the prefrontal lobe—a region that normally keeps emotions under control.

The new study from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Berkeley is the first to explain, at the neural level, what seems to be a universal phenomenon: that sleep loss leads to emotionally irrational behavior, according to the researchers. The findings might also offer some insight into the clinical connection between sleep disruptions and psychiatric disorders.

Have a hard time controlling your emotions? Get enough sleep. You can't afford to cut corners on your sleep.

Maybe people become more primitive when they lack sleep.

In the new study, Walker’s team assigned 26 healthy people to either a sleep-deprivation group—in which participants were kept awake for about 35 hours—or a normal sleep group. On the following day, the study subjects’ brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity on the basis of blood flow, while viewing 100 images. The images were at first emotionally neutral, but became increasingly aversive over time.

“We had predicted a potential increase in the emotional reaction from the brain [in people deprived of sleep], but the size of the increase truly surprised us,” Walker said of the study’s findings. “The emotional centers of the brain were over 60% more reactive under conditions of sleep deprivation than in subjects who had obtained a normal night of sleep. It is almost as though, without sleep, the brain reverts back to a more primitive pattern of activity, becoming unable to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled, appropriate responses.

Do we have free will? At best the extent of our free will varies as a function of how much sleep we get, whether we take steroids (roid rage), and countless other influences.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 22 09:46 PM  Brain Sleep
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2007 October 21 Sunday
GE Engineer Sees Competitive Photovoltaics In Under 10 Years

Government incentives in Germany and Japan have created a rapid increase in demand for photovoltaics.

Once the choice only of idealists who put the environment before economics, production of solar panels will double both next year and in 2009, according to U.S. investment bank Jefferies Group Inc, driven by government support especially in Germany and Japan.

A high ranking engineer at General Electric says in some parts of the United States photovoltaics will become cost competitive by 2015.

"At that point you can expect pretty much unbounded growth," General Electric Co's Chief Engineer Jim Lyons told the Jefferies conference in London on Thursday, referring to price parity in sunny parts of the United States by around 2015.

"The solar industry will eventually be bigger than wind."

Solar energy will become bigger than wind for a few reasons. First off, there is more energy outside in the form of photon torpedoes (sorry, couldn't resist) than in the form of air flowing. Wind is just one side effect of heating caused by those photons showering down on the planet. Second, while photovoltaic materials are currently rather expensive they have much greater potential to become dirt cheap than wind towers do. Third, photovoltaic installations hit fewer obstacles. Your neighbors are less likely to mind photovoltaics on your roof (especially when future photovoltaic materials are made to look like roof tiles) than they are a tower sticking up out of our yard 100 feet and making noise as the wind spins the blades.

Here's an example of approaches that hold the potential to make photovoltaics very cheap.

Researchers at Harvard University have made solar cells that are a small fraction of the width of a human hair. The cells, each made from a single nanowire just 300 nanometers wide, could be useful for powering tiny sensors or robots for environmental monitoring or military applications. What's more, the basic design of the solar cells could be useful in large-scale power production, potentially lowering the cost of generating electricity from the sun.

We do not face a general energy shortage. We face a liquid fuels shortage. Solar is going to join wind and nuclear as non-fossil fuels sources of electricity that could replace most of the fossil fuels now used to generate electricity.

Given cheap, dependable, and high energy density batteries we could shift most transportation to electricity and most electric generation to non-fossil fuels energy sources. That is the path we need to follow to the post Peak Oil era.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 21 09:28 PM  Energy Solar
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US West Facing Long Drought?

The US West is in a drought. Lake Mead is only half full. Also, water is getting pumped up from deep aquifers much more rapidly than rain replaces it even when not in a drought. Yet the West's population is growing rapidly and water demand looks set to rise much higher. An article by Jon Gertner in the New York Times Magazine reports on the West's growing water problem.

But recent studies of tree rings, in which academics drill core samples from the oldest Ponderosa pines or Douglas firs they can find in order to determine moisture levels hundreds of years ago, indicate that the dry times of the 1950s were mild and brief compared with other historical droughts. The latest research effort, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in late May, identified the existence of an epochal Southwestern megadrought that, if it recurred, would prove calamitous.

When Binney and I met at Dillon Reservoir, he brought graphs of Colorado River flows that go back nearly a thousand years. “There was this one in the 1150s,” he said, tracing a jagged line downward with his finger. “They think that’s when the Anasazi Indians were forced out. We see drought cycles here that can go up to 60 years of below-average precipitation.” What that would mean today, he said, is that states would have to make a sudden choice between agriculture and people, which would lead to bruising political debates and an unavoidable blow to the former. Binney says that as much as he believes that some farmers’ water is ultimately destined for the cities anyway, a big jolt like this would be tragic. “You hope you never get to that point,” he told me, “where you force those kinds of discussions, because they will change for hundreds of years the way that people live in the Western U.S. If you have to switch off agriculture, it’s not like you can get back into it readily. It took decades for the agricultural industry to establish itself. It may never come back.”

Agriculture uses most of the water. Plus, the agricultural water mostly evaporates. Whereas much of the home use goes out in sewers where it can be recycled. Cut out the East Coast lawns and Western houses could recycle almost all their water usage. But a long drought would drive up food prices and push agriculture toward wetter areas.

Since long droughts are a natural occurrence one will happen sooner or later. But if we heat up the planet (which I still doubt will happen since we are running out of fossil fuels) then the West could get hit by a mega mega drought. We are talking Turbo Drought.

An even darker possibility is that a Western drought caused by climatic variation and a drought caused by global warming could arrive at the same time. Or perhaps they already have.

An extreme drought would cut off electricity from hydroelectric dams of course. But conventional electric power plants also use water. So electric power generation could be cut even more deeply. A drought alongside an ocean at least leaves the potential for desalination. If you can afford to build nuclear power plants near oceans you can use the energy to desalinate ocean water. But Colorado is far from any ocean.

Agriculture would be much harder hit by a big drought. What little water the farmers could get would be worth more sold for residential use. So I would expect farmers to give up farming while residences would convert to heavy recycling of water.

Speaking as someone who lives in the West I see my local utility bill as a disincentive to efficient water usage. First off, the water doesn't cost all that much. Second, the water costs the same whether used in ways that go back down the sewer pipe or used to water lawns. It annoys me to water a lawn and pay more not just for the water but also for sewer service.

But if the goal is to reduce evaporative loss of water then water should cost much more. But here's a twist: the sewer flow should be metered and water that returns out the sewer should reduce the cost of the water. In other words, you should be charged less for water that you return to the sewer system than for water that you use on lawns and gardens.

Cheap solar power (when it finally arrives) will some day provide coastal communities with power to run desalination plants. Solar works well for this purpose because the bulk of the water conversion could be done during daylight hours for use all day long. The purified water could be pumped during sunny days to reservoirs and water towers and then used at night and on overcast days.

Coastal desalinization will reduce the need for river water by coastal communities. That will free up more of the Colorado River water for landlocked states. In fact, landlocked states will probably some day buy water rights from California and California can use the money to fund desalinization operations. So coastal desal will help inland communities.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 21 08:35 PM  Trends Resource Depletion
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Orders Of Magnitude Advances In DNA Sequencing Technologies

An article in The Scientist provides a sense of how much DNA sequencing costs have fallen. At the bottom of that page they show 3 costs from 3 different sequencing instruments for doing a sequencing of the Drosophila fly genome. The established ABI 3730 has a sequencing cost for this job of $650,000. The 454 Life Sciences instrument costs $132,000 for the same job. Big cut in cost, right? But if you paid $132,000 you paid too much. Using the Solexa instrument costs $12,500 for the same job. Wow.

The article states that each of these instruments are more appropriate for different classes of problems. For example, RNA sequencing is one kind of problem and the article reports on a huge advance in how much RNA sequencing one MIT lab can now do with newer machines:

David Bartel at MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and colleagues have been using new sequencing technologies to investigate new classes of small RNAs. With standard sequencing in 2003, Bartel says he was happy to get 4,000 RNAs sequenced. In 2006, using 454 sequencing he could get 400,000, and this year, using the Solexa instrument, he'll get 50 million.

So Bartel is getting 4 orders of magnitude more data per year over just 4 years time. He can ask questions and look for answers in areas that were totally beyond his reach just 4 years ago. Of course 4 years from now he'll be able to ask still more questions he can't ask now and get answers at an even faster rate. This pattern of advance makes me very optimistic about how much scientists and bioengineers will be able to accomplish in 10 and 20 years time. These tools have become so powerful because they've become smaller. The pattern is very similar to the pattern we see in the computer industry. Successive waves of technology become smaller, faster, cheaper, more powerful.

When do these advances reach a point where, say, stem cell manipulation to produce useful therapies becomes really easy? There's a point on the road ahead where therapies we can only dream about today become easy to create. Once we can produce replacement parts using cell therapies and organs grown in vats full body rejuvenation (with the unfortunate exception of the brain) will be within reach. We'll also need really excellent gene therapies to take on the more difficult task of brain rejuvenation. Though cell therapies will still deliver benefits to the brain, for example in the form of rejuvenated blood vessels.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 21 02:02 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Corporate Environmental Greening Seen As Exaggerated

An article in Businessweek challenges the claim by many corporations that they are becoming highly environmentally compatible.

Hailed as an environmental pioneer, FedEx (FDX ) says on its Web site that it is "committed to the use of innovations and technologies to minimize greenhouse gases." With 70,000 ground vehicles and 670 planes burning fuel, the world's largest shipper is a huge producer of heat-trapping gases. Back in 2003, FedEx announced that it would soon begin deploying clean-burning hybrid trucks at a rate of 3,000 a year, eventually sparing the atmosphere 250,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually from diesel-engine vehicles. "This program has the potential to replace the company's 30,000 medium-duty trucks over the next 10 years," FedEx announced at the time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the effort a Clean Air Excellence prize in 2004.

Four years later, FedEx has purchased fewer than 100 hybrid trucks, or less than one-third of one percent of its fleet. At $70,000 and up, the hybrids cost at least 75% more than conventional trucks, although fuel savings should pay for the difference over the 10-year lifespan of the vehicles. FedEx, which reported record profits of $2 billion for the fiscal year that ended May 31, decided that breaking even over a decade wasn't the best use of company capital. "We do have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders," says environmental director Mitch Jackson. "We can't subsidize the development of this technology for our competitors."

Beware of press releases. You all do not see how many press releases I pass on mentioning because I'm skeptical of the claims. Even for some of those I end up reporting on I have serious doubts. Lots of claims aren't going to hold up with time. Even claims of goals already accomplished are often suspect.

The article is full of anecdotal reports of companies which decided even much shorter payback times for boosted energy efficiency were not worth the money spent. That information has important implications. Once oil production peaks and prices go much higher we have many more opportunities to improve energy efficiency once we absolutely need to.

Renewable energy credits (RECs), touted by corporations as a way to offset the pollution effects of electric power they buy from a local utility, sound like a fraud.

Rather than enjoying his role as an REC pioneer, Schendler felt increasingly anxious. In private, he pushed REC brokers for hard evidence that new wind capacity was being built. Their evasiveness gnawed at him. He asked veterans in the renewable energy field whether his marketing message was legitimate. "They laughed at me," he says.

The trouble stems from the basic economics of RECs. Credits purchased at $2 a megawatt hour, the price Aspen Skiing and many other corporations pay, logically can't have much effect. Wind developers receive about $51 per megawatt hour for the electricity they sell to utilities. They get another $20 in federal tax breaks, and the equivalent of up to $20 more in accelerated depreciation of their capital equipment. Even many wind-power developers that stand to profit from RECs concede that producers making $91 a megawatt hour aren't going to expand production for another $2. "At this price, they're not very meaningful for the developer," says John Calaway, chief development officer for U.S. wind power at Babcock & Brown, an investment bank that funds new wind projects. "It doesn't support building something that wouldn't otherwise be built."

The $2 per supposed megawatt hour really does not cause another megawatt hours of electricity to get generated. It has a small effect on the margin. What is the real effect? Does the $2 shift generation of a tenth of a megawatt hour to wind? Or a hundredth? The effect is real but small. The money effectively just buys a corporation the right to claim (though not honestly) that a given megawatt hour was generated for that corporation in order to prevent a megawatt hour from getting generated by burning fossil fuels.

The fact that RECs have become a big deal with lots more money getting spent on them ought to give one pause about other claims made by corporations about how they are becoming very environmentally friendly. If they are willing to deceive us (and probably themselves to some extent) on this what else are they lying about?

The green movement is still scoring some successes in corporations in part because corporations end up examining more proposed investments for reducing energy use and pollution. So more projects are likely to get approval than would be the case were corporaitons not trying to project a nicer image to the public.

We are going to hear more about corporate "green" projects for another reason: More projects will become cost justifiable on an ROI basis as the cost of fossil fuels goes up and as new technologies lower the costs of substitutes. But keep in mind that corporations will implement these projects based chiefly on expected returns on money invested and secondarily based on perceived value for marketing purposes and lobbying purposes.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 21 10:44 AM  Energy Policy
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2007 October 19 Friday
Opposition Builds Against Coal Electric Power Plants

Environmentalists who oppose coal-based electric power generation are beginning to make headway in blocking new coal electric power plants.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment yesterday became the first government agency in the United States to cite carbon dioxide emissions as the reason for rejecting an air permit for a proposed coal-fired electricity generating plant, saying that the greenhouse gas threatens public health and the environment.

The decision marks a victory for environmental groups that are fighting proposals for new coal-fired plants around the country. It may be the first of a series of similar state actions inspired by a Supreme Court decision in April that asserted that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide should be considered pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

This is good news for nuclear and wind power technology suppliers. Take away coal and the most obvious next choice is nuclear for baseload.

The New York Times has an article on the growth of coalitions against new coal electric plants.

Government projections suggest that coal, which provides 50 percent of the nation’s electricity and a quarter of its total energy, will continue to dominate the nation’s energy mix, despite its environmental problems. As of last May, the Energy Department projected that 151 coal-fired plants could be built by 2030 to meet a 40 percent rise in demand for electricity, largely from soaring populations in Western states.

“Coal is still very much alive,” said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.

But opponents of coal plants are winning some battles. Reports from the government, the industry and environmental groups show that at least three dozen coal plants have been canceled or scaled back in the last two years.

The coalitions that form against proposals for coal electric plant construction include ranchers and other rural Republicans in the West. Opposition to coal isn't just found on the left half of the political spectrum.

While coal plant construction will become increasingly limited by environmental opposition in the United States I do not expect this to happen any time soon in Asia. To the contrary, we are probably going to see a continued explosion in Asian demand for coal. The industrialization of India and China is creating huge demand for energy among populations who are not yet affluent enough to place much value in cleaner environments.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 19 11:21 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2007 October 18 Thursday
Sun Exposure Reduces Breast Cancer Risk?

Yet another study on the anti-cancer effects of vitamin D.

A research team from the Northern California Cancer Center, the University of Southern California, and Wake Forest University School of Medicine has found that increased exposure to sunlight – which increases levels of vitamin D in the body -- may decrease the risk of advanced breast cancer.

In a study reported online this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers found that women with high sun exposure had half the risk of developing advanced breast cancer, which is cancer that has spread beyond the breast, compared to women with low sun exposure. These findings were observed only for women with naturally light skin color. The study defined high sun exposure as having dark skin on the forehead, an area that is usually exposed to sunlight.

The scientists used a portable reflectometer to measure skin color on the underarm, an area that is usually not directly exposed to sunlight. Based on these measurements, they classified the women as having light, medium or dark natural skin color. Researchers then compared sun exposure between women with breast cancer and those without breast cancer. Sun exposure was measured as the difference in skin color between the underarm and the forehead.

In women with naturally light skin pigmentation, the group without breast cancer had significantly more sun exposure than the group with breast cancer. The fact that this difference occurred only in one group suggests that the effect was due to differences in vitamin D production – and wasn’t just because the women were sick and unable to go outdoors. In addition, the effect held true regardless of whether the cancer was diagnosed in the summer or in the winter. The difference was seen only in women with advanced disease, suggesting that vitamin D may be important in slowing the growth of breast cancer cells.

“We believe that sunlight helps to reduce women’s risk of breast cancer because the body manufactures the active form of vitamin D from exposure to sunlight,” said Esther John, Ph.D., lead researcher on the study from the Northern California Cancer Center. “It is possible that these effects were observed only among light- skinned women because sun exposure produces less vitamin D among women with naturally darker pigmentation.”

You can get vitamin D from fish or a pill too.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 18 10:53 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2007 October 17 Wednesday
Investment Bubbles Caused By Status Loss Fearing Peers?

Are investment bubbles caused by herds all seeking to maintain relative status vis a vis their perceived peers.

Why do people herd around risky investments, causing "bubbles" that inevitably burst and leave most investors losers in the game? Couldn't the players in the dot.com bust, for example, have seen disaster looming on the horizon? Why did more investors not get out earlier, and why did they continue to pump money into already over-inflated stocks? Similar questions surround the recent bust in the subprime mortgage market.

Two Stanford Graduate School of Business researchers say that what investors fear the most is not the risk of a loss per se, but the risk that they may do poorly relative to their peers. That means even though investments in areas such as new technology may be particularly risky, investors tend to cluster around such pie-in-the-sky opportunities to avoid being the only one in the neighborhood to miss out on the "next big thing."

Think of this in terms of relative status versus absolute wealth. People strongly desire to keep up with and preferably to rise above their peers. When peers are all doing something that might earn big returns this drives the desire to do the same thing in order to avoid falling behind.

If you run with the herd when making investments and you all invest in a big bubble your risk of falling relative to the others in your peer group is decreased. Even though you are investing in a bubble so are your peers. So if you lose they lose. If you all lose equally then you experience no fall in relative status.

If your friends acquaintances get rich they will drive up the price of housing and daycare. You've got to get rich right along side of them or risk getting squeezed out by them.

In three related theoretical studies, Peter DeMarzo and Ilan Kremer, along with Ron Kaniel at Duke University, have discerned that individual investors care deeply about how their level of wealth compares to that of others in their peer group and community. "Investors fear being poor when everyone around them is rich," says DeMarzo, Mizuho Financial Group Professor of Finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

A primary reason for people's concern, they explain, is that the cost of living in any community may depend on the wealth of its residents. The more money people have, the more expensive houses, real estate, daycare, and other necessities and amenities will be. "It's worse to have a lower income in an area where everyone is wealthy than it is in an area where everyone has a similar income as you," says Kremer, Associate Professor of Finance at Stanford Business School.

Using economic models, the researchers have discovered that such external worries have implications for how people invest. Specifically, they motivate people to choose portfolios that look a lot like those of others in their community or professional cohorts. "Such herding around certain investments allows you to combat the fear that everyone else might be betting on the winner while you're not," says DeMarzo.

One of my worries for the future is that as communications technologies enable people to see how more upper class people live then the average feeling of one's internal sense of status ranking will drop. People will tend to see themselves as having lower status than they would have in an earlier era because they'll have more people to compare themselves to. Upper class people get far more media recording them and their possessions. So lower class people will see far more images of upper class people than of lower class people. So lower class people will see more images of people who have higher status. Given the basic human instinctual desire for higher status this . Instead of just comparing oneself to one's neighbors one can feel inferior to a much larger world of higher status people.

Aside: I think one of the reasons some people are doomsters about the future is that a lot of doom fantasies involve bigger losses of status for the wealthy than for the poor. The wealthy have further to fall and in event of an economic collapse the wealthy would experience a much larger decline in status than would poorer people. So a doom fantasy gives some doomsters a form of psychological relief. That doomsters should feel the need for such fantasies demonstrates how market economies fail to supply a way everyone to feel higher in status.

Maybe market economies will some day supply drugs or other therapies that cause people to feel they have higher status even when they don't.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 17 10:22 PM  Brain Economics
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2007 October 16 Tuesday
Low Testosterone Men Die More Rapidly

But levels above average do not help and so don't go hog wild with the testosterone.

Older men with low levels of testosterone may have an increased long-term risk of death compared to men with normal testosterone, according to a new study accepted for publication in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM).

"This is the first report linking low levels of testosterone with earlier death in relatively healthy older men,” said Gail Laughlin, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of California San Diego. “These results do not suggest testosterone supplementation for all older men, because levels above average did not make a difference.”

This study involved 794 men, ages 50 to 91 years, who were living in a southern California community and who participated in the Rancho Bernardo Study in the 1980s. Men whose total testosterone levels at the beginning of the study were in the lowest quartile (<241 ng/dl) were 40 percent more likely to die over the next 18 hears than those with higher levels. This difference was not explained by age, illness, adiposity, or lifestyle.

“We want to emphasize that this is an observational study,” said Laughlin. “We cannot recommend that any man take testosterone based on these results. Only randomized clinical trials can determine whether testosterone supplements are safe and can promote longevity. In the meantime, lifestyle changes to prevent or decrease obesity may also extend longevity."

Approximately 30 percent of men 60 years and older are estimated to have low testosterone, which is often accompanied by symptoms such as low bone and muscle mass, increased fat mass, low energy, and impaired physical, sexual, and cognitive function.

Keep in mind that boosting testosterone might boost your risk of prostate cancer. We need much more detailed information about hormone supplement therapies. Probably they are a net benefit for some people and a net harm for others. We can't predict accurately enough who will gain and who will lose from assorted hormone replacements.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 16 06:00 PM  Aging Drugs
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Low Vitamin D Ups Chronic Back Pain?

If you have chronic back pain ask yourself whether you have enough vitamin D in your blood.

Approximately one in four patients who suffer from chronic pain also have inadequate blood levels of vitamin D, possibly contributing to their ongoing pain, according to a new study. Patients lacking sufficient vitamin D also required higher doses of morphine for a longer period of time.

Researchers recorded the serum vitamin D levels of 267 adults undergoing outpatient treatment for chronic pain, as well as their pain medication (morphine) dose and duration of use, and physical and general health functioning.

Of the patients tested, 26 percent had vitamin D inadequacy. Among these patients, the morphine dose was nearly twice that of the group with adequate vitamin D levels. In addition, the vitamin D inadequacy group used morphine for an average of 71.1 months versus 43.8 months. The vitamin D deficient group also reported lower levels of physical functioning and had a poorer view of their overall health.

It has long been known that inadequate levels of vitamin D can cause pain and muscle weakness, according to the study author, W. Michael Hooten, M.D., medical director, and anesthesiologist at Mayo Comprehensive Pain Rehabilitation Center, Rochester, Minnesota. Previous studies also have suggested that pain-related symptoms of vitamin D inadequacy respond poorly to pain medications.

I think its been a few weeks since I last gave you all a reason to get more vitamin D in your body. Is this nagging doing any good?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 16 05:54 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Cycling Worse Than Running For Bones

Bicycling is not the way to slow down declines in bone mineral density.

The researchers measured bone mineral density in 43 competitive male cyclists and runners ages 20 to 59. Findings of the study included:

  • The cyclists had significantly lower bone mineral density of the whole body, especially of the lumbar spine, compared to runners.
  • 63 percent of the cyclists had osteopenia of the spine or hip compared with 19 percent of the runners.
  • Cyclists were seven-times more likely to have osteopenia of the spine than the runners.

Get out there and pound some pavement.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 16 05:44 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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Twin Brain Scan Studies Find Genetic Influences On Intelligence

Evidence suggests that lots of genetic variations that influence intelligence are waiting to be found.

Evidence is accumulating that brain structure is under considerable genetic influence [Peper et al., 2007]. Puberty, the transitional phase from childhood into adulthood, involves changes in brain morphology that may be essential to optimal adult functioning. Around the onset of puberty gray matter volume starts to decrease, while white matter volume is still increasing [Giedd et al., 1999].

Recent findings have shown, that variation in total gray and white matter volume of the adult human brain is primarily (70–90%) genetically determined [Baare et al, 2001] and in a recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain study with 45 monozygotic and 61 dizygotic 9-year-old twin-pairs, and their 87 full siblings also high heritabilities have been found [Peper et al, in preparation]. Thus, while environmental influences may play a role in later stages during puberty, around the onset of puberty brain volumes are already highly heritable.

The more genes are found that influence intelligence the greater will be the desire of future parents to use reproductive technologies to make little Jill and Johnnie smarter. Reports like this one indicate that we are coming up on a mad scramble to use offspring genetic engineering technologies. Us older people will be dumb compared to the average child born 50 years from now. If you are smart then are you prepared to find yourself in the left hand side of the intelligence distribution? Or do you plan to use cybernetic implants to keep up with the younger generations?

These researchers compared the volumes of a large number of areas of the brain between twins while also testing them for intelligence. They found genetic influences on the brain density of many areas of the brain as well as genetic influences on intelligence.

Although genetic effects on morphology of specific gray matter areas in the brain have been studied, the heritability of focal white matter was unknown until recently. Similarly, it was unresolved whether there is a common genetic origin of focal gray matter and white matter structures with intelligence. In our study involving 54 monozygotic and 58 dizygotic twin pairs and their 34 singleton siblings, verbal, and performal intelligence were found to share a common genetic origin with an anatomical neural network involving the frontal, occipital, and parahippocampal gray matter and connecting white matter of the superior occipitofrontal fascicle, and the corpus callosum [Hulshoff Pol et al., 2006]. For the genetic analyses, structural equation modeling and voxel-based morphometry were used. To explore the common genetic origin of focal gray matter and white matter areas with intelligence, cross-trait/cross-twin correlations were obtained in which the focal gray matter and white matter densities of each twin are correlated with the psychometric intelligence quotient of his/her cotwin.

The results of this study indicate that genes significantly influence white matter density of the superior occipitofrontal fascicle, corpus callosum, optic radiation, and corticospinal tract, as well as gray matter density of the medial frontal, superior frontal, superior temporal, occipital, postcentral, posterior cingulate, and parahippocampal cortices. Moreover, the results show that intelligence shares a common genetic origin with superior occipitofrontal, callosal, and left optical radiation white matter and frontal, occipital, and parahippocampal gray matter (phenotypic correlations up to 0.35).

These researchers aren't doing DNA sequencing because DNA sequencing still costs too much. But with costs of DNA sequencing and DNA testing rapidly falling brain researchers are going to be able to do massive genetic comparisons in 5 to 10 years that will give them a large enough quantity of genetic information to be able to run down and identify the genetic variations that cause differences in brain density, brain volume, and intelligence. Brain scans on much larger sets of twins combined with full genetic sequencing on those same twins will answer many of the questions we have about genetics and intelligence.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 16 05:35 PM  Brain Intelligence
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2007 October 15 Monday
Solar Energy Seen As Really Plentiful

Engineer-Poet explains we will have huge amounts of energy available once photovoltaics become cheap.

Annual energy consumption of the USA is about 98000 kWh of primary energy per capita.  A square meter in the middle of Kansas receives about 1550 kWh of solar energy per year, so an American's consumption represents about 63 square meters of Kansas.  300 million Americans would need about 7300 square miles out of the 81,815 square miles of the state.  Even if you reduced efficiency to 10%, you wouldn't need the entire state.  We probably have enough area under roofs and roads to do the job already, no further development required.

We have PV made of silicon (27% of Earth's crust) and PV made of organics (representing carbon, possibly reclaimed from the atmosphere) on the way.  Carbon nanowires are already better conductors than copper.  Technology inevitably pushes to the limits of science (just compare the 14-inch Winchester disk drives of 3 decades ago to the one in the iPod).  The science we have today is enough to supply an American level of comfort to billions, albeit using renewables rather than fossil fuels.

E-P thinks he knows a way to extract silicon for photovoltaics at a much lower cost. Not sure he's right about that. But I agree with him that it is a solvable problem.

Our problem is not a general energy shortage. What we are hitting is a liquid energy shortage. The development of technologies to allow electricity to substitute more for liquid fuels will allow us to move past the liquid fossil fuels era and enjoy rising living standards. But we might go through a painful transition before the batteries and other elements of our more electrified society come together.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 15 09:53 PM  Energy Solar
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Cancer Death Rate Decline Accelerating

The rate at which cancer death rates decline from year to year has has improved.

A new report from the nation’s leading cancer organizations shows cancer death rates decreased on average 2.1 percent per year from 2002 through 2004, nearly twice the annual decrease of 1.1 percent per year from 1993 through 2002. The findings are in the “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2004, Featuring Cancer in American Indians and Alaska Natives” published online October 15, 2007 (www.interscience.wiley.com/cancer/report2007) and appearing in the November 15, 2007, issue of Cancer.

A featured special section provides the most comprehensive cancer data to date for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) across the United States. Cancer incidence rates among AI/AN men and women varied two-fold among six geographic regions of the country. From 1999 through 2004, AI/AN men from the Northern Plains region and AI/AN women from Alaska and the Northern and Southern Plains regions had higher cancer incidence rates than non-Hispanic white (NHW) men and women in the same areas.

Among the general population, the report shows that long-term declines in cancer death rates continued through 2004 for both sexes and, despite overall higher death rates for men, the declines from 2002 through 2004 were 2.6 percent per year among men and 1.8 percent per year among women. Death rates decreased for the majority of the top 15 cancers in men and women. Important declines were noted for the three leading causes of cancer deaths in men: lung, prostate and colorectal cancers. In women, deaths rates from colorectal cancer and breast cancer decreased, while the rate of increase for lung cancer deaths slowed substantially.

Progress does not run at a constant rate. At some point curing cancer is going to become easy. Looking at big mainframe computer boxes in the 1970s most would not have guessed what was coming. We now can do things with computers that give us enormous power. Microfluidic devices, built using technologies developed in the computer industry, are going to greatly accelerate the rate of advance in medical science and biotechnology. We will gain the ability to manipulate cells and components of cells with the precision needed to figure out and cure cancer. Just as the computer industry has gained the ability to manipulate smaller and smaller pieces of matter so will the biomedical industry.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 15 09:24 PM  Aging Treatment Studies
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2007 October 14 Sunday
Same Sex Couples Travel To US For Designer Babies

The United States has fewer regulatory obstacles to the paying of egg and sperm donors and also of women who basically rent out their wombs for 9 months to bring a baby to term. This is prompting the growth of an interesting form of labor out-sourcing into the United States. Same sex couples from Australia are traveling to the United States to use US egg donors and women who can act as surrogate carriers of pregnanices to term.

SAME-sex couples from Queensland are heading to the US to buy designer babies for up to $133,000 - even specifying the gender they want.

IVF pioneer Dr Jeffrey Steinberg said an increasing number of gay and lesbian Australians were visiting his Californian fertility centre to begin a family and side-step Australian law that prohibits surrogacy.

Converted into US dollars that's about $120k. A sizable amount. Reproduction is big business.

One thought strikes me about reproductive technologies and their costs: We are going to witness DNA testing technologies become more powerful and more useful. We are also going to witness the initial introduction and growth in the power of biotechnologies for manipulating chromosomes and genes in embryos. As these things happen we will see a huge increase in the advantages to be gained from using in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create embryos outside of the womb (aka test tube babies). Yet those technologies will initially become available at high prices. Okay, so who will use them first? Wealthier people.

Since wealthier people will be the first to use reproductive technologies that boost offspring intelligence, make offspring healthier, and make offspring better looking the initial use of such technologies will boost the existing trend toward greater economic inequality. As the first wave of bioengineered children of the upper classes come of age those children will enjoy an even greater advantage over . The upper classes will become much more successful at maintaining multi-generation success stories as they become able to avoid at least some of the regression to the mean toward lower achieving offspring. Many of those who genetically engineering their children will actually produce children who are smarter, more motivated, and more socially adept than the parents of these children.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 14 08:53 PM  Bioethics Reproduction
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Workforce Disabilities From Arthritis

On average 6.7% of the US workforce has arthritis severe enough to limit their ability to work.

Persons who are limited in their work by arthritis are considered to have arthritis-attributable work limitation (AAWL). In the United States, AAWL affects one in 20 working-age adults (aged 18--64 years) and one in three working-age adults with self-reported, doctor-diagnosed arthritis (2). To estimate state-specific prevalence of AAWL and the percentage employed among working-age U.S. adults with AAWL, CDC analyzed data from the 2003 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey. This report describes the results of that analysis, which indicated that the state-specific prevalence of AAWL among all working-age adults ranged from 3.4% (Hawaii) to 15.0% (Kentucky) (median among states: 6.7%) in 2003. Among those with self-reported, doctor-diagnosed arthritis, the prevalence of AAWL ranged from 25.1% (Nevada) to 51.3% (Kentucky) (median among states: 33.0%). In every state, persons with work limitations attributed to arthritis reported being employed less frequently than working-age adults in the state overall and persons with arthritis but not work limitations.

The percentages will rise as average age rises. Therefore the benefits of effective treatments will rise as well. Therefore we stand more to gain from developing treatments as our population ages.

Rejuvenation therapies such as gene therapies and stem cell treatments will some day slash the rate of disability caused by arthritis and could also slash disability caused by other degenerative diseases. We would each suffer less and produce more and make more money and live better lives if those therapies came sooner rather than later. I personally am convinced by the argument that we can stop and reverse aging of joints and of the rest of the body.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 14 06:44 PM  Aging Studies
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Tyler Cowen Speaking at Google On Prizes And Charity

Speaking at Google Marginal Revolutionary Tyler Cowen gave a recent talk about the trade-offs between the use of prizes and grants. It is about 50 minutes long and worth a listen.

The occasion for Tyler to speak about Prizes was Google's announcement of a prize to send a robotic vehicle to the Moon to cruise around. My own negative reaction to that Google moon rover prize was strengthened by listening to Tyler's talk. First off, note Tyler's comments about how advancing science is probably the most productive way to use prizes (and I concur). Well, Google's moon rover prize will not advance science in areas which provide large benefits to the public by much if at all. The prize motivates engineering work which will mostly involve integration and use of existing technologies. The prize won't spur developments into cheaper and more reliable launch vehicles. The prize won't push nuclear propulsion forward for interplanetary travel. The prize won't improve Earth monitoring technologies. But it does help Google's popular image.

Tyler refers to people who argue that prizes should set goals achievable in 4 to 8 years. Well, I think that longer term goal prizes have benefits that are less immediately apparent. For example, an undergraduate or high school student could be persuaded to go into a field of science to achieve some goal in their 30s and 40s and beyond. Also, a prize could offer a series of cash pay-outs for successive goals in a general direction. For example, imagine a prize for photovoltaics where scientists get $1 million or $2 million per additional 1 percent increase in efficiency of light conversion into electricity. I'd really like to see such a prize.

Tyler also observes that if you give to a charity but only do so rarely you will cause them to put you on their mailing list and that could end up costing them more from the repeat mailings than the amount you initially gave. This is an argument for either anonymous giving or at least donation via a method that doesn't give them a mailing address. Also, if you want to save a charity money then contact them and ask them to take you off their mailing list.

Tyler argues that prizes are underfunded because donors don't get as much satisfaction out of sponsoring prizes as from donating grants. So if you want to donate then probably you should donate to a prize rather than to a foundation that gives out grants. If you do not want to grow old and die then donate to the Methuselah Mouse Prize. That prize will accelerate advances that will eventually convince the general public that the defeat of aging is an achievable scientific and biotechnological goal. Pursuit of rejuvenation therapies and the defeat of aging is an area where prizes can make a big difference. If you are interested in both promoting these advances and learning more about this goal then donate $100 to the Methuselah Foundation and get an autographed copy of Aubrey de Grey's book Ending Aging.

Tyler expects donations for prizes to gain at the expense of giving to universities. I think that is a good development. In my view the $34.9 billion Harvard University endowment is a terrible waste of money. The donors are making bad decisions when they give to Harvard. Harvard's endowment keeps growing very rapidly each year due to both great investment managers and large donations. But the same money spent on prizes and grants for research could deliver much bigger benefits.

Tyler makes a great point about the mantra we hear about "caring".

Often the exhortation is to "Care more, care more, care more". But I think that this is often counterproductive. We're just not capable of caring more. We're self-focused. Its often more useful just to admit to yourself "I don't always care that much" and just say to yourself "hey, I don't always care". What happens then. Once yo make that admission charity then becomes an area you can think about again. Because if you're always telling yourself "I must care, I must care" and you don't then thinking about charity makes you feel bad. What you do is you decide not to think about charity very much and and then you don't give a whole lot. So wake up in the morning and say to yourself "I don't care that much". That's the first step toward giving more. That's counter-intuitive. But I think it works.

I've always found the "care, care, care" message obnoxious and somehow dishonest. Most people who tell us this aren't making the level of personal sacrifice I'd expect from people who really believe that caring about the rest of the world is the secret to huge differences in behavior. I do not see them giving all their money to charities. I do not see them deciding to live in a box only big enough for a bed and toilet while they use all their wealth to help others. I do not see them switching into jobs where they can work 80 to 90 hours a week trying to create scientific and technological solutions to all the problems that cause human suffering. Mostly I see them trying to manipulate the rest of us to achieve goals they want to see achieved. That doesn't suggest they think the problems of the poor are so important that they should pay a personal heavy price. So they don't seem so caring about the world's poor as they try to pretend.

More profoundly: I'm skeptical about the efficacy of caring. Sure, some caring helps some amount. But most of the progress that has lifted humans out of short nasty lives has come due to curiosity, desire for fame, desire for higher status, desire for wealth, and other basically quite selfish desires. A focus on encouraging caring seems wasteful because it amounts to trying to tap into the wrong emotion. If your goal is to encourage people to engage in activities that will alleviate human suffering then appealing to their selfish desires and the construction of incentives that will appeal to what really motivates them seems a much more productive approach.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 14 01:28 PM  Worthy Causes
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2007 October 11 Thursday
Chocolate Lovers Have Detectable Metabolic Profile

Chocolate lovers have a metabolic signature that differentiates them from non-chocolate lovers.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2007 — For the first time, scientists have linked the all-too-human preference for a food — chocolate — to a specific, chemical signature that may be programmed into the metabolic system and is detectable by laboratory tests. The signature reads ‘chocolate lover’ in some people and indifference to the popular sweet in others, the researchers say.

The study by Swiss and British scientists breaks new ground in a rapidly emerging field that may eventually classify individuals on the basis of their metabolic type, or metabotype, which can ultimately be used to design healthier diets that are customized to an individual’s needs. The study is scheduled for publication in the Nov. 2 issue of American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research, a monthly publication.

Sunil Kochhar and colleagues studied 11 volunteers who classified themselves as ‘chocolate desiring’ and 11 volunteers who were ‘chocolate indifferent.’ In a controlled clinical study, each subject — all men — ate chocolate or placebo over a five day period while their blood and urine samples were analyzed. The ‘chocolate lovers’ had a hallmark metabolic profile that involved low levels of LDL-cholesterol (so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol) and marginally elevated levels of albumin, a beneficial protein, the scientists say.

The chocolate lovers expressed this profile even when they ate no chocolate, the researchers note. The activity of the gut microbes in the chocolate lovers was also distinctively different from the other subjects, they add.

If people who dislike chocolate take cholesterol-lowering statins then will that increase their desire for chocolate? Or does the chain of cause and effect flow in some different direction?

Does this difference have a genetic cause? Just how many of our preferences and desires have genetic causes?

If we turned on a gene that increases longevity and causes cholesterol to get expelled would we crave more chocolate as a result? At least we'd live longer and therefore would gain more time to each chocolate.

The study focused on a gene called SIRT1, which the researchers found prevents cholesterol buildup by activating a cellular pathway that expels cholesterol from the body via HDL (high density lipoprotein or “good cholesterol”).

“SIRT1 is an important mediator of cholesterol efflux, and as such it's predicted to play a role in the development of age-associated diseases where cholesterol is a contributing factor,” said Leonard Guarente, MIT professor of biology and senior author of a paper on the work to be published in the Oct. 12 issue of Molecular Cell.

Drugs that enhance the effects of SIRT1 could lower the risk of cholesterol-related diseases, Guarente said. Potential drugs could be based on polyphenols, which are found in red wine and have been shown to enhance SIRT1. However, the quantities naturally found in red wine are not large enough to have a significant impact on cholesterol levels.

In earlier studies, Guarente has shown that high levels of SIRT1 can be achieved with extreme calorie restriction, but that is unappealing for most people.

Would taking resveratrol increase one's desire for chocolate?

But there is a downside to tuning your metabolism to crave chocolate. Chocolate lovers can be bribed with chocolate.

"Student evaluations of a professor have major influence on what happens to the professor's career - whether a university or college chooses to retain him, give him tenure and even teaching assignments," Youmans said. "We began wondering if outside influences could affect how students rated a professor. People pride themselves in being fair and objective when they are asked to give an assessment of someone else's performance, such as evaluating a professor. But what if they really aren't being objective? What if something else could influence their judgments?"

To test their theory, Youmans visited undergraduate classes with laboratory sections, study sections led by a teaching assistant that drew students from a larger lecture into two smaller groups. In one group, Youmans passed out the evaluations and collected them when the students were finished. In the second group, when it was time for the students to assess their professor's performance, Youmans repeated what was done in the first class, except he offered the students chocolate, saying it was leftover from a prior event, while passing out the evaluations.

Youmans and Jee repeated the experiment in three different classes, and each time the result was the same: The groups that received the offer of chocolate gave their professors higher ratings than the groups that were not offered candy, even though students from either group were rating a class and instructor that they had experienced together.

"I should point out that not everyone in the classes offered chocolate took the candy. Also, we made it clear in all the classes that we were not affiliated with the professor, just 'strangers' asked to pass out and retrieve the evaluations," Youmans said. "But we found that the good feelings brought on by the offer of chocolate from a complete stranger, even in those students who didn't accept the candy, affected the professors' evaluations in a positive way."

So if you need someone to maintain their objectivity be aware of the danger chocolate poses to the human capacity to render objective judgments.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 11 10:44 PM  Aging Diet Resveratrol
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2007 October 10 Wednesday
Adult Stem Cells Do Not Express Embryonic Gene For Pluripotency

The evidence suggests that adult stem cells do not express a crucial gene that prevents embryonic cells from specializing.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (October 10, 2007) – The protein Oct4 plays a major role in embryonic stem cells, acting as a master regulator of the genes that keep the cells in an undifferentiated state. Unsurprisingly, researchers studying adult stem cells have long suspected that Oct4 also is critical in allowing these cells to remain undifferentiated. Indeed, more than 50 studies have reported finding Oct4 activity in adult stem cells.

But those findings are misleading, according to research in the lab of Whitehead Member Rudolf Jaenisch.

In a paper published online in Cell Stem Cells on October 10, postdoctoral fellow Christopher Lengner has shown that Oct4 is not required to maintain adult stem cells in their undifferentiated state in mice, and that adult tissues function normally in the absence of Oct4. Furthermore, using three independent detection methods in several tissue types in which Oct4-positive adult stem cells had been reported, Lengner found either no trace of Oct4, or so little Oct4 as to be indistinguishable from background readings.

This means that pluripotency, the ability of stem cells to change into any kind of cell, is regulated differently in adult and embryonic stem cells.

“This is the definitive survey of Oct4,” says Jaenisch, who is also an MIT professor of biology. “It puts all those claims of pluripotent adult stem cells into perspective.”

Why does this matter one whole heck of a lot? If we could turn adult stem cells into pluripotent stem cells (i.e. into stem cells that can then become all other types of cells in the body) then we might not need embryonic stem cells for that purpose. If we could reduce the need for embryonic stem cells then research into pluripotent stem cells would probably progress more rapidly.

Cellular differentiation is the process by which stem cells become specialized cell types such as muscle cells, nerve cells, skin cells, and liver cells. Research into genes that control differentiation is also generally useful for efforts to develop replacement organs and other replacement body parts. We need to know how all the genes that regulate differentiation interact with each other in complex signaling networks. We also drugs, gene therapies, techniques that can control the process of cellular differentiation. The ability to control cellular differentiation will give us replacement parts as our bodies wear out.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 10 08:58 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2007 October 09 Tuesday
Blood Vessels Grown From Human Skin Tissues

Cells taken from a person can be grown into blood vessels and reimplanted into the same person. This avoids immune rejection problems.

From a snippet of a patient’s skin, researchers have grown blood vessels in a laboratory and then implanted them to restore blood flow around the patient’s damaged arteries and veins.

It is the first time blood vessels created entirely from a patient’s own tissues have been used for this purpose, the researchers report in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Cytograft Tissue Engineering of Novato, Calif., made the vessels, in a process that takes six to nine months.

The repair and replacement of worn out and broken parts is the future of medicine. The accumulation of techniques for replacing old parts will eventually lead to the halting and reversal of the aging process. This report is one step down the road toward full body rejuvenation.

If you read the full article above you'll learn that the first experimental subjects for a Novato California company were in Argentina - not exactly close by. I suspect this says something about medical regulation in America today. The Argentines were on hemodialysis for kidney failure and had what the report below characterized as "typical risk factors for end-stage renal disease". You might expect regulatory agencies to grant greater freedom of action to try out new treatments on people who are looking death in face. But this company used subjects from another country. I fear excessive regulatory obstacles in the way of new treatment development are costing lots of lives.

See the correspondence the experimenters sent to The New England Journal of Medicine entitled Tissue-Engineered Blood Vessel for Adult Arterial Revascularization.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 09 06:11 PM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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Video Viewing Not Seen As Benefit For Baby Learning

Special videos not magic mental development tool for babies.

The Seattle team surveyed more than 1,000 families in February 2006 and found that infants between 8 and 16 months who regularly watched Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos knew substantially fewer words -- six to eight out of 90 -- than infants who did not watch them, according to parental reports. The deficit, which increased with each hour of video viewing, was not seen among babies who watched other programming, such as "Sesame Street" or "SpongeBob SquarePants" or adult shows such as "Oprah."

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, is the first to examine the impact of videos that have been heavily promoted as educational, according to lead author Frederick J. Zimmerman, a University of Washington associate professor of public health and pediatrics. Zimmerman called the negative effect "large and significant" but said the study stopped short of establishing a causal connection.

I would expect babies to learn more from interacting with humans since interactions provide feedbacks on what they do.

What is striking to me about a story like this one is the lengths that some people will go to try to boost the mental development of little Johnnie and Jill. Imagine what parents will do once real mental boosting biotechnologies become available. A drug that boosts IQ by 10 points if taken for several years during childhood would be a big seller. But at least in some of the Western industrialized countries getting such drugs approved will be very difficult. The problem of how to prove safety is enormous. This leads me to expect bigger IQ boosts will happen in less developed countries which lack big drug regulatory agencies.

Much bigger IQ boosts will become available via genetic tinkering at the time of conception. The use of multiple embryos with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (aka PIGD or PGD) to choose the potentially smartest embryo will a face fewer regulatory obstacles than the use of gene therapy to modify embryo genes. But the latter will offer far greater potential for intellectual boosting once scientists identify all the genetic variations that influence intelligence and once embryo genetic engineering techniques become fairly mature and safe.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 09 05:21 PM  Brain Development
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2007 October 08 Monday
Low Glycemic Index Diet Delays Macular Degeneration

Avoid the carbohydrates which digest quickly and your eyes won't age as rapidly.

Eating fewer refined carbohydrates may slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), according to a new study from researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

AMD results in partial or total blindness in 7 to 15% of the elderly, according to the Eye Diseases Prevalence Research Group. “Dietary changes may be the most practical and cost-effective prevention method to combat progression of AMD,” says Allen Taylor, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Nutrition and Vision Research at the USDA HNRCA. “It is surprising there is so little attention focused on the relationship between AMD and carbohydrates.”

The current study, published in the October issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, builds on a recent analysis by Taylor and colleagues that found men and women older than 55 who consumed diets with higher-than-average dietary glycemic index foods appeared to have an increased risk for both early and later stages of AMD.

Eat less white bread and more whole grains. Or shift from grains toward beans and the lower glycemic index rices (not that fluffy stuff you find in Chinese restaurants).

A lower glycemic index diet which slows and delays development of AMD probably has more general effects on the rate of aging through out the body.

“Our data showed those people in the high-glycemic-index group were at greater risk of AMD progression, especially those already in the late stages,” says first author Chung-Jung Chiu, DDS, PhD, scientist in the Laboratory for Nutrition and Vision Research at the USDA HNRCA and assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. “Participants who consumed the most refined carbohydrates were 17 percent more likely to develop blinding AMD than the group that consumed the least.”

If you can slow your rate of aging by a small amount doing so might allow you to live long enough to still be alive and mentally mostly intact by the time rejuvenation therapies become available. If you want to shift toward a lower glycemic index diet then see this chart of glycemic index in foods.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 08 09:52 PM  Aging Diet Eye Studies
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Single Shot Gene Therapy Spreads Through Mouse Brain

The brain, not space, is the final frontier. Our brains are all growing old and are the hardest part of the body to repair and rejuvenate. We need gene therapy to do brain rejuvenation. So I'm always happy to come across reports on advances in brain gene therapy. Some researchers have found a way to get really good coverage of gene therapy delivered in to the brains of mice.

By targeting a site in a mouse brain well connected to other areas, researchers successfully delivered a beneficial gene to the entire brain—after one injection of gene therapy. If these results in animals can be realized in people, researchers may have a potential method for gene therapy to treat a host of rare but devastating congenital human neurological disorders, such as Tay-Sachs disease.

Researchers from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania reported their findings in the September 12 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

“After a single injection, this technique succeeded in correcting diseased areas throughout the brain,” said study leader John H. Wolfe, V.M.D., Ph.D., a neurology researcher at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pathology and medical genetics at the Penn School of Veterinary Medicine. “This may represent a new strategy for treating genetic diseases of the central nervous system.”

Wolfe and Penn graduate student Cassia N. Cearley performed the study in mice specially bred to have the neurogenetic disease mucopolysaccharidosis type VII (MPS VII). In people, MPS VII, also called Sly syndrome, is a rare, multisystem disease causing mental retardation and death in childhood or early adulthood.

The fact that this gene therapy worked against a lysosomal storage disorder is reason for optimism for brain rejuvenation gene therapies.

Sly syndrome is one of a class of some 60 disorders called lysosomal storage diseases that collectively cause disabilities in about one in 5,000 births. Those diseases account for a significant share of childhood mental retardation and severe, often fatal, disabilities. In each of the lysosomal storage diseases, a defect in a specific gene disrupts the production of an enzyme that cleans up waste products from cells. Cellular debris builds up within cell storage sites called lysosomes, and the waste deposits interfere with basic cell functions. Other examples of lysosomal storage diseases are Tay-Sachs disease, Hunter disease and Pompe disease.

One of Aubrey de Grey's proposed SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) therapies involves sending genes into cells to enhance lysosomal breakdown of accumulated trash. Basically, use genes from other species to help take out the cellular trash. A successful gene therapy that moves into large numbers of brain cells to enhance lysosomal function would be a step in the right direction for future development of SENS therapies.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 08 08:05 PM  Biotech Gene Therapy
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2007 October 07 Sunday
Single Mutation In Bird Flu Adapts To Upper Respiratory Tract

H5N1 avian influenza hasn't spread into humans on a pandemic scale yet because it is not well adapted to spread between humans. In birds it reproduces in a warmer environment and so has genetic variations that make it thrive better at warmer temperatures. However, scientists have now discovered a single mutation that better adapts bird flu to the lower temperatures of the human upper respiratory tract.

MADISON - Since it first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, the H5N1 avian flu virus has been slowly evolving into a pathogen better equipped to infect humans. The final form of the virus, biomedical researchers fear, will be a highly pathogenic strain of influenza that spreads easily among humans.

Now, in a new study a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report the identification of a key step the virus must take to facilitate the easy transmission of the virus from person to person.

Writing today (Oct. 4, 2007) in the journal Public Library of Science Pathogens, a team of researchers led by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine has identified a single change in a viral protein that facilitates the virus' ability to infect the cells of the upper respiratory system in mammals. By adapting to the upper respiratory system, the virus is capable of infecting a wider range of cell types and is more easily spread, potentially setting the stage for a flu pandemic.

A worldwide flu pandemic of highly lethal virus would certainly up-end our lives in a big way. Your odds of survival would go up substantially if you could find a way to stay home for several months and rarely go to stores and other places with people.

A single H5N1 virus mutation found in one patient gave the virus the ability to survive in the cooler temperatures of the upper respiratoy system.

The new study involved two different viruses isolated from a single patient -- one from the lungs, the other from the upper respiratory system. The virus from the upper respiratory system exhibited a single amino acid change in one of the key proteins for amplification of influenza virus genes.

The single change identified by the Wisconsin study, says Kawaoka, promotes better virus replication at lower temperatures, such as those found in the upper respiratory system, and in a wider range of cell types.

Kawaoka expects H5N1 to eventually get the other mutations needed to spread in humans. By that time will we have good technologies for rapidly scaling up vaccine production? If not then the best response I can think of that would minimize economic disruption and loss of life is what I call workplace cocooning. Work and live in the same place, whether that be at home or in a building converted into a live-in workpace.

You can read the full research paper at Plos Pathogens: Growth of H5N1 Influenza A Viruses in the Upper Respiratory Tracts of Mice.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 07 09:54 PM  Pandemic Signs
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2007 October 06 Saturday
US Home Solar Installations Up But Still Small

Rooftop photovoltaic installs are still a drop in the bucket.

Photovoltaic cells, most of which are made from silicon, have exploded in use around the country over the past five years as once-prohibitive costs for home use of the technology have declined. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of new photovoltaic systems installed in U.S. homes nearly tripled to 7,446 from 2,805, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council in Latham, N.Y. Industry officials say that such installations are expected to top 11,000 this year.

To put this in perspective the United States has about 70 million single family detached housing units. The yearly installation rate would have to go up by a factor of over 6000 to reach 1% of the existing single family home housing units per year (more for attached townhouses, apartment buildings, and other housing structures).

A large portion of solar costs involve come from installation and so methods to make installation faster and simpler could cut costs substantially.

Sun Run's contract--called a purchased power agreement--won't eliminate the initial cost of getting solar electricity. But it will reduce by about 60 percent the pain of shelling out anywhere from $20,000 to $35,000 for solar panels, according to the company.

...

Akeena Solar's Andalay panel is supposed to cut installation time from four hours to 30 minutes. It's also meant to be more attractive and look like a skylight.

Sharp Solar, the largest solar panel maker in the world, has started to promote a pre-fab solar system to the U.S. market.

Ultimately what we need are photovoltaic shingles or tiles so that putting a new roof on a house installs photovoltaic materials. That would make most of photovoltaic installation cost just part of the existing cost of roofing installs.

Increasing demand for solar power,engineered by governments, has kept solar prices stable over the last 12 months. Prices have stayed close to $5-6/watt.

In 2005, silicon solar cell production was measured at 1.7 Gigawatts (GW) globally. That number is expected to grow to 10 GW by 2010. At the same time the electronic sector is growing at a five percent annual rate.

Another source shows solar module prices have risen about 11 percent in the last 3 years. That's a little higher than the overall rate of inflation. So we are not on a downward trend in solar photovoltaic prices. Government-engineered increase in demand (especially in Germany which accounts for half of all photovoltaic demand

Most of the decline in photovoltaics prices occurred before 1987. But this latest surge in demand for solar, especially in Germany, is driving a big increase in manufacturing capacity. Costs should drop once production capacity catches up with government-caused increases in demand.

If a photovoltaics manufacturer achieves a really big breakthrough in costs we should see a much more rapid increase in manufacturing capacity and a big drop in prices.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 06 09:05 PM  Energy Solar
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More Fish For Pregnant Women?

More fish for developing fetuses?

Washington, D.C. ---- Today a Maternal Nutrition Group comprised of top professors of obstetrics and doctors of nutrition from across the country, in partnership with the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB), unveiled recommendations for seafood consumption during pregnancy. The recommendations come at a time when the debate about mercury in fish and an FDA/EPA advisory have created confusion for pregnant women, causing a reduction in their fish consumption. This leads to inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids resulting in risks to their health and the health of their children. This inadequate intake of fish is confirmed by data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which shows that 90 percent of women are consuming less than the FDA-recommended amount of fish.

The Group recommended that women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding should eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, and can do so safely. The Group found that eating fish is the optimal way to gain the benefits of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Seafood is the richest dietary source of DHA and EPA in Americans’ diets. The Group also recognized that selenium, an essential mineral found in certain ocean fish, accumulates and appears to protect against the toxicity from trace amounts of mercury.

This advice is controversial and disputed by some. Also see here. Currently the US Food and Drug Administration recommends a maximum of 12 ounces of low mercury fish for pregnant women. But given the enormous range of mercury concentrations found in different fish species I think their advice should have been more nuanced. What is the justification for restricting salmon consumption to 12 ounces per week for example? Salmon is one of the richest omega 3 sources (and yours truly eats it 5 times a week on average) and salmon has very little mercury in it.

Omega 3 fatty acids are likely to boost baby intelligence, reduce the incidence of auto-immune diseases, delay Alzheimer's disease, reduce risk of macular degeneration, and reduce all-cause mortality. Omega 3s also appear to reduce depression and increase brain grey matter. Also, in practice the omega 3 fatty acids in fish seem to benefit babies more than the mercury might hurt them. My take: Omega 3 fatty acids deliver so many health benefits and fish sources are in such limited supply that we need seed companies to genetically engineer into grains the enzymes for making omega 3 fatty acids. Or how about transgenic pigs that make omega 3 fatty acids?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 06 04:52 PM  Brain Development
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72 Year Old Sperm Donor To Father His Grandchild

His son can't get the son's wife pregnant and so dad is going to do the job.

A 72-year-old man is due to become the father of his own "grandchild" by acting as a sperm donor for his daughter-in-law. The case is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK. The government's fertility watchdog said there was a "handful" of men over 65 on the sperm register, but some fertility experts are worried that the couple are being subjected to undue risks because the sperm is likely to have many genetic mutations accumulated during the donor's life.

Yes, there are greater risks of genetically caused disease as sperm get older. But there's another more interesting angle here: This isn't genetically incestuous since he's knocking up his daughter-in-law. But a man was going to donate sperm to his daughter. There's a big taboo against that for a couple of reasons, most obviously because recessive harmful genes are more likely to pair up and cause genetic diseases when closely related people mate.

But imagine that a brother and sister or father and daughter used genetic testing combined with in vitro fertilization to select fertilized eggs (i.e. embryos) that do not have have harmful recessive gene pairings. The resulting child won't suffer from the genetic effects of very genetically close mating. Would you think that laws against incestuous mating should still be enforced against such pairings?

Genetically safe mating of closely related people is still a hypothetical case today. But that won't always be the case. Given the rate of advance in genetic testing technologies and the accumulating evidence on the significance of human genetic differences I expect within 20 years time if not sooner we'll know enough to avoid harmful recessive pairings. At that point should incestuous mating between consenting adults remain illegal?

There's a sociobiological argument against genetically very close mating: the mating creates tribal and family divisions in society and reduces what some political scientists call "social capital". I think genetic engineering is going to create divisions between groups of humans more severe than even the existing tribal divisions that are at least partially genetic in origin.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 06 10:08 AM  Bioethics Reproduction
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2007 October 04 Thursday
Fuel Efficiency Decline Reverses In United States

The long term trend toward lower fuel efficiency cars in the United States appears to have stopped and slightly reversed in the face of more expensive gasoline and diesel fuel.

Compared with 1987, the average weight of the vehicle we drive has risen by 923 pounds, or 29%. The average time it takes for a vehicle to go from zero to 60 miles per hour time has dropped to 9.6 seconds -- the fastest since the EPA started compiling this data in 1975. Our average car or truck has 223 horsepower, and the most horsepower per pound on record.

There is some good news: The 17-year decline in the average fuel efficiency of America's new car fleet that began in 1987 appears to have stopped. The EPA forecasts that the average fuel economy of 2007 model cars and trucks will be 20.2 miles per gallon, the same as 2006 and slightly better than 19.9 mpg measured for 2005. That would make three straight years when the new vehicle fleet's fuel economy was no worse, or slightly better, than it was in 2004.

The writer is getting this information from a new US Environmental Protection Agency report Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2007.

The rise in vehicle weights and decline in fuel efficiency were mostly the result of rising affluence. If inflation adjusted fuel prices stay the same (and fuel prices both declined and rose during the study period) rising incomes will enable people to spend more on fuel. It takes declining living standards or large rises in fuel prices to change consumer demand. Taxes and regulations on gas guzzlers can force people toward more fuel efficient vehicles even if gasoline and diesel stay relatively cheap.

Of course, oil prices have quadrupled in the last 8 years and my guess is they are going to go much higher.

So should we be worried or angry that fuel efficiency of US cars and trucks got worse for so many years? Is the poor fuel efficiency of 4000 lb cars reason to expect US society to collapse once world oil production starts declining a few percent per year and oil exports start declining 5 per cent per year? Is doom and gloom straight ahead?

My take: Our profligate use of energy is a reason for optimism. That the average light duty vehicle sold in the US in 2007 weighed 4144 lb (up from 3221 lb in 1987 in spite of materials advances) means that we could greatly increase fuel efficiency by riding around in 2600 lb vehicles and still live fairly comfortably and drive quite a lot. That car acceleration from 0 to 60 mph increased from 14.4 seconds in 1975 to 9.6 seconds in 2007 means we could go back to 1975 rates of acceleration and gain even more fuel efficiency. Plus, we could switch to diesel hybrids and gain even more fuel efficiency. We could do all this before embracing pluggable hybrid electric vehicles. So it seems we could adjust to a halving of our current rate of oil consumption and still live pretty well.

A lot of people who forecast Peak Oil hitting either starting a couple of years ago or Real Soon Now will give you a very doomster view of the future. But especially for the countries that have the highest living standards there are huge margins for adjustment. Living standards will take a hit while we migrate to an electric economy and spend on efficiency enhancing technologies. But we have lots of suitable technology to help make the adjustments and more technological advances in the pipeline.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 04 07:24 PM  Energy Transportation
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2007 October 03 Wednesday
Extraction Of Carbon Dioxide From Atmosphere Seen Possible

Frank Zeman and Klaus Lackner have proposed a way to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to prevent global warming, but at what cost?

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is the subject of a prize announced earlier in 2007 by British entrepreneur Richard Branson. Branson pledged to award $25 million to anyone who can develop a scheme for removing at least one billion tonnes of the gas from the atmosphere every year, for a decade.

So, together with Klaus Lackner, a former colleague at Columbia University, Zeman devised a new way of scrubbing CO2 from air. He has also performed calculations, published in Environmental Science & Technology, which suggest that the new method is efficient enough to justify its use.

The process involves pumping air from the atmosphere through a chamber containing sodium hydroxide, which reacts with the CO2 to form sodium carbonate. This carbon-containing solution is then mixed with lime to precipitate powdered calcium carbonate – a naturally occurring form of which is limestone. Finally, the "limestone" is heated in a kiln releasing pure CO2 for storage.

If the kiln's heat came from a nuclear power plant then no fossil fuels would be needed to make this system work. But I would advice replacing existing coal, natural gas, and oil-powered electric power plants with nuclear power plants before using nuclear power to extract CO2 from the atmosphere.

The lower the cost of non-fossil fuels energy generation falls the more practical and affordable atmospheric CO2 extraction becomes. Nanotech replicators to build solar photovoltaics panels will some day make atmospheric CO2 extraction extremely cheap to do.

If we needed to cool down the planet in a hurry we have much cheaper options.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 03 04:57 PM  Climate Engineering
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India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Kill Over Billion People

A nuclear war between Pakistan and India would kill over a billion people just from starvation.

"An Assessment of the Extent of Projected Global Famine Resulting from Limited, Regional Nuclear War" by Dr Ira Helfand, an emergency medicine specialist from Massachusetts, projects "a total global death toll in the range of one billion from starvation alone."

So glad I do not live in one of the countries that would face massive starvation.

World grain stores are low and the planet would cool down.

Earlier studies have suggested that such a conflict would throw five million tonnes of black soot into the atmosphere, triggering a reduction of 1.25°C in the average temperature at the earth's surface for several years. As a result, the annual growing season in the world's most important grain-producing areas would shrink by between 10 and 20 days.

Helfand points out that the world is ill-prepared to cope with such a disaster. "Global grain stocks stand at 49 days, lower than at any point in the past five decades," he says. "These stocks would not provide any significant reserve in the event of a sharp decline in production. We would see hoarding on a global scale."

So if we implemented climate engineering projects to cool down the Earth by a similar amount we'd cause a lot of starvation.

Also, a bunch of small nukes would destroy a large fraction of the ozone layer.

Another study being unveiled at today's conference suggests that the smoke unleashed by 100, small, 15 kiloton nuclear warheads could destroy 30-40% of the world's ozone layer. This would kill off some food crops, according to the study's author, Brian Toon, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Colorado in Boulder, US.

I bet a lot of species would go extinct as well. Human hunger would lead to more hunting of animals.

So is it conceivable that India and Pakistan would ever duke it out with nuclear weapons?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 03 04:44 PM  Dangers Nuclear Warfare
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2007 October 02 Tuesday
Micro-Incubator For Cells Automates Experiments

Silicon technology applied to microfluidics is going to revolutionize biological science.

Integrating silicon microchip technology with a network of tiny fluid channels, some thinner than a human hair, researchers at The Johns Hopkins University have developed a thumb-size micro-incubator to culture living cells for lab tests.

In a recent edition of the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems, the Johns Hopkins researchers reported that they had successfully used the micro-incubator to culture baby hamster kidney cells over a three-day period. They said their system represents a significant advance over traditional incubation equipment that has been used in biology labs for the past 100 years.

"We don't believe anyone has made a system like this that can culture cells over a period of days autonomously," said Jennifer Blain Christen, lead author of the journal article. "Once it's set up, you can just walk away."

Note the lack of need for daily labor-intensive care. The system is automated. Automation speeds progress, cuts costs, increases consistency and quality.

I expect that the rate of advance in biological sciences and biotechnology is going to greatly accelerate in the next few decades because of microfluidics and computer simulations. Experiments will get done more rapidly and with larger numbers of experiments done in parallel as cheap devices lower the material and labor costs of each experiment.

This ability to accelerate advances makes me very optimistic about the prospects for the development of rejuvenation therapies. Automation will enable the development of much more powerful manipulations of cells and tissues. The automation and miniaturization will enable cheap ways to introduce experimental conditions and measure the results automatically.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 02 11:01 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Anorexia Like Ecstasy Drug On Brain?

Anorexics might be responding to something that is stimulating an appetite-suppressing type of receptor which MDMA (ecstasy) also stimulates.

In mouse studies, Valerie Compan from the University of Montpellier, and her colleagues, found that by directly stimulating so-called 5HT-4 receptors in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain associated with feelings of reward, they could mimic the effects of anorexia - reducing the animals' desire to eat.

This reduction in appetite is also a well-recognised side effect of ecstasy or MDMA. When the researchers injected MDMA into mice genetically engineered to lack 5HT-4 receptors, it did not cause the reduction in appetite seen in normal mice - suggesting ecstasy's appetite-suppressing effect is mediated by the same receptors.

This discovery could help lead to a treatment for anorexia and also for obesity.

Compan thinks anorexia should be treated like an addiction.

Compan says that ecstasy and anorexia may have more in common than we think. Her study suggests that starving yourself can be addictive, and is further evidence that anorexia may be related to neurological defects.

The findings may also highlight targets for drug treatment. "Our studies over seven years open the possibility that the 5-HT4 receptor would represent an important therapeutic target to treat patients suffering from these disorders," Compan says.

Fat people and anorexics are living testaments to the limits on human free will. Chemicals and receptors in our brains create desires in our minds that are at war with our conscious mind's preferences. Biotechnology is going to strengthen the power of the conscious mind to impose its will in the rest of the brain. Neurological science and neurotechnology are weapons in the war that the conscious mind is waging with other parts of the brain. But in some cases I'm thinking the other parts of the brain are winning by making the conscious mind figure out ways to give the rest of the mind what it wants (e.g. more sex with the help of Levitra, Cialis, and Viagra).

By Randall Parker 2007 October 02 10:25 PM  Brain Appetite
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2007 October 01 Monday
Conscientious Goal Oriented People Get Less Alzheimer's Disease?

Will trying to make yourself more conscientious slow your brain's aging? Or is conscientiousness a genetically caused trait? What is the mechanism fort this effect?

Individuals who are more conscientious—in other words, those with a tendency to be self-disciplined, scrupulous and purposeful—appear less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to a report in the October issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Conscientiousness refers to a person’s tendency to control impulses and be goal-directed, and is also known as will, work and dependability, according to background information in the article. It has been associated with a wide range of mental and physical disorders, disability and death, suggesting it may be important for maintaining overall health.

Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, and colleagues studied 997 older Catholic nuns, priests and brothers who did not have dementia when the study began in 1994. Participants underwent evaluations that included medical history, neurologic examinations and cognitive testing. Conscientiousness was measured with a 12-item inventory, where participants rated agreement with each item (for example, “I am a productive person who always gets the job done”) on a scale of one to five. Scores ranged from zero to 48, with higher scores indicating more conscientiousness. The researchers conducted follow-up examinations annually through 2006, with an average of 7.9 evaluations per person.

The participants had an average conscientiousness score of 34 out of 48. Through a maximum of 12 years of follow-up, 176 individuals developed Alzheimer’s disease. Those who had conscientiousness scores in the 90th percentile (40 points) or higher had an 89 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those whose scores ranked in the 10th percentile (28 points) or lower. Controlling for known Alzheimer’s disease risk factors did not substantially change these results. Conscientiousness also was associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline and a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment, a condition that may precede Alzheimer’s disease.

Maybe conscientious people take better care of themselves and eat better food. The Mediterranean diet appears to lower Alzheimer's risk for example. So do conscientious driven people adopt the best dietary advice at a higher rate than do less conscientious and less goal-oriented people? Seems highly plausible.

Or maybe being driven they stimulate their minds harder their entire lives. build up more neurons, and therefore have more cognitive reserves to lose before the symptoms of Alzheimer's becomes apparent.

Or maybe the genetic variants that make people driven also somehow protect the body against brain aging?

What is the most important thing to know about Alzheimer's Disease? You don't want to get it and you don't want anyone you care about to get it either. You want cures for it sooner rather than later. We should try to stop and reverse brain aging.

By Randall Parker 2007 October 01 09:30 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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Large Genetic Component To How People Play Economic Game

Genes may play a big role in determining how people make economic choices.

An international team of researchers including an MIT graduate student has demonstrated for the first time that genes exert influence on people's behavior in a very common experimental economic game.

Traditionally, social scientists have been quite hesitant to acknowledge a role for genes in explaining economic behavior. But a study by David Cesarini, a Ph.D. student in MIT's Department of Economics, and by colleagues in Sweden indicates that there is a genetic component to people's perception of what is fair and what is unfair.

The paper, published in the Oct. 1 advanced online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the ultimatum game, in which a proposer makes an offer to a responder on how to divide a sum of money. This offer is an ultimatum; if the responder rejects it, both parties receive nothing.

Because rejections in the game entail a zero payoff for both parties, theories of narrow self-interest predict that any positive amount will be accepted by a responder. The intriguing finding in the laboratory is that responders routinely reject free money, presumably in order to punish proposers for offers perceived as unfair.

To study genetic influence in the game, Cesarini and colleagues took the unusual step of recruiting twins from the Swedish Twin Registry, and had them play the game under controlled circumstances. Because identical twins share the same genes but fraternal twins do not, the researchers were able to detect genetic influences by comparing the similarity with which identical and fraternal twins played the game.

The researchers' findings suggest that genetic influences account for as much as 40 percent of the variation in how people respond to unfair offers. In other words, identical twins were more likely to play with the same strategy than fraternal twins.

"Compared to common environmental influences such as upbringing, genetic influences appear to be a much more important source of variation in how people play the game," Cesarini said.

This result makes more plausible an argument of Gregory Clark that selective pressures helped create the conditions that brought about the industrial revolution. Yes, there are genetic differences out there that influence economic decision making. So there are genetically caused behavioral differences upon which natural selection can act. See Clark's book A Farewell To Alms and the Gene Expression Interview of Clark.

What I want to know: Did they test the IQs of the players? I'd expect smarter people to make different judgments about the choices of how to play the game. How much of the genetic factor they measured is intelligence and how much is it a wired in algorithm for how to make choices or maybe some wired in emotional reaction?

I would also like to know whether the twins who made smarter choices in the game have lower discount rates for their decision making.

Looking to the future (hey, isn't that the point of my writings?) what I would really like to know: Once the genetic variations that influence economic decisions are identified and offspring genetic engineering becomes possible will people choose genetic variations that will improve the economic performance of their kids? Sure, many will opt for intelligence enhancement. But will they also go for, say, genetic variations that make people put more effort toward longer term goals? Will they thrill to the idea of choosing genes to make Johnny and Jill into little misers and workaholics? Will genes that make us goal oriented be chosen over the genes that make people happy in Margaritaville?

Also, will the choices parents make vary by economic class? Will the upper classes embrace offspring genetic engineering for maximal economic success while lower classes go for looks, athletic ability, and just plain fun happy attitudes? Will the economic classes therefore grow even further apart than they are already growing now?

By Randall Parker 2007 October 01 07:39 PM  Brain Economics
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