2008 January 31 Thursday
Another Step Closer To Female Sperm

Lesbian sexual reproduction keeps getting closer.

In April last year, Prof Karim Nayernia, Professor of Stem Cell Biology at Newcastle University, made headlines by taking stem cells from adult men and making them develop into primitive sperm.

He has now managed to repeat the feat of creating the primitive sperm cells with female embryonic stem cells in unpublished work.

The next step is to make these primitive sperm undergo meiosis, so they have the right amount of genetic material for fertilisation.

But this is just another way to randomly choose chromosomes from two people to start a pregnancy. There's not much control over which genes end up in the new human. The really interesting step will come when individual chromosomes from different cells will become selectable to put together all the chromosomes used to start a pregnancy. With that capability will come a huge acceleration in the rate of human evolution.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 31 10:19 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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Heart Disease Patients Do Not Improve Their Diets

Looking death in the face is not a big enough motivator to get people to adopt good diets.

WORCESTER, Mass.—More than 13 million Americans have survived a heart attack or have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease (CHD), the number one cause of death in the United States. In addition to medications, lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise, are known to reduce the risk for subsequent cardiac events. Despite this evidence, a high proportion of heart attack survivors do not follow their doctor’s advice to adhere to a healthy diet, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS).

Humanity evolved in calorie-limited conditions and hence we crave sugar and fat. The threat of death is not strong enough to overcome deeply wired instincts.

Not enough fruits, vegetables, fiber. Not as good as several prominent weight loss diets.

Of a maximum 80 points—which indicates the healthiest diet—the average AHEI score was 30.8, with individual scores ranging between 5.1 and 69.8. The mean AHEI score was poorer than scores reported for samples of healthy individuals from the Health Professional’s Follow-up Study and the Nurses’ Health Study. In a previous study by Ma and colleagues, the AHEI of several popular weight loss plans was calculated; the highest scoring diet was the Ornish Diet (AHEI = 64.6) and lowest scoring diet was the Atkins diet (AHEI= 42.3). The fact that one year after a coronary event patients with known CHD still have lower AHEI scores than these popular diets may be indicative of the complex issues of effecting and sustaining behavioral change and the confusion patients may face in navigating through dietary recommendations. When examining AHEI components, only 12.4 percent of the participants met the optimal daily consumption of vegetables and 7.8 percent for fruit. Only 8 percent of the patients met the cereal fiber recommendation, and 5.2 percent of the participants limited their trans-fat intake to 0.5 percent of total calories or less. In addition, nearly 11 percent of calories were from saturated fat (less than 7 percent is recommended), while total fiber was only 16.8 grams per day (25 grams or more per day is recommended).

Well, diet research is all very interesting and I like to read and write about it. But we really need either gene therapy that will fix our damaged hearts or gene therapy that will reprogram our taste buds.

Update: The AHEI referred to above is the Alternative Healthy Eating Index developed at Harvard as a more accurate measure of diets that lower heart disease risks.

Using data from 38,615 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and 67,271 women in the Nurses' Health Study, Willett; Marjorie McCullough of the American Cancer Society; and HSPH and HMS colleagues tested whether two alternative measures of diet quality worked better to predict disease risk. The Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) weighs quality of food choices (for example, ratio of white to red meat), while the Recommended Food Score (RFS) tallies healthy foods eaten. They examined the relationship between these measures and the incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and non-traumatic death over 12 years in women and eight years in men.

The researchers found that men in the highest, healthiest quintile of AHEI scores had a 20 percent lower risk for these events compared with men in the lowest quintile. For women, risk was reduced 11 percent. The RFS was associated with a small reduction of risk in men but not in women. These risk reductions primarily reflected the association of dietary scores with cardiovascular disease; neither score predicted cancer risk.

You can read more about AHEI. It has nothing surprising. Eat less refined foods, more vegetables, white meat over red meat, and other advice that is already fairly widely disseminated.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 31 09:12 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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2008 January 30 Wednesday
Sleep Weakens Excess Brain Connections

We need to sleep to unburden ourselves of an excessive strengthening of neural connections.

MADISON – Most people know it from experience: After so many hours of being awake, your brain feels unable to absorb any more—and several hours of sleep will refresh it.

Now new research from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health clarifies this phenomenon, supporting the idea that sleep plays a critical role in the brain’s ability to change in response to its environment. This ability, called plasticity, is at the heart of learning.

Reporting in the Jan. 20, 2008, online version of Nature Neuroscience, the UW-Madison scientists showed by several measures that synapses — nerve cell connections central to brain plasticity — were very strong when rodents had been awake and weak when they had been asleep.

The new findings reinforce the UW-Madison researchers’ highly-debated hypothesis about the role of sleep. They believe that people sleep so that their synapses can downsize and prepare for a new day and the next round of learning and synaptic strengthening.

The human brain expends up to 80 percent of its energy on synaptic activity, constantly adding and strengthening connections in response to all kinds of stimulation, explains study author Chiara Cirelli, associate professor of psychiatry.

The idea is that we form lots of connections and not all of them matter. Probably if we form similar connections day after day those end up not getting weakened by sleep.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 30 10:23 PM  Brain Sleep
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Zinc Lowers Prostate Cancer Risk From Cadmium?

Zinc seems to cancel out the cancer risk of cadmium.

Cadmium exposure is a known risk factor for prostate cancer, and a new University of Rochester study suggests that zinc may offer protection against cadmium.

In an article published in the February 2008 journal, The Prostate, epidemiologist Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D., reports that PSA levels were 22 percent higher among American men who had zinc levels below the median (less than 12.67 mg/daily) and cadmium levels above the median. (PSA is a protein produced by the cells of the prostate gland. The higher a man’s PSA level, the more likely cancer is present.)

In contrast, among men with a greater than median zinc intake, little evidence of an association between cadmium and PSA was found.

This result seems especially important for cigarette smokers who breathe in cadmium on a daily basis.

The result is plausible because there is a biological mechanism by which zinc provides protection.

The way zinc and cadmium interact within human organs is significant and provides interesting leads for study, van Wijngaarden said. Zinc stimulates production of a protein that binds cadmium thereby taking it out of circulation and reducing its toxic effects.

Oysters, beef, turkey, and chickpeas are all good sources of zinc. Also, many nuts and seeds are good zinc sources.

But you might not have to worry about high testosterone as a cancer risk.

Sex hormones circulating in the blood do not appear to be associated with prostate cancer risk, according to data from 18 prior studies. The analysis will be published online January 29 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Having high levels of male sex hormones, known as androgens, has long been hypothesized as a risk factor for prostate cancer. Nearly two dozen prospective studies have examined the relationship between circulating sex hormones and prostate cancer risk, but the results have been inconsistent.

Andrew Roddam, D.Phil., of the University of Oxford in England and colleagues at the Endogenous Hormones and Prostate Cancer Collaborative Group collected the original data from 18 studies and analyzed it to determine the relationship between blood levels of sex hormones and prostate cancer. The pooled data included 3,886 men with prostate cancer and 6,438 controls.

The researchers found no association between prostate cancer risk and blood levels of different forms of testosterone or estrogen.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 30 10:05 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2008 January 29 Tuesday
Higher Lead Exposure Linked To Faster Brain Aging

If you got a lot of exposure to car exhaust before lead was banned from gasoline then it might make your brain age faster.

The new work suggests long-ago lead exposure can make an aging person's brain work as if it's five years older than it really is. If that's verified by more research, it means that sharp cuts in environmental lead levels more than 20 years ago didn't stop its widespread effects.

"We're trying to offer a caution that a portion of what has been called normal aging might in fact be due to ubiquitous environmental exposures like lead," says Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University.

A longitudinal study found that those with higher bone lead levels seemed to age more rapidly.

Hu and his colleagues took a slightly different approach in a 2004 study of 466 men with an average age of 67. Those men took a mental-ability test twice, about four years apart on average. Those with the highest bone lead levels showed more decline between exams than those with smaller levels, with the effect of the lead equal to about five years of aging.

Nobody is claiming that lead is the sole cause of age-related mental decline, but it appears to be one of several factors involved, Hu stressed.

Cumulative lead exposure seems to reduce cognitive function.

In a study of almost 1,000 persons 50–70 years of age randomly selected from the general population in the Baltimore Memory Study (BMS), a cross-sectional analysis showed that relatively low current blood lead levels were not associated with cognitive domain scores. However, moderate tibia lead levels (mean ~ 19 µg/g) were significantly associated with worse performance in all seven cognitive domains (Shih et al. 2006). Thus, in the environmental studies of older adults, the most consistent findings across studies are associations between bone lead levels and cognitive function. The associations in the BMS were cross-sectional, whereas the predominant associations in the NAS were with change in cognitive function over time, although a significant cross-sectional association with MMSE score was also observed in this sample. Taken together, these data suggest that at environmental exposure levels, the effects of cumulative exposure are more pronounced than recent effects of current exposure. The absence of associations in the Stokes et al. (1998) study could be because of the younger age of studied subjects, the very low current blood and tibia lead levels, or the inadequacy of tibia lead in the third decade of life to estimate early life dose (Hoppin et al. 2000).

So what to do about your accumulated bone lead? One possible long term response might be thiamine (or thiamin - vitamin B1) supplementation. Thamine enhances lead excretion in rodents and also in sheep and other animals.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 29 08:50 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2008 January 28 Monday
Middle Age As World Peak Of Unhappiness?

People in their 40s are most unhappy?

Using data on 2 million people, from 80 nations, researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College in the US have found an extraordinarily consistent international pattern in depression and happiness levels that leaves us most miserable in middle age.

Their paper entitled "Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?" is to be published shortly in Social Science & Medicine, the world’s most-cited social science journal. The researchers found happiness levels followed a U shaped curve, with happiness higher towards the start and end of our lives and leaving us most miserable in middle age. Many previous studies of the life-course had suggested that psychological well-being stayed relatively flat and consistent as we aged.

In Britain unhappiness peaks at the same age for men and women. But in America unhappiness peaks 10 years later for men than for women. Why is that? Any guesses?

Using a sample of 1 million people from the UK, the researchers discovered that for both men and women the probability of depression peaks around 44 years of age. In the US they found a significant difference between men and women with unhappiness reaching a peak at around 40 years of age for women and 50 years of age for men.

Once full body rejuvenation becomes possible will people with youthful bodies feel happier than our current middle aged? Or will people feel compelled to stay in competition and hence feel frustrated? Maybe youthful people will spend decades and even centuries competing to get ahead with bodies and minds that are capable of allowing them to compete very intensely? Then again, maybe the robots will take over and wipe us out.

This unhappiness curve was found in a very large assortment of countries which have radically different economic conditions, customs, and laws. This suggests a biological cause rather than a social one.

They found the same U-shape in happiness levels and life satisfaction by age for 72 countries: Albania; Argentina; Australia; Azerbaijan; Belarus; Belgium; Bosnia; Brazil; Brunei; Bulgaria; Cambodia; Canada; Chile; China; Colombia; Costa Rica; Croatia; Czech Republic; Denmark; Dominican Republic; Ecuador; El Salvador; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Honduras; Hungary; Iceland; Iraq; Ireland; Israel; Italy; Japan; Kyrgyzstan; Laos; Latvia; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Macedonia; Malta; Mexico; Myanmar; Netherlands; Nicaragua; Nigeria; Norway; Paraguay; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Portugal; Puerto Rico; Romania; Russia; Serbia; Singapore; Slovakia; South Africa; South Korea; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Tanzania; Turkey; United Kingdom; Ukraine; Uruguay; USA; Uzbekistan; and Zimbabwe.

Find your country on the list?

The researchers found that some of the most obvious suspect factors were not the causes of mid-life unhappiness.

The authors, economists Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick and Professor David Blanchflower from Dartmouth College in the US, believe that the U-shaped effect stems from something inside human beings. They show that signs of mid-life depression are found in all kinds of people; it is not caused by having young children in the house, by divorce, or by changes in jobs or income.

I wonder if the mid-life unhappiness is due to the end of dreams of what is possible in youth combined with the need to struggle daily to get ahead. Then as people get older maybe they develop peace of mind about their lots in life and feel less dissatisfied about their stations in life. As brains age memory recall decreases and we lose imagination. Maybe with age a decaying ability to daydream also reduces dissatisfaction over what is as compared to what might be.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 28 09:07 PM  Aging Studies
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Sedentary Lifestyles Age Chromosome Telomeres Faster

Telomere caps on chromosomes shrink more quickly in people who do not get much exercise.

Individuals who are physically active during their leisure time appear to be biologically younger than those with sedentary lifestyles, according to a report in the January 28 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Regular exercisers have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and osteoporosis, according to background information in the article. “A sedentary lifestyle increases the propensity to aging-related disease and premature death,” the authors write. “Inactivity may diminish life expectancy not only by predisposing to aging-related diseases but also because it may influence the aging process itself.”

Lynn F. Cherkas, Ph.D., of King’s College London, and colleagues studied 2,401 white twins, administering questionnaires on physical activity level, smoking habits and socioeconomic status. The participants also provided a blood sample from which DNA was extracted. The researchers examined the length of telomeres—repeated sequences at the end of chromosomes—in the twins’ white blood cells (leukocytes). Leukocyte telomeres progressively shorten over time and may serve as a marker of biological age.

We are losing 21 nucleotides (DNA letters) per year off the ends of our chromosomes. I miss my fallen nucleotides.

Telomere length decreased with age, with an average loss of 21 nucleotides (structural units) per year. Men and women who were less physically active in their leisure time had shorter leukocyte telomeres than those who were more active. “Such a relationship between leukocyte telomere length and physical activity level remained significant after adjustment for body mass index, smoking, socioeconomic status and physical activity at work,” the authors write. “The mean difference in leukocyte telomere length between the most active [who performed an average of 199 minutes of physical activity per week] and least active [16 minutes of physical activity per week] subjects was 200 nucleotides, which means that the most active subjects had telomeres the same length as sedentary individuals up to 10 years younger, on average.” A sub-analysis comparing pairs in which twins had different levels of physical activity showed similar results.

199 minutes of physical activity per week: Can you manage that? Thats almost 20 minutes per day.

Of course there are caveats to keep in mind when thinking about a study like this one. Are less healthy people less able to exercise? Do they have less energy to exercise? Which way does the direction of causation flow? Also, does shorter telomere length really indicate shorter life expectancy? Still, there's a strong chance that this study's most obvious interpretation is correct: exercise slows aging.

I'm inclined toward believing the most obvious interpretation because of other work done on telomeres and aging. Toward that end see some of my other posts on telomere lengths and aging: Chronic Stress Accelerates Aging As Measured By Telomere Length, Telomere Length Indicates Mortality Risk, Telomeres Shorten Quicker If You Have Less Vitamin D, and Telomere Shortening Linked To Osteoarthritis.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 28 08:03 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2008 January 27 Sunday
Lester Brown Sees Higher Food Prices Due To Biomass Energy

Higher oil prices are driving up food prices.

We are witnessing the beginning of one of the great tragedies of history. The United States, in a misguided effort to reduce its oil insecurity by converting grain into fuel for cars, is generating global food insecurity on a scale never seen before.

The world is facing the most severe food price inflation in history as grain and soybean prices climb to all-time highs. Wheat trading on the Chicago Board of Trade on December 17th breached the $10 per bushel level for the first time ever. In mid-January, corn was trading over $5 per bushel, close to its historic high. And on January 11th, soybeans traded at $13.42 per bushel, the highest price ever recorded. All these prices are double those of a year or two ago.

As a result, prices of food products made directly from these commodities such as bread, pasta, and tortillas, and those made indirectly, such as pork, poultry, beef, milk, and eggs, are everywhere on the rise. In Mexico, corn meal prices are up 60 percent. In Pakistan, flour prices have doubled. China is facing rampant food price inflation, some of the worst in decades.

In industrial countries, the higher processing and marketing share of food costs has softened the blow, but even so, prices of food staples are climbing. By late 2007, the U.S. price of a loaf of whole wheat bread was 12 percent higher than a year earlier, milk was up 29 percent, and eggs were up 36 percent. In Italy, pasta prices were up 20 percent.

Here's the most interesting part: Oil at $100 per barrel will up ethanol demand to the point that corn goes to $7 per bushel.

A University of Illinois economics team calculates that with oil at $50 a barrel, it is profitable—with the ethanol subsidy of 51¢ a gallon (equal to $1.43 per bushel of corn)—to convert corn into ethanol as long as the price is below $4 a bushel. But with oil at $100 a barrel, distillers can pay more than $7 a bushel for corn and still break even. If oil climbs to $140, distillers can pay $10 a bushel for corn—double the early 2008 price of $5 per bushel.

We are going to find out much corn production can go up.

6 years ago corn was only $2.18 per bushel.

By 2012, the U.S. goal is to produce 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year, meaning U.S. annual corn production must rise 22 percent from about 10.9 billion bushels to 13.5 billion bushels to meet the demand.

Corn prices are at their highest level since the drought of 1995, jumping from around $2.18 per bushel in 2002 to $4.78 per bushel this week.

Peak Oil is going to push up the price of food. Though I'm beginning to seriously wonder whether algae biodiesel could provide a way to avoid that. How fast can the technology for algae biodiesel be developed? Can algae biodiesel some day really scale up to thousands of gallons of biodiesel per acre? Any of my regular readers know much about it?

By Randall Parker 2008 January 27 09:59 PM  Energy Biomass
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US Government Makes Hospital Quality Improvements Difficult

All experiments, even innocuous ones likely to help, carry bureaucratic burdens that make hospital process improvements difficult to try.

The federal Office for Human Research Protections has ruled that it is perfectly fine for hospitals to use checklists to remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands and follow other sanitary procedures — provided the goal is to improve the quality of care given to patients. But if those hospitals want to analyze what impact the checklists might have in reducing infections, that counts as research and they must first seek approval from institutional review boards.

So if no checklists are used that is okay. Or if checklists are always used that is okay. But don't dare try to run a comparison between using and not using checklists with data collected to compare the results. That's experimentation and that isn't allowed without going thru a bureaucratic process.

Japanese manufacturers made huge strides in quality by making lots of changes in their processes aimed at eliminating sources of error and defects. This philosophy of continuous improvement works best when the obstacles to changes are few and where the consequences of changes can be measured. A deep embrace of this approach would do wonders for improving the quality of medical care - quality improvements that are sorely needed both for patient health and to control costs.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 27 07:00 PM  Policy Medical
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Subsidies Make Wind UK Farms Very Profitable

Taxpayer subsidies have made onshore wind farms highly profitable in Britain.

LAVISH subsidies and high electricity prices have turned Britain’s onshore wind farms into an extraordinary moneyspinner, with a single turbine capable of generating £500,000 of pure profit per year.

According to new industry figures, a typical 2 megawatt (2MW) turbine can now generate power worth £200,000 on the wholesale markets - plus another £300,000 of subsidy from taxpayers.

Since such turbines cost around £2m to build and last for 20 or more years, it means they can pay for themselves in just 4-5 years and then produce nothing but profit.

What I want to know: How many kilowatt-hours (kwh) are they saying comes from that 2MW turbine (which is probably running at 30% capacity or less on average) to net £200,000 (double that in dollars) on the wholesale market? The period of time sounds like a year. What are they selling the electric for on average at wholesale costs?

To put that in context, on average in the United States in 2007 the residential retail price of electricity was about 10.65 cents ($0.65USD) per kwh. That 2MW turbine running at a US site at 30% capacity for a year will produce .3 * 2000 kwh * 24 hours * 365 days = 5.265 million kwh per year. At retail that's a half million dollars or a quarter million pounds. But at wholesale it is probably half that amount or about £125,000. So are wholesale electric prices higher in Britain? Probably.

The revenue from the subsidy is bigger than the revenue from selling the electricity. That seems out of whack. But it is certainly a reason to be bullish on wind tower sales.

With the US dollar in the neighborhood of about 2 dollars per British Pound British wind subsidies are currently about the same amount of money as US wind subsidies.

According to Ofgem, the Labour government's wind subsidies currently stand at £485 million a year.

But the US has a lot more wind capacity. The US has more prime wind locations and so the same amount of subsidy money buys more wind power in the US than in Britain.

The British government now wants to allow the construction of unsubsidized nuclear power plants while simultaneously spending big money to subsidize a build-up of offshore (and therefore about 2 cents/kwh more expensive if some sources are to be believed) wind. Christopher Booker claims nuclear power would deliver just as much power at a quarter the cost.

At £2 million per megawatt of "capacity" (according to the Carbon Trust), the bill for the Government's 33 gigawatts (Gw) would be £66 billion (and even that, as was admitted in a recent parliamentary answer, doesn't include an extra £10 billion needed to connect the turbines to the grid). But the actual output of these turbines, because of the wind's unreliability, would be barely a third of their capacity. The resulting 11Gw could be produced by just seven new "carbon-free" nuclear power stations, at a quarter of the cost.

The EU's plans for "renewables" do not include nuclear energy. Worse, they take no account of the back-up needed for when the wind is not blowing - which would require Britain to have 33Gw of capacity constantly available from conventional power stations.

The same drawbacks apply to the huge increase in onshore turbines, covering thousands of square miles of countryside. They are only made viable by the vast hidden subsidies that wind energy receives, through our electricity bills. These make power from turbines (including the cost of back-up) between two and three times more expensive than that from conventional sources.

Europe is geographically not well suited to produce cheap wind or cheap solar in amounts large enough to let these sources produce most of Europe's energy. So the European solution appears to be to raise prices.

Meanwhile in the US a fight over wind power subsidies continues. Wind supporters want a continuation of the wind Production Tax Credit of 2 cents per kwh.

The 2005 energy bill provided exactly the kind of multiyear support the wind industry says it needs. The impact has been dramatic. Nearly one-third of all US power capacity added last year – about 5,244 megawatts – was in wind. Overall wind-generating capacity soared 45 percent last year, adding the clean-energy equivalent of 10 large coal-fired power plants, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported last week.

...

The production tax credit, or PTC, now pays utilities about 2 cents for every kilowatt of wind power they produce over the first 10 years of a project's operation. Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the cost to taxpayers at less than $1 billion a year, AWEA officials say.

Think of it this way: Those 5.244 GW of wind towers build in 2007 will probably run at about 30% of capacity. So we are really talking about the equivalent of a 1.57 GW nuclear power plant. The production tax credit of 2 cents per kwh, if applied to nuclear power, would clearly make nukes cheaper than coal. As things stand now a new nuke will probably cost a little more than coal electric.

Jerome a Paris, who lines up financing for wind projects in Europe, says the US wind production tax credit is so popular in Congress that it gets used to get other proposals enacted.

Oddly enough, the problem with PTC is not that it's unpopular in Congress, but the opposite: that it's hugely popular. That means that any law that includes it is likely to be supported by a strong majority, and then gets larded with more disputable - and disputed - items, which are then opposed. The PTC gets taken hostage, effectively... Crazy, but true.

The American Wind Energy Association wants a 5 year extension of the US Production Tax Credit. Curiously, in their argument for the extension they claim at least in New York State wind energy displaces mostly natural gas (PDF).

A recent New York study found that if wind energy supplied 10% (3,300 MW) of the state’s peak electricity demand, 65% of the energy it displaced would come from natural gas, 15% from coal, 10% from oil, and 10% from electricity imports

That is disappointing. I'd rather it displaced relatively dirtier coal. Probably in states that use larger percentages of coal for electricity wind displaces more coal than natural gas. But I'd be curious to hear from anyone who knows for sure.

Does the United States really have a coal electric tax credit?

The PTC provides a tax credit of 1.5¢/kWh (in 1993 dollars and indexed for inflation) for wind, closed-loop biomass and geothermal. Currently, the PTC for these technologies is 2.0¢/kWh. Electricity from open-loop biomass, small irrigation hydroelectric, landfill gas, municipal solid waste resources, and hydropower receive half that rate -- currently 1.0¢/kWh.

The duration of the credit is 10 years. However, open-loop biomass, geothermal, small irrigation hydro, landfill gas, and municipal solid waste combustion facilities placed into service after October 22, 2004, and before enactment of EPAct 2005, on August 8, 2005, are eligible for the credit for a five-year period. Refined-coal facilities will receive $4.375 per ton (indexed for inflation) for a 10-year term. Indian coal production facilities will receive an increase in tax credit during the seven-year period beginning January 1, 2006, in the amount of $1.50/ton through 2009, and $2.00/ton after 2009.

My take on these subsidies: If governments are determined to offer them then the subsidies ought to take the form of guaranteed minimum prices rather than fixed amounts per kwh. Then if the cost of electric power from other sources goes up (e.g. when natural gas production starts declining and prices skyrocket) the governments won't have to spend as much on the subsidies. Also, minimum price guarantees would encourage governments to more realistically estimate what wind power will end up costing and wind farm builders would have more incentive to get their costs down below the minimum prices.

If Europe achieves its goal of getting 20% of its energy from renewables it will probably get most of that energy in the form of electricity. In that case Europe's renewable electricity might even surpass nuclear power as an electric power source. I say might? Yes, might. You might be surprised to learn that as a result of France getting 80% of its electric power from nuclear power Europe gets a higher percentage of its electricity from nuclear power (a third) than the United States (a fifth).

Currently nuclear power produces around a third of Europe's electricity, with 15 of the 27 member states producing it.

France is still building nuclear power plants.

In this case the exception is the French nuclear energy company Areva, which provides about 80 percent of the country's electricity from 58 nuclear power plants, is building a new generation of reactor that will come on line at Flamanville in 2012, and is exporting its expertise to countries from China to the United Arab Emirates.

If we want to move beyond fossil fuels the two biggest practical ways to do it today are wind and nuclear power. Eventually solar photovoltaics and perhaps algae biodiesel will hit price points where they can be seriously considered as well. But so far only nukes and wind can scale to any appreciable extent for affordable prices.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 27 05:33 PM  Energy Wind
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2008 January 26 Saturday
New Renewable Energy Requirement For European Union

Here's a reason to be bullish on wind turbine sales. The European Commissions proposes to require 20% of total European energy from renewables by 2020.

As a means of achieving this the Commission wants to boost energy production from renewable sources to 20 per cent of the EU total, from the current level of 8.5 per cent. It also aims to ensure that 10 per cent of all vehicle fuel comes from biofuels by 2020.

I think the biomass transportation fuels requirement is unwise because it is going to result in a lot of habitat destruction. The EU mandarins are trying to work around that effect by placing restrictions on where biomass energy comes from. But their attempts to prohibit biomass fuels from future forest clearings isn't enforceable. All that the producers of sugar cane ethanol and palm oil biodiesel have to do is tear down new areas for use to grow crops for food and use the old areas to grow crops for biofuels. Plus, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and similar countries can always sell the crops from the newly cleared areas to China and India.

The problem is that any increase in demand for biomass energy crops drives up total demand for crops and inevitably causes more land to be cleared for agricultural uses. Even if the EU bans biomass energy imports from whole countries that still doesn't prevent that demand growth. If the EU buys more biofuels from, say, Brazil while banning imports from, say, Africa and South East Asia all that'll do is drive Chinese demand away from Brazil and toward those latter areas. The EU's rules will not reduce total demand for land to grow biofuels crops.

Britain has been given a lower goal to reach but a harder goal from where Britain is now.

Britain has been set the ambitious target of producing 15 per cent of its total energy from renewables by 2020, up from 1.3 per cent on the 2005 figure.

Note this rule does not allow the European countries to achieve it by using nuclear power even though nukes do not emit the carbon dioxide the fear of which is the motivation for the rule in the first place. That's dumb. France's 50 or so nukes make it a much lower emitter of carbon dioxide. Those nukes also make the French net exporters of electric power to neighboring countries.

Britain might pay 15% to 20% more for electricity from expensive offshore wind towers.

The investment required to get Britain’s energy supplies anywhere near the target mean that electricity prices are likely to rise 10-15 per cent by 2020 even before other inflationary factors are taken into account.

Will this regulation really increase costs above where costs might otherwise go? I am doubtful. The critics of this regulation ought to step back and look at bigger energy market trends. Price increases for electricity might be unavoidable for another reason: declining natural gas production could make electricity much more expensive. Russian natural gas supplies can't be relied upon and their costs will probably rise very substantially in coming years. So a government mandated shift toward renewables might turn out to push the European electric power industry in a direction it needs to go anyway.

The real flaw I see in this proposal is that it leaves out nuclear power. A European level regulation that let nuclear power satisfy part of the requirement might allow a reduction in fossil fuels usage at a lower cost.

Electric power is the easiest form of energy to shift over toward renewables.

Britain generates nearly 5% of its electricity from renewables, but less than 2% of its overall energy needs. Because it is far easier to increase renewable electricity supplies, the government expects that wind power especially will have to deliver the lion's share of the target, with renewables generating as much as 35-40% of all electricity within 12 years.

British families might end up paying about $1400 per year more per family. Ouch.

The European Commission claimed the package would cost the average European citizen £115 a year. Britons will pay far more because the country lags in the green energy stakes.

Open Europe, a Eurosceptic think-tank supported by Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose, said a typical family would be paying a £730 levy by 2020.

That figure originally came from a British government report.

José Manuel Barroso, the EC president, claimed it would cost every European £2.20 a week, but a Eurosceptic think-tank pointed to a leaked government document which stated the package could cost UK households up to £730 a year. However, the EC said the measures were a vital step in the fight against global warming and other countries must now join the effort.

The real costs will depend heavily on the rate of technological advance in wind, solar, waves, and other technology areas for renewables.

Britain is looking at 10,000+ more wind turbines to satisfy this regulatory requirement.

The number of wind turbines on land in Britain is likely to grow from just under 2,000 now to 5,000, according to the British Wind Energy Association. But the really substantial increase will be in offshore wind, with turbines installed in the seas around Britain's coasts likely to increase from just under 150, to about 7,500.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 26 02:41 PM  Energy Policy
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2008 January 24 Thursday
Old Folks With Low Vitamin E Decline Quicker

You probably ought to eat some high vitamin E foods.

Low serum concentration of vitamin E, an indication of poor nutrition, is associated with physical decline for older persons, according to a study in the January 23 issue of JAMA.

“The decline in physical function that occurs with aging often represents the early stage of a continuum leading to disability and other important adverse outcomes such as institutionalization,” the authors write. Understanding the mechanisms associated with this process has been identified as a priority. The potential harmful effect of poor nutrition on physical function in older persons is not well understood.

Benedetta Bartali, R.D., Ph.D., of Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., and colleagues conducted a study to determine whether a low concentration of specific micronutrients is associated with subsequent decline in physical function. The study included 698 community-living persons 65 years or older who were randomly selected from a population registry in Tuscany, Italy. To measure nutritional status and physical function, participants completed a baseline examination, conducted from November 1998 through May 2000, and 3-year follow-up assessments from November 2001 through March 2003. Measurements were obtained for several micronutrients, including serum folate and vitamins B6, B12, D and E. Decline in physical function was defined as a loss of at least 1 point in the Short Physical Performance Battery during the follow-up, which included three objective tests of physical function.

The average decline in physical function score was 1.1 point. In analyses adjusted for other factors, only a low concentration of vitamin E was significantly associated with subsequent decline in physical function. Additional analyses indicated that age older than 81 years and vitamin E (in participants 70-80 years) were the strongest determinants of decline in physical function.

“The hypothesis that antioxidants [such as vitamin E] play a role in the etiology of decline in physical function and disability is supported by our previous findings and other studies suggesting that oxidative stress is involved in muscle fatigue and that antioxidants play a preventive role in muscle damage by reducing oxidative injury,” the authors write.

“Thus, at least 3 different mechanisms may explain the effect of low concentration of vitamin E on subsequent decline in physical function: (1) increased oxidative stress leading to muscle or DNA damage, (2) exacerbation of atherosclerosis or other pathologic conditions, and (3) development of neurodegenerative disorders.”

Participants in the study did not take vitamin supplements and the authors do not recommend vitamin E supplements to increase levels. They state, “Approximately 15 to 30 mg/d of dietary alpha-tocopherol [a component of vitamin E] is needed … this amount can be easily reached through diet, from sources such as almonds, tomato sauce, and sunflower seeds among others.”

Can you be bothered to improve your diet? It probably won't pay off much for years. Can you make a sustained change for a distant pay-off?

Eat some nuts. They have magnesium too.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 24 09:27 PM  Aging Diet Eye Studies
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Lead Acid UltraBattery Cuts Hybrid Car Costs?

Can improvements on the lead acid battery make it viable for hybrid electric cars?

The future market for hybrid-electric vehicles, at least those that are affordable, isn't necessarily paved with lithium. Researchers in Australia have created what could be called a lead-acid battery on steroids, capable of performing as well as the nickel-metal hydride systems found in most hybrid cars but at a fraction of the cost.

The so-called UltraBattery combines 150-year-old lead-acid technology with supercapacitors, electronic devices that can quickly absorb and release large bursts of energy over millions of cycles without significant degradation. As a result, the new battery lasts at least four times longer than conventional lead-acid batteries, and its creators say that it can be manufactured at one-quarter the cost of existing hybrid-electric battery packs.

The battery has undergone extensive testing in Britain.

The odometer of a low emission hybrid electric test vehicle today reached 100,000 miles as the car circled a track in the UK using the power of an advanced CSIRO battery system.

The UltraBattery combines a supercapacitor and a lead acid battery in a single unit, creating a hybrid car battery that lasts longer, costs less and is more powerful than current technologies used in hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs).

“The UltraBattery is a leap forward for low emission transport and uptake of HEVs,” said David Lamb, who leads low emissions transport research with the Energy Transformed National Research Flagship.

“Previous tests show the UltraBattery has a life cycle that is at least four times longer and produces 50 per cent more power than conventional battery systems. It’s also about 70 per cent cheaper than the batteries currently used in HEVs,” he said.

By marrying a conventional fuel-powered engine with a battery to drive an electric motor, HEVs achieve the dual environmental benefit of reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption.

The UltraBattery also has the ability to provide and absorb charge rapidly during vehicle acceleration and braking, making it particularly suitable for HEVs, which rely on the electric motor to meet peak power needs during acceleration and can recapture energy normally wasted through braking to recharge the battery.

The designers claim their battery will lower hybrid car design costs by $2000.

The test vehicle was a Honda Insight: a production hybrid (no longer in production) that used a nickel metal hydride battery (the same technology as powers the Toyota Prius). "Our goal was to fit our battery into the same space," Lamb said. "It is 17kg heavier and that creates a fuel consumption penalty of 2.8 percent. But it is about one quarter of the cost, so you save around $2000 on the cost of building the car."

The UK test was undertaken in collaboration with the Furukawa Battery Company of Japan, which manufactured the battery and the US Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium.

The high price of oil should cause a burst of innovation in the coming years. The incentives for energy innovation have gone up dramatically. For this reason alone we should expect some game-changing innovations to emerge in energy and transportation.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 24 09:14 PM  Energy Batteries
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2008 January 23 Wednesday
1000 Genomes Project To Accelerate Genetic Discoveries

Remember when sequencing the DNA of just a single person was a great achievement? Now an international project will sequence 1000 times as many human genomes.

An international research consortium today announced the 1000 Genomes Project, an ambitious effort that will involve sequencing the genomes of at least a thousand people from around the world to create the most detailed and medically useful picture to date of human genetic variation. The project will receive major support from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, England, the Beijing Genomics Institute, Shenzhen (BGI Shenzhen) in China and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Drawing on the expertise of multidisciplinary research teams, the 1000 Genomes Project will develop a new map of the human genome that will provide a view of biomedically relevant DNA variations at a resolution unmatched by current resources. As with other major human genome reference projects, data from the 1000 Genomes Project will be made swiftly available to the worldwide scientific community through freely accessible public databases.

“The 1000 Genomes Project will examine the human genome at a level of detail that no one has done before,” said Richard Durbin, Ph.D., of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, who is co-chair of the consortium. “Such a project would have been unthinkable only two years ago. Today, thanks to amazing strides in sequencing technology, bioinformatics and population genomics, it is now within our grasp. So we are moving forward to build a tool that will greatly expand and further accelerate efforts to find more of the genetic factors involved in human health and disease.”

Scientists think they've found the genetic variations which are carried by at least 10% of the human population. Now they want to look for rarer variations that are carried by as few as 1% of the population.

The scientific goals of the 1000 Genomes Project are to produce a catalog of variants that are present at 1 percent or greater frequency in the human population across most of the genome, and down to 0.5 percent or lower within genes. This will likely entail sequencing the genomes of at least 1,000 people. These people will be anonymous and will not have any medical information collected on them, because the project is developing a basic resource to provide information on genetic variation. The catalog that is developed will be used by researchers in many future studies of people with particular diseases.

“This new project will increase the sensitivity of disease discovery efforts across the genome five-fold and within gene regions at least 10-fold,” said NHGRI Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “Our existing databases do a reasonably good job of cataloging variations found in at least 10 percent of a population. By harnessing the power of new sequencing technologies and novel computational methods, we hope to give biomedical researchers a genome-wide map of variation down to the 1 percent level. This will change the way we carry out studies of genetic disease.”

Within a few years this project will be collecting more sequence information in 2 days than was collected in all of last year.

“This project will examine the human genome in a detail that has never been attempted – the scale is immense. At 6 trillion DNA bases, the 1000 Genomes Project will generate 60-fold more sequence data over its three-year course than have been deposited into public DNA databases over the past 25 years,” said Gil McVean, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford in England, one of the co-chairs of the consortium’s analysis group. “In fact, when up and running at full speed, this project will generate more sequence in two days than was added to public databases for all of the past year.”

The acceleration of DNA sequencing technologies is going forward much faster than the Moore's Law rate of advance of computer power which takes a couple of years to achieve a single doubling of power. DNA sequencing technologies are speeding up by orders of magnitude in a few years.

The 1000 Genomes Project will probably be followed by the Million Genomes Project to find very rare genetic variations. Plus, at the same time we are witnessing a flood of discoveries about what each of the genetic variations mean in terms of disease risk and about which genetic variations cause which differences between people. We are getting very close to the discovery of large numbers of genetic variations that determine cognitive abilities and behavioral tendencies. Within 10 years embryo selection guided by genetic testing will become the rage among those who want to have the highest performing offspring.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 23 09:28 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Increased Fracture Risk With Low Testoterone In Older Men

Maybe higher blood testosterone reduces the risk of bone fractures as you age.

Men over age 60 who have low blood testosterone levels may be at a higher risk for fractures, according to a report in the January 14 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

One-third of all osteoporotic fractures caused by porous bones occur in men, according to background information in the article. Men with a previous osteoporotic fracture have three to four times the risk of having another fracture than a woman of the same age with a fracture. “Preventing the first such fracture may have major public health implications,” the authors note. “Thus, understanding the determinants of fracture risk in men may reduce the burden of disease through facilitating better prevention strategies.”

Christian Meier, M.D., of the University of Sydney, Concord, New South Wales, Australia, and colleagues observed 609 men (average age 72.6) between January 1989 and December 2005. The men’s bone mineral density and lifestyle factors were recorded at the beginning of the study. Serum testosterone and estradiol (an estrogen) levels were measured and the occurrence of a low-trauma fracture (associated with a fall from standing height or less) was determined during follow-up.

Low-trauma fractures occurred in 113 men during follow-up with the risk of fracture significantly higher in those with low testosterone levels. “Twenty-five men experienced multiple incident fractures,” the authors note. “A total of 149 incident fractures were reported, including 55 vertebral, 27 hip, 28 rib, six wrist and 16 upper and 17 lower extremity fractures.”

“After adjustment for sex hormone−binding globulin (a blood protein), serum testosterone and serum estradiol levels were associated with overall fracture risk,” according to the authors. “After further adjustment for major risk factors of fractures (age, weight or bone mineral density, fracture history, smoking status, calcium intake and sex hormone−binding globulin), lower testosterone was still associated with increased risk of fracture, particularly with hip and non-vertebral fractures.”

The problem with this sort of study is that it doesn't prove the direction of cause and effect. Does poorer health contribute to both lower testosterone and greater risk of bone fracture? Would supplemental testosterone reduce risk fracture? If it did then would it not increase the risk of other health problems? Hard to say. What we really need: rejuvenating cell therapies and gene therapies that will work far better than the most optimistic benefit we could hope to derive from hormone therapy.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 23 09:09 PM  Aging Studies
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2008 January 22 Tuesday
H5N1 Bird Flu Served To Prepare Us For Real Threats?

Does the H5N1 avian influenza pose a substantial epidemic threat to humans? Or has the H5N1 fear benefited us by spurring us to prepare for much more likely causes of killer pandemic influenza?

Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine specialist at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, was one of those who, he jokes, "dared to be stupid" by bucking the alarmist trend in 2005.

"H5 viruses have been around for 100 years and never caused a pandemic and probably never will," he said.

But Offit said he backed all preparedness efforts because he expected another pandemic from an H1, H2 or H3, the subtypes responsible for six previous epidemics, including the catastrophic one in 1918.

"What I worry is that this has been a 'boy who cried wolf' phenomenon," he said. "When the next pandemic comes, people will say, 'Yeah, yeah, we heard that last time.' "

The efforts to develop faster ways to produce vaccines will eventually pay off in a big way when another dangerous flu strain pops up. Regardless of what strain turns out to cause the next pandemic the preparations made for an H5N1 pandemic will serve us well. But we still do not have the ability to rapidly scale up vaccine production.

Right now, said Dr. Klaus Stöhr, who was chief of flu vaccines for the WHO and now does the same for Novartis, it would take manufacturers about one year to produce a billion doses of any vaccine based on a new pandemic strain. But the pandemic would have circled the globe within three months.

"The peak would be over, and, principally, you'd be vaccinating survivors," Stöhr said.

We need vaccine production technologies that lend themselves to very fast and easy scaling. The ability to grow vaccines in microorganisms would let us scale up production most rapidly.

We still aren't ready for a flu pandemic.

Vaccines and drugs will not be enough to slow or prevent a pandemic of influenza, according to a U.S. government report released on Tuesday.

The report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirms what most experts have been stressing for years -- that the pharmaceutical industry cannot be relied on alone to protect the world from bird flu.

If you want to survive a pandemic the key is to be able to isolate yourself. You can do this by yourself or with family or friends or a work group. The most essential quality in such a group is trustworthiness. Can you trust them not to sneak off somewhere and unnecessarily expose themselves to people outside the group? That is what you need to eliminate the risk of death from a deadly influenza pandemic.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 22 08:58 PM  Pandemic Prepare Government
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2008 January 21 Monday
Stuart Staniford: Peak Oil And The Fallacy Of Reversibility

On The Oil Drum Stuart Staniford argues agriculture will not deindustrialize when the production of oil peaks and goes into long term decline.

So when you industrialize a society, is that a reversible process? Can you take it on a backward path to a deindustrialized society that looks in the important ways like the society you had before the industrialization? As far as I can see, the "second wave" peak oil writers treat it as fairly obvious that this is both possible and desirable. It appears to me that it is neither possible or desirable, but at a minimum, someone arguing for it should seriously address the question. And it is this failure that I am calling the Fallacy of Reversibility. It is most pronounced in Kunstler, who in addition to believing we need a much higher level of involvement in agriculture also wants railways, canals, and sailing ships back, and is a strong proponent of nineteenth century urban forms.

I think those who see collapse in a post-oil peak world are making a number of mistakes. First, they are underestimating the potential of substitutes. Granted, the substitutes will initially cost more. So a shift to substitutes will cause a dip in living standards. But that is not collapse of civilization and a reversion to people following oxen around farm fields. The biggest problem with substitutes is the lag time while new capital expenditures for energy substitutes get made as oil production declines. But oil production won't collapse in a year. We will have time to make the shift. For people in First World countries it will be difficult but not a collapse of civilization.

Stuart invents a new term for peak oil doomers that is technically more precise: reversalists.

I am going to christen this general faction of the peak oil community reversalists. This encompasses people advocating a return to earlier food growing or distribution practices (the local food movement), folks wanting to bring back the railways and tramcars, people believing that large scale corporations will all collapse, that the Internet will fail and we need to "make our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers."

Stuart argues that reversalist arguments are a distraction from figuring out what we really need to do to handle Peak Oil. I agree.

And before moving on, I stress that I'm not making an argument that our time is in all ways better than earlier times and that nostalgia for the past is entirely misplaced. Nor am I making an argument that peak oil does not pose a massive and important challenge to us. Instead, I'm making an argument that society is unlikely to reverse its trajectory of development, regardless of what we might like. Calls for it to do so are a distraction and get in the way of figuring out what we really need to be doing, and what the real options and dangers are.

Fortunately, I suspect capitalists are not much distracted by the doomer/reversalist talk. The capitalists are looking for ways to profit from high energy prices and that means investing in substitutes.

So why does Stuart think farmers will do well in a period of declining oil production? Stuart compares farm profitability in the United States to oil prices from 1976 to 2006 and finds that farm profitability does not decline as oil prices rise.

The relationship is somewhat stronger - profits are a little likelier to be higher when oil is expensive, but oil prices explain only about 12% of the variance in profit margins. The relationship is just barely statistically significant (p = 4.9%), but I wouldn't set too much store in it, given that the regression is not controlled for any other factors that might be explanatory.

But certainly, there is no evidence for the idea that farms are less profitable at high oil prices - that inference is completely unsupported by the data since 1975.

The analysis does not include 2007, since the cost data are not available yet, but it is likely that 2007 had high profit margins (since crop prices were very high), and certainly it had fairly high oil prices. I will argue below that this is a harbinger of the game-changing role of biofuels, which will tend in the future to make industrial farming more profitable as oil prices rise.

So far higher oil prices have created higher demand for farm products and so higher oil prices have pulled up farm prices and farm production. Will that continue to be the case? I think it depends on whether farms produce more energy than they consume. If they do then Peak Oil means happy times for farmers and high costs for food.

Stuart then shows a graph of farm labor costs versus oil prices which shows that, if anything, farmers use less labor per acre when oil prices are high.

What we see is that wheat and soybeans show essentially no meaningful relationship between oil prices and the amount of labor per acre that farmers use. They use the same low amount regardless. Corn farmers actually spend less on labor when oil prices are high, for reasons that are unclear - however the relationship is quite strong (r2 of 43%) and very statistically significant (p = 0.005%).

Stuart points out that even without subsidies corn-ethanol was profitable part of the time in recent years.

But what I would argue is that if oil gets to $200/barrel, industrial agriculture is likely to do very well. I pointed out in Fermenting the Food Supply that corn-ethanol has been profitable even without subsidies at times in the last few years, and that whenever oil prices go up sharply, there is a huge spurt in the growth of the biofuel industry. This creates an arbitrage between food prices and fuel prices, and mean that the former must go up whenever the latter go up (since the biofuel industry can very easily use most of the global food supply without adding more than a modest fraction to the fuel supply).

Take away the government corn ethanol subsidies and that profitability picture probably wouldn't have changed much. Farmers would have planted less corn and less of the corn would have been bought for corn ethanol. The supply and demand would have intercepted at a lower price point at which corn ethanol would have achieved about the same level of profitability.

Stuart's argument has more merit if farms are net energy producers. If the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) is a ratio much higher than 1 for highly mechanized farms then farmers can produce more energy from what they grow than they use as inputs. In that case farmers can create the energy they need to run their operations and so the odds of survival for the large scale mechanized farms becomes very high. A lot of debate surrounds the question of EROEI of agriculture. I'm inclined to believe at this point that some types of grain agriculture have positive and rising EROEI. Here's an intuitive illustration of why that's probably true. North Dakota vegetable oil production is a few times greater than the amount of oil needed to operate all of North Dakota agricultural equipment.

Canola, soybeans, sunflowers and safflowers are some of the main crops. All of them are capable of producing about 50 to 100 gallons of fuel per acre that can be used in an unmodified diesel engine, he says.

An estimate of the fuel production from the state’s three main oil-producing crops in 2003 - soybeans, canola and sunflowers - is more than 300 million gallons. Fuel production from any other oil-producing crops would be in addition to this amount. In comparison, North Dakota agriculture uses about 85 million gallons of diesel fuel per year.

Note that North Dakota farmers also grow various grain crops. Also, some of these crops that produce oils also produce meal rich with protein and carbohydrates as byproducts. So it looks at first glance like North Dakota's farmers can produce the energy they need to run their operations.

But this isn't definitive proof by any means. We still need to know about the energy inputs for fertilizer production, farm equipment production, and other components of highly mechanized and automated agriculture.

So here's my conclusion: If mechanised agriculture has an EROEI substantially above 1 then mechanised agriculture survives post-peak oil. I strongly suspect that this is the case for some crops and that biotechnological advances as well as smart innovations in farm practice will raise grain crop EROEI much higher. So we should see mechanized agriculture expand as fossil fuels energy production declines.

Update: Note that with positive EROEI Peak Oil therefore means greater demand for agricultural land even if yield per acre rises. Part of the land will go toward creating energy to use to farm the rest of the land. Part will go to create energy to operate cars and airplanes and other parts of modern civilization. I suspect less of the land will go toward growing food.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 21 10:39 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 January 20 Sunday
Exercise Or Calorie Restriction Improves Heart Health

If you are overweight then regardless of whether you exercise or cut calories to lose weight you will gain the benefit of a more flexible and functional heart.

Jan. 10, 2008 -- Overweight people who lose a moderate amount of weight get an immediate benefit in the form of better heart health, according to a study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. And the heart improvements happen whether that weight is shed by eating less or exercising more.

"If individuals want to do something that's good for their heart, then my message to them is lose weight by the method they find most tolerable," says the study's senior author Sándor J. Kovács, Ph.D, M.D., director of the Cardiovascular Biophysics Laboratory and professor of medicine. "They're virtually guaranteed that it will have a salutary effect on their cardiovascular system."

Studying a group of healthy, overweight but not obese, middle-aged men and women, the researchers found that a yearlong regimen of either calorie restriction or exercise increase had positive effects on heart function. Their analysis revealed that heart function was restored to a more youthful state so that during the heart's filling phase (called diastole) it took less time for participants' hearts to relax and fill with blood. The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Physiology and are now available online.

Your tissues are accumulating collagen fibers that are making your tissues more fibrotic and stiff. Do you react like I do when reading descriptions of aging and think "what a waste" and "how disgusting" and "we need to find out how to fix that" and the like?

"As we get older, our tissues become more fibrotic as collagen fibers accumulate," says study co-author John O. Holloszy, M.D., professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Science. "So the arteries and heart muscle stiffen, and the heart doesn't relax as well after contracting. Similar studies that we've conducted with members of the Caloric Restriction with Optimal Nutrition Society (CRONies) show they have heart function resembling much younger people." CRONies voluntarily consume about 25 percent fewer calories than the average American while still maintaining good nutrition.

We shouldn't have stiff heart muscles. I realize that there is an election campaign going on in America about all sorts of issues. But isn't the fact that our heart muscles are getting stiffer more important than all those issues? You are falling apart. We don't have the technology to reverse it. Development of such technology is possible. Shouldn't we think that is more important than personality politics?

Gaining the ability to relax a heart more quickly is a good thing.

By the end of the yearlong study, both the calorie restriction and exercise groups of volunteers lost 12 percent of their weight and 12 percent of their body mass index (BMI), a measurement considered to be a fairly reliable indicator of the amount of body fat. In both groups, participants' hearts responded to this weight loss by gaining the ability to relax more quickly, recovering some of the elasticity characteristic of younger heart tissue. Those in the calorie restriction group achieved slightly more reduction of heart stiffness.

Sounds like the calorie restriction group got the bigger benefit.

The detailed analysis showed that in both groups, the left ventricle gained an increased capacity to expand to accommodate blood entering during diastole. In the calorie restriction group, the global stiffness of the left ventricle decreased, suggesting that the muscle and connective tissue of the heart more readily sprang back after the contraction phase. This group also experienced a decrease in the internal pressure gradient, indicating that their left ventricles had better suction ability.

So eat less. Eat better too.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 20 10:19 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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Venture Capital Biotech Investments Surged In 2007

Venture capitalists see biotechnology as about to take off.

Venture capitalists pumped a record $9.1 billion into privately held U.S. biotechnology and medical device companies last year, in hopes of making discoveries they can sell to larger drugmakers.

Biotechnology and medical device companies raised 20 percent more cash in the U.S. last year than in 2006, according to a report by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association.

This bodes well for the development of rejuvenation therapies. Biotechnology is going to advance much more rapidly with lots of venture capital investments flowing into start-ups. The amounts of money getting invested suggests the venture capitalists think biotechnology has finally advanced far enough that it can really start delivering large returns on investment.

If you look at the chart on page 3 of the full report (PDF) you will see that the second quarter of 2007 (2Q 07) was a stronger quarter than 3Q 07 for venture capital investment overall and for biotechnology and for medical devices and equipment.

But you will also notice one category is leaping upward very rapidly: Industrial/Energy. It nearly doubled from $543 million in 2Q 07 to $921 million in 3Q 07. That puts it close to the $1,091 million for biotech in Q3 07. High oil prices are probably causing a shift of investment from biotech and other areas to energy. As we move past the peak of oil production and the world decline of available oil starts to take hold that shift could intensify. So Peak Oil is an obstacle to the development of rejuvenation therapies.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 20 04:02 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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2008 January 19 Saturday
Biofuels Use Pushes Up Vegetable Oil Costs

A New York Times article by Keith Bradsher entitled "A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories" draws attention to the growing direct competition between using land to create food and to create energy. This is not new news for regular FuturePundit readers. But you can now discuss this as a legitimate mainstream topic, which is nice. Biodiesel causes food riots.

This is the other oil shock. From India to Indiana, shortages and soaring prices for palm oil, soybean oil and many other types of vegetable oils are the latest, most striking example of a developing global problem: costly food.

The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

In some poor countries, desperation is taking hold. Just in the last week, protests have erupted in Pakistan over wheat shortages, and in Indonesia over soybean shortages. Egypt has banned rice exports to keep food at home, and China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.

According to the F.A.O., food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

China's industrialization is putting the demand for more food by the Chinese middle class into direct competition with the demand for biomass for energy and for food for people in much poorer countries.

Half the demand growth for vegetable oils comes from use for biofuels.

Biofuels accounted for almost half the increase in worldwide demand for vegetable oils last year, and represented 7 percent of total consumption of the oils, according to Oil World, a forecasting service in Hamburg, Germany.

Also see Stuart Staniford's posts on The Oil Drum entitled Fermenting the Food Supply which I covered in my own post Will Biofuels Demand Cause Mass Starvation? aand his follow-up post Death Rates and Food Prices. Staniford reports that rural poor in undeveloped countries grow a lot of unexportable crops and are pretty isolated from the world food market. But the much more rapidly growing ranks of urban poor appear to be far more vulnerable to world food price rises. My reaction: We need a massive international effort to lower fertility rates in the very poor high fertility rate countries. We also need massive build-ups of nuclear and wind power to reduce the demand for agricultural products to create energy.

So how much can this demand growth push up prices? Quite a lot it turns out.

Palm oil commodity prices now sit above $1,000 per tonne on the strength of rising demand from increasingly prosperous Asian consumers. A year ago the price was $600.

Back in the good old days of 2001 when the world seemed so ripe with possibility palm oil leaped from $220 per tonne to $290 per tonne in just 3 weeks. But now it is almost 5 times more expensive with a recent price of $1040 per tonne.

Currently, the indicative price for refined palmolein is $320 a tonne and for crude palm oil $290 a tonne, both free-on-board Malaysia (and both up $70 a tonne in last three weeks)

What happens when oil production peaks (it might have already) and starts declining? The higher the price of petroleum oil goes up the higher vegetable will go up along with. Rises in fossil fuels diesel prices cause rises in the price that companies will pay for vegetable oil to use to create biodiesel. It is as simple as that.

Malaysia has seen a lot of panic buying of palm oil. But is this really panic buying or a rational response to expected future price rises? Buy sooner when it is cheaper.

The Malaysian Government has been forced to make an emergency palm oil injection into supermarkets and food stores across the nation to break a wave of panic-buying after prices of cooking oil soared.

The crisis, which has emptied shops completely of cooking oil, has already prompted palm-oil rationing in a country that is one of the world’s largest producers of the highly sought-after commodity.

I am expecting food exports to follow a pattern similar to oil exports. As big exporting countries start to find internal demand is growing rapidly the internal pressures will build to stop exports. Bans on exports will create the conditions for market prices for food and oil which are lower in many producers than on the world market.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 19 06:00 PM  Trends Resource Depletion
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2008 January 17 Thursday
5 Genes Almost 5 Times Greater Prostate Cancer Risk

If you have 5 specific genetic variations in your genes then Your risk of prostate cancer goes up by 4 to 5 times.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – New genomics research has found that a simple blood test can determine which men are likely to develop prostate cancer. Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and colleagues found that five genetic variants previously associated with prostate cancer risk have a strong cumulative effect.

Reporting in New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that a man with four of the five variants has an increased risk of 400 to 500 percent compared to men with none of the variants. The researchers then added a family history of prostate cancer to the equation – for a total of six risk factors. A man with at least five of the six factors had increased risk of more than 900 percent.

The article was published “Online First” today and will be included in the Feb. 28 print issue.

The scientists say each variant was independently associated with prostate cancer risk and that the variants are fairly common in the population. Together, these five variants and a family history accounted for almost half (46 percent) of prostate cancer patients. The study involved analyzing DNA samples from 2,893 men with prostate cancer and 1,781 healthy individuals of similar ages – all participants of a prostate cancer study in Sweden.

But what is the point of knowing you are doomed? We might be lucky and find out that people who have greater genetic risk of this or that disease would especially benefit from a particular risk lowering diet. Also, these risk genes are obvious targets for drug development to create drugs that suppress or enhance target genes to cancel out their disease risk.

Cheap DNA testing technology is producing a lot more research studies where many different genetic variations are found to be important at a time. Other studies will find gene combinations for risk of other diseases.

According to the researchers, this is the first time that anyone has been able to demonstrate how a combination of genes affect the risk of developing the disease. Scientists the world over are currently searching for gene combinations behind common diseases like cancer, diabetes and asthma.

"For the first time, this type of study has made it possible to develop a clinically viable gene test," says Professor Grönberg.

The study was based on genetic analyses of approximately 4,800 Swedish men, of whom 3,000 had prostate cancer and 1,800 had no prostate cancer diagnosis.

Once genetic tests for a great many diseases hit the market I expect to see a lot more interest groups to form to lobby for faster research. Once you know exactly what sort of ticking genetic time bombs you've got inside of you one response is to become a big supporter of research that aims to slay your big risks before they slay you.

The researchers were only looking at 2 chromosomes.

Investigators found 16 SNPs in five different regions of human chromosomes 8 and 17 that were more common to men with prostate cancer than those without the disease. The individual changes were ones previously linked to prostate cancer and other diseases, a good indication, the scientists say, that they were on the right track.

To create their panel, the scientists chose the best SNPs from each of the five regions and tested their cumulative effect on prostate cancer risk. As the number of associated SNPs increased, so did risk. Men with four or more of these SNPs were nearly 4.5 times more likely to have prostate cancer.

They did not compare all genetic variations. They were only looking at single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs: single letter differences in DNA sequences). SNPs are not the only kind of genetic variation. Plus, they were only looking at a subset of all SNPs. This suggests that other genetic risk factors for prostate cancer are waiting to be found and the same is true for other types of cancer.

Update: In just a few months you guys will be able to get yourself tested for your prostate cancer risk.

A company formed by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine is expected to make the test available in a few months, said Karen Richardson, a Wake Forest spokeswoman. It should cost less than $300.

This signals the beginning of a long awaited revolution in medical genetics.

This is, some medical experts say, a first taste of what is expected to be a revolution in medical prognostication.

I think a lot of people are going to be upset to learn which specific high risks they face. Well, in preparation for that day support the more rapid development of treatments to cure all the causes of aging and age-related diseases.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 17 10:53 PM  Biotech Cancer
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2008 January 16 Wednesday
Ford Expects Hybrids To Start Turning Profit

Manufacturing costs for hybrids are dropping.

By the end of this year, Ford Motor Co.'s hybrid vehicle program is expected to be profitable for the first time.

Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid vehicle programs, said that since production started in 2004, Ford has chopped about 30 percent of the cost out of making the Escape, Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute hybrid SUVs.

Yes, hybrids have been loss leaders. That they are becoming profitable is good news. The longer we go before world oil production starts declining the easier it'll be to handle it. Advances in hybrid and battery technologies as well as in wind turbines, photovoltaics, and nuclear technologies will all make the migration away from fossil fuels easier.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe says Toyota is already making money on hybrids.

To the amazement of many in the industry, Watanabe also declared that Toyota is making money on hybrids -- and could soon expect to make more. "As of today, there is no problem with the profitability of hybrids. Of course there is room for improvement. The next generation will be one-half the size and one-half the cost."

GM isn't just trying to produce a pluggable Volt hybrid by 2010. Turns out GM will also release a shorter range pluggable Saturn Vue by 2010 as well.

Meanwhile, GM executives announced this week that they hope to introduce the plug-in version of the Saturn Vue hybrid in 2010. The plug-in hybrid SUV would be capable of going 10 miles when fully charged before the gasoline engine kicks in, according to GM, and it would get roughly double the gas mileage of a typical SUV on the road today.

This Saturn Vue might beat the more radical Volt design to market just because the Vue is a smaller step. So ths PHEV Saturn Vue might turn out to be the first mass production pluggable hybrid car. How many people will want to put up with the hassle of recharging just about every day to maximize the use of cheaper electric power? I think it depends on where you live and where you park your car. If you park it in a garage then plugging it in every night would be a lot easier.

You might have heard that Toyota is trying to beat GM to market with a pluggable hybrid. Well, Toyota's 2010 release date for a pluggable hybrid is for a very low volume vehicle that would be sold to a small number of fleet customers (i.e. not in dealerships).

However, in another sign of the steep technological hurdles carmakers face to make the cars commercially viable, a Toyota spokesman said initial sales would be in "the hundreds", and the company did not say when it planned to mass-produce plug-ins for retail customers.

The 2010 Toyota pluggables sound like experimental vehicles.

Watanabe announced that Toyota will market a test fleet of rechargeable hybrid vehicles to companies or government agencies by the end of 2010.

Even though people in the auto industry do not know exactly when the lithium battery problem will be solved many in the auto industry expect to see high volume lithium batteries for cars in a few years.

"I think within three to five years you'll see lithium-ion hybrid electric vehicles out there in some volume," Ford's chief hybrid engineer, Sherif Marakby, said on Tuesday.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 16 10:58 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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Toxoplasma Gondii Increases Schizophrenia Risk?

Are cats driving you crazy?

Findings from what is believed to be the largest comparison of blood samples collected from healthy individuals and people with schizophrenia suggest that infection with the common Toxoplasma gondii parasite, carried by cats and farm animals, may increase the risk of schizophrenia.

A report on the study, conducted among U.S. military personnel by researchers from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center appears in the January issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers found that of the 180 study subjects diagnosed with schizophrenia, 7 percent had been infected with toxoplasma prior to their diagnosis, compared to 5 percent among the 532 healthy recruits. Thus, people exposed to toxoplasma had a 24 percent higher risk of developing schizophrenia. The difference, while seemingly small, is important, researchers say, because the ability to explain even a small portion of the 2 million cases of schizophrenia in the United States may offer clues to the disease and some possible treatments.

Recall that t. gondii infections are also suspected of causing personality changes. This explains the origins of Cat Woman.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 16 09:40 PM  Brain Disorders
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2008 January 15 Tuesday
Enbrel Works Fast Against Alzheimer's Disease?

Injected near the spine Enbrel delivers very rapid results.

A drug commonly used to treat arthritis caused a dramatic and rapid improvement in patients with Alzheimer's disease, according to physicians in California. However, scientists and others not involved in the work worry that the report, which was based on trials in a few patients and hasn't been independently confirmed, may offer little more than false hope for Alzheimer's sufferers and their families.

Alzheimer's patients injected with the anti-inflammatory drug etanercept--marketed as Enbrel--showed dramatic improvements in their functioning within minutes, according to Edward Tobinick, director of the Institute for Neurological Research, a private medical facility in Los Angeles where the patients were treated, and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"The patients improve literally before your eyes," says Tobinick, who began using etanercept in Alzheimer's patients three years ago. He uses an unconventional method to administer the drug; he injects it near patients' spines.

Will affluent Alzheimer's sufferers seek out doctors capable of delivering this treatment? Will it spread even without big clinical trials to check its effectiveness? Think about it. If you had early stage Alzheimer's would you try something like this? I would.

Suppose this turns out to work really well. If the relief from this treatment is long lasting then the methods under development to detect beta amyloid plaque years before disease diagnosis will end up getting used in routine screenings of people in their 40s and 50s. One way or another early detection will get used to trigger the use of preventive treatments against Alzheimer's once such treatments become available.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 15 09:32 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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Vegetable Compounds Reduce Cataracts Risk?

Yet another fancy scientific study to tell you what you already know: you should eat more vegetables.

Women who have higher dietary intake of lutein and zeaxanthin—compounds found in yellow or dark, leafy vegetables—as well as more vitamin E from food and supplements appear to have a lower risk for developing cataracts, according to a report in the January issue of Archives of Ophthalmology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

“The oxidative hypothesis of cataract formation posits that reactive oxygen species can damage lens proteins and fiber cell membranes and that nutrients with antioxidant capabilities can protect against these changes,” the authors write as background information in the article. Vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin are all believed to have antioxidant properties. Lutein and zeaxanthin are the only carotenoids—yellow plant pigments—present in the lens of the human eye and may also protect against cataracts by filtering harmful blue light.

William G. Christen, Sc.D., of Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues analyzed dietary information from 35,551 female health professionals who enrolled in the Women’s Health Study in 1993. The women were then followed for an average of 10 years, and the diets of those who developed cataracts were compared with the diets of those who did not.

A total of 2,031 women developed cataracts during the study. When the participants were split into five groups based on the amount of lutein and zeaxanthin they consumed, those in the group who consumed the most (about 6,716 micrograms per day) had an 18 percent lower chance of developing cataracts than those who consumed the least (1,177 micrograms per day). The one-fifth who consumed the most vitamin E from food and supplements—about 262.4 milligrams per day—were 14 percent less likely than the one-fifth who got the least (4.4 milligrams per day).

Of course getting lots of vegetables will reduce your risk of many other diseases as well. But people like the taste of cheeseburgers and fries more than veggies.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 15 09:21 PM  Aging Diet Eye Studies
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Lipoic Acid Slows Artery Clogging In Mice

At least in mice lipoic acid reduces the development of cardiovascular disease.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study done with mice has discovered that supplements of lipoic acid can inhibit formation of arterial lesions, lower triglycerides, and reduce blood vessel inflammation and weight gain – all key issues for addressing cardiovascular disease.

Lipoic acid is involved in energy metabolism. Possibly it delivers a benefit by keeping energy generation up in cells in the circulatory system. Imagine we had a better way to keep up energy generation, for example a gene therapy that could replace damaged mitochondrial genes as we age. Well, our blood vessels might remain unclogged for decades longer.

Although the results cannot be directly extrapolated beyond the laboratory, researchers report that “they strongly suggest that lipoic acid supplementation may be useful as an inexpensive but effective intervention strategy . . . reducing known risk factors for the development of atherosclerosis and other inflammatory vascular diseases in humans.”

The findings were made by scientists from the Linus Pauling Institute and College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University, and the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington. They were just published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

The study found that lipoic acid supplements reduced atherosclerotic lesion formation in two types of mice that are widely used to study cardiovascular disease, by 55 percent and 40 percent, respectively. The supplements were also associated with almost 40 percent less body weight gain, and lower levels of triglycerides in very low-density lipoproteins.

The reduced body weight gain: Do we gain weight as we age because our metabolisms slow down?

The dose used is the equivalent of 2 grams per day for humans. Mind you, your own arteries might be clean and you ought to eat a better diet of the sort that reduces cardiovascular (and cancer) risk before taking lipoic acid.

Alpha lipoic acid is a naturally occurring nutrient found at low levels in green leafy vegetables, potatoes and meats, especially organ meats such as kidney, heart or liver. The amounts used in this research would not be obtainable by any normal diet, researchers said, and for human consumption might equate to supplements of about 2,000 milligrams per day. Even at low, normal, dietary levels, the compound can play a key role in energy metabolism.

I would rather have gene therapies and cell therapies that turn back the biological clock than take vitamins and other nutrients in pills.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 15 09:17 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2008 January 14 Monday
Vitamin D2 Reduces Falling In Older Women?

Time for another study on the benefits of vitamin D. The D2 form of vitamin D appears to reduce the frequency of falls among older women.

Vitamin D2 supplements appear to reduce the risk of falls among women with a history of falling and low blood vitamin D levels living in sunny climates, especially during the winter, according to a report in the January 14 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

“Approximately one-third of women older than 65 years fall each year, and 6 percent sustain a fracture as a result of the fall,” the authors write as background information in the article. “In addition, fear of falling is a major problem in older people.”

Richard L. Prince, M.D., of the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Nedlands, Australia, and colleagues conducted a year-long clinical trial of 302 women age 70 to 90 years living in Perth, Australia. Because vitamin D is produced in response to sun exposure and the study was completed in a sunny climate, the researchers selected women with blood vitamin D levels below the median for the area (24 nanograms per milliliter). All participants had a history of falling in the previous year and received 1,000 milligrams of calcium citrate per day. Half were then randomly assigned to take either 1,000 international units of vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and half took an identical placebo. Data on falls were collected from participants every six weeks.

Eighty women (53 percent) in the vitamin D2 group and 95 women (62.9 percent) in the control group fell at least once during the study period. After adjusting for height, which affected the risk of falling and was significantly different between the two groups, vitamin D2 therapy reduced the risk of having at least one fall by 19 percent. “When those who fell were grouped by the season of first fall or the number of falls they had, ergocalciferol treatment reduced the risk of having the first fall in winter and spring but not in summer and autumn, and reduced the risk of having one fall but not multiple falls,” the authors write.

There is the falling. But there are also the injuries sustained by the falling. There is the substantial possibility that the vitamin D supplementation will reduce the risks of bone breakage per fall as well as reducing the risk of falling in the first place.

These results imply that older folks are at greater risk of falling down in the fall and winter. Interesting.

“It is interesting that the ergocalciferol therapy effect was confined to those who were to sustain one fall but not those destined to have more than one fall,” the authors write. “Older people who fall frequently tend to have more risk factors for falling, including greater degrees of disability and poorer levels of physical function.” It is possible that chemically correcting vitamin D levels in the blood is insufficient to prevent falls in these individuals, they note. “Ergocalciferol, 1,000 international units per day, added to a high calcium intake is associated with 23 percent reduction of the risk of falling in winter/spring to the same level as in summer/autumn,” the authors conclude.

In the comments section of my post on the value of vitamin D as D2 or D3 a researcher from UCSD pointed out that the study in that post doesn't prove the stated conclusion of the study. Well, be aware that when reading these sorts of posts that we aren't necessarily seeing the critical reactions to the studies (though in that case we did). Still, enough of the benefits of vitamin D are well established that even if some of the theorized benefits don't hold up getting more of the nutrient looks like a big benefit for most people in industrialized societies.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 14 10:20 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Brain Aging Makes Elderly Easier Prey For Con Artists

Yet another reason why I don't want to grow old.

Recent work led by University of Iowa neuroscientist Natalie Denburg, Ph.D., suggests that for a significant number of older adults, measurable neuropsychological deficits do seem to lead to poor decision-making and an increased vulnerability to fraud. The findings also suggest that these individuals may experience disproportionate aging of a brain region critical for decision-making.

"Our research suggests that elders who fall prey to fraudulent advertising are not simply gullible, depressed, lonely or less intelligent. Rather, it is truly more of a medical or neurological problem," said Denburg, who is an assistant professor of neurology in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. "Our work sheds new light on this problem and perhaps may lead to a way to identify people at risk of being deceived."

Brain aging is gradual brain damage. Some people think aging is wonderful and natural. That's tantamount to saying that brain damage is wonderful and natural.

The Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) seems like a handy test for large corporations to use to detect when their top executives should retire.

Denburg's most recent study, published Dec. 2007 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, shows that 35 to 40 percent of a test group of 80 healthy older adults with no apparent neurological deficits have poor decision-making abilities as tested in a laboratory experiment known as the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT). The IGT is a computerized decision-making test where participants draw cards from different decks with the aim of maximizing their winnings. Some of the decks yield good results in aggregate, while others yield poor outcomes.

When you feel your brain slipping stop watching TV advertising, throw out all junk mail, and hang up on all phone callers who are trying to sell you something. You will lose the ability to handle that stuff.

Following the poor decision-makers through several additional tests, the researchers found that in addition to the poor performance on the IGT, this subgroup of older adults also were more likely to fall prey to deceptive advertising.

Using a set of real advertisements that had been deemed misleading by the Federal Trade Commission and several counterpart, non-deceptive advertisements, the study showed that the poor decision-makers are much less able to spot inconsistencies and pick up on deceptive messages than good decision-makers. Poor decision-makers also were more likely to indicate an intention to buy the article advertised in the misleading advertisement. In contrast, there was no difference in comprehension of non-deceptive advertisements between the two groups of older adults.

Imagine a future era when routine brain scans as we age will warn us when our ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) begins to give out. At that point you'll become easy prey for con artists. Yet another reason why we should support the development of brain rejuvenation therapies as an urgent need.

Another group of patients who perform poorly on the IGT and have abnormal bodily responses to the test are individuals with acquired damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) -- an area of the brain that appears to be critical for good decision-making.

"Our hypothesis is that older poor decision-makers have deficits in their prefrontal cortex," Denburg explained. "The next element of our study will be to complete structural and functional brain-imaging studies to see if we can identify differences between poor decision-makers and good decision-makers either in brain structure or in how the brain functions during decision-making tasks."

I hear Mick Jagger singing "What a drag it is getting old." If only we already had rejuvenation therapies he could make another album as great as Exile On Main Street.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 14 09:48 PM  Brain Aging
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2008 January 13 Sunday
Beating Rat And Pig Hearts Created In Laboratory

Scientists used the extracellular matrix from dead animal hearts to organize growth of cells into a functioning heart shape. Wild.

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (January, 13 2008) – University of Minnesota researchers have created a beating heart in the laboratory.

By using a process called whole organ decellularization, scientists from the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair grew functioning heart tissue by taking dead rat and pig hearts and reseeding them with a mixture of live cells. The research will be published online in the January 13 issue of Nature Medicine.

“The idea would be to develop transplantable blood vessels or whole organs that are made from your own cells,” said Doris Taylor, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair, Medtronic Bakken professor of medicine and physiology, and principal investigator of the research.

Lots of people have dodgy hearts that need replacement.

Nearly 5 million people live with heart failure, and about 550,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. Approximately 50,000 United States patients die annually waiting for a donor heart.

While there have been advances in generating heart tissue in the lab, creating an entire 3-dimensional scaffold that mimics the complex cardiac architecture and intricacies, has always been a mystery, Taylor said.

It seems decellularization may be a solution – essentially using nature’s platform to create a bioartifical heart, she said.

The problem with decellularization is that you need a dead heart to start with. But perhaps studies on the extracellular matrix will lead to ways to make a purely synthetic extracellular matrix.

Decellularization is the process of removing all of the cells from an organ – in this case an animal cadaver heart – leaving only the extracellular matrix, the framework between the cells, intact.

After successfully removing all of the cells from both rat and pig hearts, researchers injected them with a mixture of progenitor cells that came from neonatal or newborn rat hearts and placed the structure in a sterile setting in the lab to grow.

The results were very promising, Taylor said. Four days after seeding the decellularized heart scaffolds with the heart cells, contractions were observed. Eight days later, the hearts were pumping.

Growth of replacement hearts, as great as it would be, is not the ideal way to solve heart disease. Better to be able to send in gene therapy and/or cell therapy to repair the existing heart while it still beats. But even once such treatments become available some will still need replacement hearts due to sudden trauma.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 13 11:26 PM  Biotech Organ Replacement
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Brain Scanner Detects Cultural Differences In Thinking

Remember that movie where Kevin Costner played a deep undercover Russian spy working as a US naval officer for Gene Hackman in the Pentagon? I'm thinking some day people pretending to be from a particular country will get identified by brain scans that will show that they don't think like people from that country. Known differences in styles of processing information between East Asians and Americans show up as different brain activation patterns when trying to solve the same problems.

Psychological research has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects. Behavioral studies have shown that these cultural differences can influence memory and even perception. But are they reflected in brain activity patterns"

Could a mind get trained to be equally good at both methods of thinking? Or is there a trade-off in the mind where resources get allocated toward one style of thinking at the expense of the other style?

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch the brains of subjects while they solved problems that involved either relative or absolute determinations about shapes.

To find out, a team led by John Gabrieli, a professor at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, asked 10 East Asians recently arrived in the United States and 10 Americans to make quick perceptual judgments while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner--a technology that maps blood flow changes in the brain that correspond to mental operations.

The results are reported in the January issue of Psychological Science. Gabrieli's colleagues on the work were Trey Hedden, lead author of the paper and a research scientist at McGovern; Sarah Ketay and Arthur Aron of State University of New York at Stony Brook; and Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford University.

Subjects were shown a sequence of stimuli consisting of lines within squares and were asked to compare each stimulus with the previous one. In some trials, they judged whether the lines were the same length regardless of the surrounding squares (an absolute judgment of individual objects independent of context). In other trials, they decided whether the lines were in the same proportion to the squares, regardless of absolute size (a relative judgment of interdependent objects).

In previous behavioral studies of similar tasks, Americans were more accurate on absolute judgments, and East Asians on relative judgments. In the current study, the tasks were easy enough that there were no differences in performance between the two groups.

However, the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain's attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain's attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone,” says Hedden.

Do East Asians raised in America show American patterns of brain activation solving these sorts of problems? In other words, are the differences due to genetics or culture? If cultural, what about developmental environment causes one style of thinking or the other?

By Randall Parker 2008 January 13 11:18 PM  Brain Society
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2008 January 12 Saturday
Radio-Controlled Thermostat Lowering In Electric Shortages

California's regulatory authorities are taking over your home thermostat.

SAN FRANCISCO — The conceit in the 1960s show “The Outer Limits” was that outside forces had taken control of your television set.

Next year in California, state regulators are likely to have the emergency power to control individual thermostats, sending temperatures up or down through a radio-controlled device that will be required in new or substantially modified houses and buildings to manage electricity shortages.

The proposed rules are contained in a document circulated by the California Energy Commission, which for more than three decades has set state energy efficiency standards for home appliances, like water heaters, air conditioners and refrigerators. The changes would allow utilities to adjust customers’ preset temperatures when the price of electricity is soaring. Customers could override the utilities’ suggested temperatures. But in emergencies, the utilities could override customers’ wishes.

Okay, this is kinda creepy. It also draws attention to a deeper regulatory failure: the lack of dynamic electric pricing. If the demand for a product or services gets too high then the price should rise. The regulatory agencies and suppliers should not be in the business of deciding which particular use of electricity should be curtailed in a shortage. Raise the price and let the various users decide whether they want to cut back or pay more.

So why doesn't the California Energy Commission require new homes to install electric meters that support dynamic pricing? Let homeowners then program their thermostats to change to different target temperatures depending on the price of electricity. Homeowners could even program dishwashers and clothes washers and driers to kick on once electric prices drop below some max level.

We need dynamic pricing in order to enable wider usage of wind and solar energy. Wind and solar aren't dependable. Okay, charge more when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. Charge less on long windy days with blue skies.

Dynamic pricing also works in favor of nuclear power. Nuclear is a baseload power source. Dynamic pricing will reduce demand peaks and valleys. So more electric power will get used as baseload power under a dynamic pricing scheme. This plays to nuclear's strengths (though the state of California opposes nuclear power). We need nuclear power in order to provide substitute electric power after natural gas production peaks and world coal production peaks maybe in 2025 (and see CalTech professor David Rutledge on an earlier peak in coal production).

Another point: If the California Energy Commission insists on going through with their regulatory proposal they ought to provide an incentive for installation of solar panels. Basically, allow any house with more than some amount of solar panels to be free from the restrictive effects of this regulation. Build a house that generates energy and become more free in your usage of energy.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 12 05:35 PM  Energy Policy
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2008 January 10 Thursday
UK Government Decides For New Nuclear Power Plants

The British government has been signaling for months that it would probably shift to a more supportive position toward the construction of new nuclear power plants. Well, that shift is now official. More nukes for Britain.

A looming energy crisis caused by unstable supplies of gas and oil has forced the Government to back nuclear which will also help meet global climate change targets.

The French-owned company EDF announced their plans to build four power stations in Britain - the first by 2017 - immediately after Business and Industry Secretary John Hutton told MPs that nuclear would give Britain "safe and affordable" energy.

The German power company, E.On, formerly Powergen, the British Gas parent Centrica and RWE npower, Britain's largest electricity supplier, also expressed interest in building nuclear stations at a likely cost of £2.8 billion apiece.

I do not believe the biggest motivation for this decision was the fear of global warming, though that played a part. The decline in North Sea oil and natural gas production has turned Britain into a big and growing importer of fossil fuels. The fossil fuels imports contribute to a growing trade deficit. European OECD natural gas production might peak in 2008. Worse, Russia is the major external source of natural gas for Europe and Russian oil and natural gas fields look like they are approaching production peaks as well. Look for prices to rise and the savings to be had from shifting to nuclear power to grow as well. Plus, dependence on Russia for natural gas makes Britain vulnerable to Russian diplomatic pressure. Not a good place to be. So nuclear power is the road to reduced economic and political vulnerability.

The British government has also recently opted for a large build of offshore wind towers. With these two announcements the Brits have opted for the two biggest realistic energy options they have available for domestic energy production. Wave energy is still a research project. Solar is too expensive, especially for a country as far north and overcast as Britain. So playing both the wind and nuclear cards makes sense.

Britain needs to build new capacity to replace old nuclear power plants that are headed for retirement.

The UK's 19 nuclear power stations supply a fifth of the country's electricity, but all except one are due to close by 2023. Replacing them with new nuclear build would fill the electricity shortfall and limit greenhouse gas emissions - and the government has committed to a 60 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

The UK Department of Trade and Industry (now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) projects a competitive cost for new nuclear power plants.

The central case cost of new nuclear power generation is assumed to be around £38 / MWh. The main cost drivers are construction and financing costs, giving an assumed capital cost of £25 / MWh; this is significantly higher than the capital cost for the project currently under implementation to add a new nuclear plant in Finland. Other categories of cost are small in comparison: fuel costs are around £4 / MWh, and Operation and Maintenance costs are roughly £8 / MWh. Back end costs (decommissioning and waste management), whilst potentially of a large order of magnitude far into the future, would need only a relatively small annual contribution over time to ensure that the required amount is available. No decisions have been taken on the specific mechanism required.

We can translate that £38/MWh into US currency. Assume 2 dollars per British pound. That would work out to $76/MWH or 7.6 cents per kwh. Well, the average national retail price of electricity is 10.65 cents per kwh. The delivery costs will up that 7.6 cents price to something slightly above the US average, but without coal pollution. In some areas (e.g. California and New England) the cost of electricity is much higher. In areas with lots of coal or hydro power it is lower.

If you want to read the supporting documents for the British government announcement then start here.

Back 5 years ago in early 2003 Britain's top science academy called for a resumption of new nuclear power plant construction as necessary for the environment.

The UK will be unable to cut greenhouse gas emissions without new nuclear power stations, the country's top science academy has warned.

The Royal Society has urged the government to show "political courage" in its forthcoming White Paper on energy, and make a clear decision on the future of nuclear power.

The scientists saw the obvious: Take away fossil fuels and the list of alternatives in Britain is pretty short.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 10 10:30 PM  Energy Nuclear
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2008 January 09 Wednesday
Testosterone Causes Aggressive Humor?

Does humor flow from the desire of males to demonstrate their virility?

Humour appears to develop from aggression caused by male hormones, according to a study published in this week’s Christmas issue of the BMJ.

Professor Sam Shuster conducted a year long study observing how people reacted to him as he unicycled through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. What began as a hobby turned into an observational study after he realized that the huge number of stereotypical and predictable responses he received must be indicative of an underlying biological phenomenon.

The study was an observation of people’s reactions to a sudden unexpected exposure to a new phenomenon - in this case unicycling, which at the time few had seen. He documented the responses of over 400 individuals, and observed the responses of many others.

Over 90% of people responded physically, for example with an exaggerated stare or a wave. Almost half responded verbally – more men than women. Here, says Professor Shuster, the sex difference was striking. 95% of adult women were praising, encouraging or showed concern. There were very few comic or snide remarks. In contrast, only 25% of adult men responded as did the women, for example, by praise or encouragement; instead 75% attempted comedy, often snide or combative as an intended put-down.

Equally striking, he says, was the repetitive and predictable nature of the comments from men; two thirds of their ‘comic’ responses referred to the number of wheels - “Lost your wheel?”, for example.

Professor Shuster also noticed the male response differed markedly with age, moving from curiosity in childhood (years 5-12) – the same reaction as young girls, - to physical and verbal aggression in boys aged 11-13 who often tried to get him to fall off the unicycle.

Responses became more verbal during the later teens, turning into disparaging ‘jokes’ or mocking songs. This then evolved into adult male humour – characterized by repetitive, humorous verbal put-downs concealing a latent aggression. Young men in cars were particularly aggressive. Professor Shuster notes that this is the age when men are at the peak of their virility. The ‘jokes’ were lost with age as older men responded more neutrally and amicably with few attempts at a jovial put-down.

The female response by contrast, was subdued during puberty and late teens – normally either apparent indifference or minimal approval. It then evolved into the laudatory and concerned adult female response.

What I'd like to see: A study of female comics where their blood testosterone levels are compared to the average testosterone levels of women of similar age, socio-economic background, and so on. My guess is that female comics have more testosterone than the average woman.

What is the evolutionary purpose or intent of male humor? To demonstrate reproductive fitness to women by showing wit and cleverness? Or to make other men feel inferior and less likely to compete for women? Or some other purpose?

By Randall Parker 2008 January 09 11:42 PM  Brain Sexuality
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Africa Human Population To At Least Double By 2050

Here is a far bigger crisis than global warming. Say good bye to Africa's wildlife as Sub-Saharan Africa's population doubles or more to between 1.5 and 2 billion by 2050.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing phenomenal population growth since the beginning of the XXth Century, following several centuries of population stagnation attributable to the slave trade and colonization. The region’s population in fact increased from 100 million in 1900 to 770 million in 2005. The latest United Nations projections, published in March 2007, envisaged a figure of 1.5 to 2 billion inhabitants being reached between the present and 2050.

The report of a demographic study, coordinated by the Centre Population et Développement (CEPED), commissioned by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), was published recently. The work was performed by a joint team involving scientists from the IRD and specialist academics from Belgium, Cameroon, France and the Ivory Coast (2). They examined the recent and projected future population trends in Sub-Saharan Africa and the relationships between these tendencies and the development of the region. This review effectively demolished some generally accepted ideas, in particular the one that Sub-Saharan Africa is underpopulated.

Today, two out of three inhabitants of this large region of Africa are under 25 years of age (twice the number prevailing in Europe) and, with 32 inhabitants per km2, Sub-Saharan Africa is more densely populated on average than Latin America (28 inhabitants/km2). And although two-thirds of its population still live in rural areas, massive migration to the towns and cities is under way. Thus, whereas in 1960, just one city, Johannesburg, had a population of over one million, Africa now has about 40 of them. At the present rate of rural exodus, half Sub-Saharan Africa’s population would be urban dwellers by 2030.

So Sub-Saharan Africa's population density is going to rise to over double where Latin America is today. Good bye jungles and rain forests. Good bye savannahs. Add in growing Chinese demand for rare animal parts and I do not see how many of Africa's species of cats and primates survive. I guess they'll survive in zoos along with elephants.

5 or more babies per woman. Little use of contraception. Yet our dysfunctional elites are too busy with biomass energy ideas and global warming meetings to do anything about it.

A parallel factor at work is fecundity, equal to or higher than 5 children per woman. This is two to three times higher as in the rest of the world, an important factor being that four out of five African women live in countries where there is little access to contraception. Indeed less than 20% of women use modern contraceptive methods, as against 60% or more in Latin America and Asia.

11 countries have fertility above 6 babies per woman and 9 of them are in Africa. Some Panglossians argue that the problem of human population growth will be solved naturally by declining fertility. Well, maybe in Japan and South Korea. But the top two high fertility countries in the world have seen their fertility rise from 2000 to 2007. Mali rose from 6.89 to 7.38. Niger rose from 7.16 to 7.37. They aren't alone. 5th place Afghanistan rose from 5.87 to 6.64 and 7th place Burundi rose from 6.25 to 6.48. This is a huge tragedy for our environment.

Update: At the suggestion of commenter HellKaiserRyo: Bad Catholic Church! Bad! Bad! Bad! Your position on contraceptives is irresponsible. Change your position. Human population growth isn't going to stop without contraceptives. Continued human population growth is the road to ruin.

Update II: Peak Oil, followed by Peak Natural Gas and Peak Coal, might drive up world food prices so high that current African population trends won't be sustainable. But I suspect the hunger caused by a peak fossil fuels will be fairly short-lived (granted it will kill a lot of people). We'll have several tough years until energy substitutes come on line. Necessity is a mother. Well, we are going to go up against a pretty big dose of necessity as fossil fuels supplies decline. So after a period of hunger will once again come the capacity to subsidize African food production and food supplies. We really do need to lower fertility in Africa to stop continued population growth there.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 09 07:14 PM  Trends Demographic
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2008 January 08 Tuesday
90 Minute Naps Might Speed Memory Consolidation

How about a nap after an intense learning exercise to help form memories?

In this new research, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Haifa in cooperation with the Sleep Laboratory at the Sheba Medical Center and researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal, it was revealed that a daytime nap changes the course of consolidation in the brain. Two groups of participants in the study practiced a repeated motor activity which consisted of bringing the thumb and a finger together at a specific sequence. The research examined the "how" aspect of memory in the participants' ability to perform the task quickly and in the correct sequence. One of the groups was allowed to nap for an hour and a half after learning the task while the other group stayed awake.

The group that slept in the afternoon showed a distinct improvement in their task performance by that evening, as opposed to the group that stayed awake, which did not exhibit any improvement. Following an entire night's sleep, both groups exhibited the same skill level. "This part of the research showed that a daytime nap speeds up performance improvement in the brain. After a night's sleep the two groups were at the same level, but the group that slept in the afternoon improved much faster than the group that stayed awake," stressed Prof. Karni.

This makes intuitive sense. We form more permanent memories while we sleep. We can get our brain to form memories by falling asleep.

Here is the cool part: If you are going to learn two tasks you might learn more efficiently if you nap after you learn the first task and before you learn the second task.

A second experiment showed that another aspect of memory consolidation is accelerated by sleep. It was previously shown that during the 6-8 hours after completing an effective practice session, the neural process of "how" memory consolidation is susceptible to interference, such that if, for example, one learns or performs a second, different task, one's brain will not be able to successfully remember the first trained task. A third group of participants in the University of Haifa study learned a different thumb-to-finger movement sequence two hours after practicing the first task. As the second task was introduced at the beginning of the 6-8 hour period during which the brain consolidates memories, the second task disturbed the memory consolidation process and this group did not show any improvement in their ability to perform the task, neither in the evening of that day nor on the following morning. However, when a fourth group of participants was allowed a 90 minute nap between learning the first set of movements and the second, they did not show much improvement in the evening, but on the following morning these participants showed a marked improvement of their performance, as if there had been no interference at all.

We need better methods of inducing sleep and in particular for inducing the sleep states where memories get processed.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 08 11:33 PM  Brain Sleep
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Sun Exposure Causes Net Reduction In Cancer Risk

Scientists at U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and colleagues in Norway have found evidence that the increased risk of melanoma cancer from sun exposure is outweighed by reduced risk of internal cancers as a result of increased vitamin D production.

In the current study, Setlow and his colleagues used a model incorporating information on solar radiation intensity and a vertical cylinder shape to represent the human body's skin surface to calculate the relative production of vitamin D via sunlight as a function of latitude, or distance from the equator. The cylindrical model more realistically represents human body sun exposure than flat surface exposure measurements used in previous models. The scientists also examined the incidence of and survival rates for various forms of cancer by latitude.

According to the calculations, people residing in Australia (just below the equator) produce 3.4 times more vitamin D as a result of sun exposure than people in the United Kingdom, and 4.8 times more than people in Scandinavia.

"There is a clear north-south gradient in vitamin D production," Setlow says, "with people in the northern latitudes producing significantly less than people nearer the equator."

In populations with similar skin types, there is also a clear increase in the incidence of all forms of skin cancer from north to south. "This gradient in skin cancer rates indicates that there is a true north-south gradient in real sun exposure," Setlow says.

The scientists also found that the incidence rates of major internal cancers such as colon cancer, lung cancer, and cancers of the breast and prostate also increased from north to south. However, when the scientists examined the survival rates for these cancers, they found that people from the southern latitudes were significantly less likely to die from these internal cancers than people in the north.

Since melanoma is caused by UVA radiation but vitamin D synthesis is caused by UVB radiation the scientists suggest that sun screens should selectively filter out the UVA in order to give the best of both worlds: no higher melanoma risk combined with lower internal cancer risk.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 08 11:26 PM  Aging Lifestyle Studies
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Declining Memory Recall With Age Reduces Imagination

As old people experience a declining capacity to recall memories of past events they suffer a reduced ability to imagine.

Most children are able to imagine their future selves as astronauts, politicians or even superheroes; however, many older adults find it difficult to recollect past events, let alone generate new ones. A new Harvard University study reveals that the ability of older adults to form imaginary scenarios is linked to their ability to recall detailed memories.

Aging is destruction. Aging is loss. We should defeat aging.

According to the study, episodic memory, which represents our personal memories of past experiences, “allows individuals to project themselves both backward and forward in subjective time.”

Therefore, in order to create imagined future events, the individual must be able to remember the details of previously experienced ones extract various details and put them together to create an imaginary event, a process known as the constructive-episodic-simulation.

Harvard psychologists Donna Rose Addis, Alana Wong and Daniel Schacter supported the hypothesis using an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview in which young and older participants responded to randomly selected cue words with past and future scenarios.

When compared with young adults, the researchers found that the older adults displayed a significant reduction in the use of internal episodic details to describe both past memories and imagined future events.

The results of the study, which appear in the January 2008 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, not only reveal that there is a link between age-related memory deficits and future planning in older adults, but raise questions concerning the involvement of other types of memory, as well.

We need effective brain rejuvenation therapies such as cell therapies and gene therapies. Aging is loss. Aging of your brain is progressive loss of parts of your past and parts of your identity. It is even a gradual loss of your imagination.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 08 11:15 PM  Brain Aging
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4 Factors Add 14 Years To Life Expectancy

Want to live longer? Don't smoke. Eat 5 servings of vegetables and fruits daily. Get moderate exercise. Drink between 1 and 14 glasses of wine or half pints of beer per week. A study of over 25,000 people in Norfolk county UK published in Plos Medicine found that people who smoke, do not get enough fruits and vegetables, do not get enough exercise, and do not drink moderately die 14 years sooner on average than people who are the opposite on these lifestyle characteristics.

What Did the Researchers Do and Find?

Between 1993 and 1997, about 20,000 men and women aged 45–79 living in Norfolk UK, none of whom had cancer or cardiovascular disease (heart or circulation problems), completed a health and lifestyle questionnaire, had a health examination, and had their blood vitamin C level measured as part of the EPIC-Norfolk study. A health behavior score of between 0 and 4 was calculated for each participant by giving one point for each of the following healthy behaviors: current non-smoking, not physically inactive (physical inactivity was defined as having a sedentary job and doing no recreational exercise), moderate alcohol intake (1–14 units a week; a unit of alcohol is half a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of spirit), and a blood vitamin C level consistent with a fruit and vegetable intake of at least five servings a day. Deaths among the participants were then recorded until 2006. After allowing for other factors that might have affected their likelihood of dying (for example, age), people with a health behavior score of 0 were four times as likely to have died (in particular, from cardiovascular disease) than those with a score of 4. People with a score of 2 were twice as likely to have died.

What Do These Findings Mean?

These findings indicate that the combination of four simply defined health behaviors predicts a 4-fold difference in the risk of dying over an average period of 11 years for middle-aged and older people. They also show that the risk of death (particularly from cardiovascular disease) decreases as the number of positive health behaviors increase. Finally, they can be used to calculate that a person with a health score of 0 has the same risk of dying as a person with a health score of 4 who is 14 years older.

A Danish study also published today found the same benefits from moderate alcohol and moderate exercise in over 11,000 Danes.

People who drink moderate amounts of alcohol and are physically active have a lower risk of death from heart disease and other causes than people who don’t drink at all, according to new research. People who neither drink alcohol nor exercise have a 30-49 per cent higher risk of heart disease than those who either drink, exercise or both.

The research, which was published in the European Heart Journal [1] today (Wednesday 9 January), is the first to look at the combined influence of leisure-time physical activity and weekly alcohol intake on the risk of fatal ischaemic heart disease (a form of heart disease characterised by a reduced blood supply to the heart) and deaths from all causes.

Between 1981-1983 Danish researchers obtained information on various health-related issues (including exercise and alcohol intake) from 11,914 Danish men and women aged 20 or older, who were taking part in the larger, Copenhagen City Heart Study.

Want to do more? Add some fish for an added health benefit. Eat even more than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day and some nuts too. Also, reduce your red meat consumption and lower your dietary glycemic index.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 08 10:55 PM  Aging Lifestyle Studies
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2008 January 07 Monday
Will Biofuels Demand Cause Mass Starvation?

Over at The Oil Drum (one of my favorite blogs btw) Stuart Staniford takes a hard look at biomass energy and argues most of the world's agricultural production might end up going to produce biofuels as billions starve.

Many people are aware that food-based biofuel production has had an influence on food prices. Many people also know that US ethanol production is growing rapidly and now using a noticeable fraction of the total corn supply. However, I'm going to argue that the situation in the near term is potentially more serious than is generally realized.

I will use a mixture of existing data, analysis of biofuel profitability, and simple modeling of biofuel production as an infection or diffusion process affecting the food supply, to demonstrate that there are reasonably plausible scenarios for biofuel production growth to cause mass starvation of the global poor, and that this could happen fairly quickly - quite possibly within five years, and certainly well within the life of the existing policy regimes. It doesn't have to be this way, but unless we start doing things differently soon, the risks are significant.

What, governments around the world are capable of pursuing policies that could lead to this outcome? Yes, pretty much. Though they'll probably back off some once news clips of starvation in assorted locations become frequent enough that people in developed countries start feeling queasy about what is going on. On the other hand, once world oil production starts declining people in the more developed countries might become so focused on their own problems that they just won't care. Ditto for China too.

The article is quite lengthy and I'm only going to excerpt a few smaller pieces of it. If you have an interest in how biomass energy puts food and energy in direct competition with each other then click through and read the whole thing.

Staniford's essay isn't perfect. For example, I don't think that modeling the spread of ethanol production facilities as analogous to disease spread makes sense. But he brings up a lot of useful information about costs and trends in biomass energy production in the United States and the rest of the world. One of his useful observations is that the trend in world biomass facilities construction lags US trends by a few years. This suggests total world demand for grains for biomass energy production will grow substantially in the next few years. Though US demand for grain has pushed up world grain costs and therefore reduced the profitability of biomass energy facilities in the rest of the world. So I question the continuation of this trend.

Let's just pause a moment and figure out how much food we are talking about when we discuss bushels of corn, or gallons of ethanol. A bushel of corn is 56 lb (or 25.4kg) of corn. At about 8000 btu/lb we get 113120 kCal/bushel. Given the average human diet globally contains 2800 kCal/day (see figure below), 1 bushel represents 40 days worth of calories for a person (if that person eat only corn!). Thus at current conversion efficiencies of about 2.8 gal/bushel, the corn in a gallon of ethanol represents a shade over two weeks worth of food (again, all corn). A 15 gallon fuel tank of ethanol is thus 7 months worth of corn calories for one person. Of course, the American corn crop is mainly fed to animals, and after conversion to meat, eggs, or dairy at efficiencies in the range of 1/10 - 1/3, the 15 gallon tank of ethanol is more like 1-2 months worth of food calories for a person.

Note how an increase in demand for meat (as is happening in China and other rapidly developing countries) reduces the amount of grain available for direct human consumption. The grain gets fed to cattle, pigs, chickens and the like. Therefore the poorest humans can't buy it.

Staniford's rough cut calculation has another quadrupling of food prices causing most of the human populace to go hungry.

Here the value for the lower-income 2/3 of the world's population is about +0.7. What this means is that a 10% reduction in income has about the same effect on food consumption as a 10% increase in food prices. This suggests that we can use the global income distribution (shown above) to roughly estimate the impact of a doubling or quadrupling of food prices. We noted earlier that according to the UN about 800 million people are unable to meet minimal dietary energy requirements. That is 12% of the world population. On the income distribution (one graph back), the 12% mark corresponds to $1020/year in income (shown as the lowermost green dot). By looking at the $2040 level (36% of the global population - second green dot up), and the $4080 level (61% of the global population - third green dot up), we can estimate that a doubling in food prices over 2000 levels might bring 30% or so of the global population below the level of minimal dietary energy requirements, and a quadrupling of food prices over 2000 levels might bring 60% or so of the global population into that situation.

These estimates should be regarded as quite uncertain. Still, it seems hard to make a case that food price increases will cause a cessation of biofuel profitability before a significant fraction of the global population is in serious trouble. The poor will not be able to bid up food prices by factors of two and four and keep eating. In contrast, the quadrupling of global oil prices, and tripling of US gasoline prices, over the last five years has had very minimal impact on driving behavior by the middle classes.

The core problem is that gasoline price elasticity in the US is about -0.05, versus the -0.7 price elasticity for food consumption by poor consumers. This makes clear who is going to win the bidding war for food versus biofuels in a free market.

The longer term price elasticity of gasoline demand is a lot higher than the number he references. People don't buy new cars very often and so when their preferences for more efficient vehicles change that change in preferences takes a while to translate into changes in fuel efficiency. Similarly, car companies need years to adjust their product mixes. Also, people do not move very often and so when they decide they ought to live closer to work in order to cut commuting costs again the effects of their decisions do not show up immediately.

Down in the comments Staniford says the price elasticity of meat in developed countries is lower than the price elasticity of grain in poorer countries. This sounds right and has some interesting consequences: As the buying power of Chinese consumers rises a larger fraction of the world's populace demands meat and develops greater price inelastic demand for meat. So the price of grain can go much higher due to demand for livestock feed just as it is going higher due to demand for biomass energy.

Industrialization of part of the world causes starvation in other parts. We can see from the current oil prices and grain prices what to expect from the coming decline in world oil production. Higher oil prices will increase demand for biomass ethanol. That increased demand will raise the price of ethanol in lock step with the price of oil. The higher price of ethanol will cause further bidding up of corn prices to shift grain away from human and animal consumption toward vehicle consumption. Higher prices of oil mean higher prices for corn, wheat, soy, and other grains. It is as simple as that.

Some of the improvements in biomass processing efficiency actually make this problem worse. By reducing the use of non-corn inputs to corn ethanol production these improvements make ethanol production profitable at even higher corn prices. So more corn gets shifted to ethanol production. Yes folks, advances in technologies sometimes make problems worse, not better.

So what should we do about this? I have some suggestions:

  • Develop programs to reduce birth rates in poor countries. Babies not born now are people who won't starve once world oil production starts declining.
  • End subsidies of biomass energy. Hard to do when the recent winners (and most of the losers) of the Iowa caucuses enthusiastically support those subsidies.
  • Develop nuclear, wind, and solar energy. We need to switch to these energy sources and not to biomass energy.
  • Develop great batteries so that cars can run off of electricity.
  • Try harder to protect habitats. The demand for land to grow biomass crops means destruction of rain forests and other habitats. Also, hungry rapidly growing populations in Africa will kill elephants and other critters. Though population growth makes mass extinctions inevitable anyway.

Hey, isn't the future supposed to be Panglossian? Am I letting down my readers by not being sufficiently optimistic?

By Randall Parker 2008 January 07 11:57 PM  Energy Biomass
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Japanese Embrace Robots For Demographic Crisis

Read this Washington Post article on Japan's embrace of robots for their demographic problem: Demographic Crisis, Robotic Cure? Rejecting Immigration, Japan Turns to Technology as Workforce Shrinks

TOKYO -- With a surfeit of the old and a shortage of the young, Japan is on course for a population collapse unlike any in human history.

See my third excerpt below and try to guess why I do not expect this demographic collapse to happen.

The hope is that service robots will take care of old folks.

But engineers say it's the "service robots," which can't dance a lick and don't look remotely human, that can bail out Japan, which has the world's largest proportion of residents over 65 and smallest proportion of children under 15. One such gizmo, on display at the show, can spoon-feed the elderly. Others are being designed to hoist them onto a toilet and phone a nurse when they won't take their pills.

Toyota, the world's largest car company, announced last month that service robots would soon become one of its core businesses. The government heavily subsidizes development of these machines. Other cheerleaders for robots include universities and much of the news media.

If artificial intelligence comes in 30 or 40 years then service robots will far exceed the goals which some skeptics (quoted in the article) have about them.

So here are the supposedly horrific numbers on the future population of Japan.

Population shrinkage began here three years ago and is gathering pace. Within 50 years, the population, now 127 million, will fall by a third, the government projects. Within a century, two-thirds of the population will be gone. That would leave Japan, now the world's second-largest economy, with about 42 million people.

First off, picture the population of the whole world dropping by two thirds. I find the prospect very appealing. Huge numbers of other species would be saved from extinction. The consequences of dwindling fossil fuels (Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, and Peak Coal) would become much less severe. Also, the air and water would be far less polluted. Picture China today with only a third its current population. The massive exhaust plumes stretching out over the Pacific would be much smaller.

But why won't Japan's population drop by two thirds? I can see two reasons:

  • Natural selection will select for Japanese people who more want to have children. Right now the Japanese are under huge selective pressure where genetic variations that boost fertility are getting selected for. Those alleles will raise fertility of future generations of Japanese.
  • Life spans will greatly increase as a result of advances in biotechnology. Our approaching war on aging will make shrinking populations into stable or growing populations. We will probably achieve actuarial escape velocity in some countries by mid 21st century. Then our life expectancy will increase by at least a year every year.

As I see it, the current demographic trend in Japan will make it easier for the Japanese to transition to a post-humanist society where people live with young bodies for thousands of years. Their shrinking population which seems like such a problem today will become a great advantage for those who are still alive 50 years from now.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 07 07:53 PM  Trends Demographic
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2008 January 06 Sunday
Nanoantenna Photovoltaic Cells Developed

How about incredibly cheap photovoltaics with high conversion efficiency?

Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory, along with partners at Microcontinuum Inc. (Cambridge, MA) and Patrick Pinhero of the University of Missouri, are developing a novel way to collect energy from the sun with a technology that could potentially cost pennies a yard, be imprinted on flexible materials and still draw energy after the sun has set.

The new approach, which garnered two 2007 Nano50 awards, uses a special manufacturing process to stamp tiny square spirals of conducting metal onto a sheet of plastic. Each interlocking spiral "nanoantenna" is as wide as 1/25 the diameter of a human hair.

Because of their size, the nanoantennas absorb energy in the infrared part of the spectrum, just outside the range of what is visible to the eye. The sun radiates a lot of infrared energy, some of which is soaked up by the earth and later released as radiation for hours after sunset. Nanoantennas can take in energy from both sunlight and the earth's heat, with higher efficiency than conventional solar cells.

"I think these antennas really have the potential to replace traditional solar panels," says physicist Steven Novack, who spoke about the technology in November at the National Nano Engineering Conference in Boston.

Plastic is orders of magnitude cheaper than the polysilicon crystal used in the expensive photovoltaics of today.

They think they can achieve a very high efficiency of energy conversion.

Commercial solar panels usually transform less that 20 percent of the usable energy that strikes them into electricity. Each cell is made of silicon and doped with exotic elements to boost its efficiency. "The supply of processed silicon is lagging, and they only get more expensive," Novack says. He hopes solar nanoantennas will be a more efficient and sustainable alternative.

The team estimates individual nanoantennas can absorb close to 80 percent of the available energy.

An order of magnitude drop in the cost of photovoltaics would make energy storage our biggest problem. The sun does not always shine. But when it does cheap photovoltaics would make photovoltaic electricity the cheapest source of power.

Super cheap solar electric would make more industries seasonal. For example, put the cost of electricity below 1 cent per kilowatt-hour in Arizona from the first day of spring through summer and it might make sense to do a full year's Aluminum smelting in 6 months in Arizona. Or maybe do all the smelting in 4 months.

Nitrogen fertilizer production could become seasonal as well. Use cheap electric power to fix hydrogen to nitrogen during the spring before crops get planted. Keep making fertilizer during the summer for use the next year. Other chemical feedstock synthesis could similarly be done when the power is very cheap.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 06 08:49 PM  Energy Solar
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Short Attention Spans And Genetic Engineering

Once offspring genetic engineering becomes technologically possible should governments subsidize the use of biotechnologies to improve the genes given to babies of poor and dumb people? Some people recoil at the thought of eugenics. I'm not one of them. I expect eugenic genetic engineering to be extremely cost effective, such are the huge pay-offs for having a high functioning mind. This doesn't just apply to levels of intelligence. A review of what we know about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) serves as a reminder of some of the ways that problematic brain development causes problems for all of us.

In children, ADHD may interfere with paying attention in school, completing homework or making friends. Difficulties experienced in childhood may continue into adulthood. The symptoms of ADHD in adults may lead to potentially serious consequences. Surveys have shown that when compared with their non-ADHD peers, adults with ADHD may be:

  • Three times more likely to be currently unemployed
  • Two times more likely to have problems keeping friends
  • Forty-seven percent more likely to have trouble saving money to pay bills
  • Four times more likely to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease

People who are more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease are also more likely to transmit one. People who have more problems with keeping employed end up using more welfare services. They cost us money. Turn their offspring into kids with longer attention spans and the kids will cause less trouble in many ways. They won't disrupt classrooms or become juvenile delinquents. They'll work more of the time and at higher paying jobs. So they'll contribute more in taxes and toward economic growth.

A University of Massachusetts study found that adults with ADHD had 3 times the likelihood of selling illegal drugs and over 4 times the likelihood of having problems managing money.

The UMASS study, conducted from approximately 2003 to 2004, examined lifestyle outcomes among three cohorts of adult patients: 146 clinic-referred adults with ADHD, 97 adults seen at the same clinic who were not diagnosed with ADHD, and also a third general community sample of 109 adults without ADHD. Specifically, the UMASS study found that the adults with ADHD when compared to the non-ADHD control group were approximately three times more likely (21 percent compared to 6 percent) to sell drugs illegally. Additionally, the UMASS study found that 67 percent of adults with ADHD compared to the control group (15 percent) had trouble managing money.

Another study conducted at The Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found similar results. ADHD adults were over 3 times more likely to initiate physical fights, destroy property of others, and break into buildings.

The Milwaukee study, ongoing since 1977 (with the most recent follow-up conducted from 1999 to 2003), is an observational longitudinal study that looked at secondary lifestyle outcomes of 158 children who had been diagnosed with ADHD and, as adults, either continue to experience symptoms or no longer have the disorder at the age of 27, compared to a community control group of 81 children without ADHD who were followed concurrently. The Milwaukee study found that the adults with ADHD were approximately three times as likely when compared with the community control group to initiate physical fights (30 percent compared to 9 percent), destroy others property (31 percent compared to 8 percent) and break and enter (20 percent compared to 7 percent).

So reduce the incidence of hyperactivity and you'll be less likely to get beat up, less in need of long commutes from safer suburbs into higher crime cities, and less likely to get robbed. What's not to like?

Scientists already have evidence from sibling studies and other studies that ADHD has a large genetic component. (also see here) We'll first need to discover which genetic variants contribute to ADHD.

Knowing all this would you support or oppose government subsidies for offspring genetic engineering aimed at reducing the incidence of hyperactivity and poor ability to concentrate?

The same question holds for boosting offspring intelligence. Would you support or oppose government subsidies to raise intelligence? The payoff from boosting offspring intelligence would be quite large. Economies would surge as the genetically engineered kids reached adult age and joined the work force. Their higher productivity would do more to raise living standards than anything else we could do short of developing artificial intelligence. So do you want higher living standards, lower crime rates, and less social pathology? Or would you prefer that humans continue to receive their genetic inheritance in a natural way through random combining of chromosomes?

By Randall Parker 2008 January 06 07:51 PM  Bioethics Debate
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2008 January 05 Saturday
US Average Car Fuel Efficiency Rises

Rising gasoline prices boosted average fuel efficiency for new cars by 3.5% in 2007.

Amid record high oil prices and concerns about climate change, cars and light trucks sold in the United States hit a new mileage record for the 2007 model year, with average fuel economy improving almost 1 mile per gallon.

According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released late last month, fleet-wide fuel economy in the United States averaged 26.6 mpg, up 3.5 percent from the 25.7 mpg averaged in the 2006 model year. Passenger cars averaged a new high of 31.2 mpg, while light trucks averaged a separate record of 23.1 mpg.

So which companies paid fines for going over US government mandates for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards? Not American ones. Of course not Japanese ones. Germans: Daimler, VW, BMW, Porsche. They don't have the high European fuel taxes to incentivize their American customers to buy more of their smaller cars. Yes, even VW sells less fuel efficient cars in the US than the American big three. Also, Maserati and Ferrari paid fines too.

That average fuel economy on new cars was based on buying patterns over the whole year. I'm expecting a bigger shift in buyer preferences for the 2008 model year because where gasoline prices are at the start of 2008 and where they are likely to go by summer. Normally gasoline prices hit their bottom in winter and their top in summer. See this chart of weekly US gasoline prices from mid 2005 thru 2007. Note how starting in March each year gasoline prices surge into the summer driving season.

An LA Times article shows why we should expect higher prices this spring and summer:

Kloza said that nationally for the last 25 years, the difference in the price of gas from the winter low to the spring high has been about 59%.

"I don't think we will see a typical surge, and we don't have to," Kloza said. With an increase of just 30%, he said, "you're talking about 75 cents a gallon more from where they are now."

A 59% surge would take California over $5 and Alaska over $6. I'm expecting demand destruction to start becoming a lot more visible though. So prices will probably stay under $5 per gallon in the lower 48 American states. But however high they go they'll serve as a wake-up call to the American car buying public. Expect to see a lot more hybrids, diesels, and subcompacts sold.

While fuel efficiency increases will help what we need as a more permanent solution is to stop using oil entirely. The first real step in that direction (and, no, corn ethanol doesn't count) will come in the form of pluggable hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). General Motors will probably be the first car company to release a mass market PHEV in the American market with their Chevrolet Volt. But GM chairman Richard Wagoner isn't sure that GM can get the Volt design done and into production by the end of 2010.

"We continue to put massive resources into production as soon as possible," said Wagoner, responding in writing during an online chat session to kick off the automaker's 100th anniversary. "2010 would be great, but (we) can't guarantee that at this time. We'll keep you posted regularly on our progress."

GM vice chairman Bob Lutz told Jerry Flint of Forbes a similar story on the timing of the Volt introduction. GM is not sure they will get the Volt out by the end of 2010.

GM's current schedule calls for production in late 2010 or early 2011.

"It probably won't be a flawless launch," Lutz warns. Interpretation: Expect delays and possible teething problems.

On a scale of 1 to 10, he says his confidence level is a 9.5 that GM can build the Chevy Volt, the name of this hybrid electric car. The production date is another matter; Lutz's confidence drops to a 5.5. "We're holding people's feet to the fire for the very end of 2010 into 2011. But that can slip, depending on how the development goes."

I think it extremely likely GM will produce this car. It normally takes 3 to 4 years to develop a new car design. They are trying to develop one that includes radical innovations. So a schedule slip is to be expected under the circumstances. They sound pretty committed.

DETROIT — General Motors is down to the details on the production version of the Chevrolet Volt, says Edward T. Welburn Jr., the automaker's vice president of global design. Welburn told Inside Line on Thursday that the "Volt is our absolute highest priority."

My worry: world oil production might start declining before PHEV vehicles become available in the millions. We live in a world where the development of problems and the development of solutions are in a race. How big will the problems get before the solutions reach maturity? When it comes to Peak Oil the answer is still not clear to me. But I expect things will get worse for at least several years before getting better.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 05 02:47 PM  Energy Transportation
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2008 January 04 Friday
Bright Light Therapy Helps Against Manic Depression

Morning light therapy can cause simultaneous manic and depressive phases while mid day light therapy seems to work best.

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 3 – Bright light therapy can ease bipolar depression in some patients, according to a study published in the journal Bipolar Disorders. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic studied nine women with bipolar disorder to examine the effects of light therapy in the morning or at midday on mood symptoms.

“There are limited effective treatments for the depressive phase of bipolar disorder,” said Dorothy Sit, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and the study’s first author. “While there are treatments that are effective for mania, the major problem is the depression, which can linger so long that it never really goes away.”

In this study, women with bipolar depression were given light boxes and instructed on how to use them at home. The women used the light boxes daily for two-week stretches of 15, 30 and 45 minutes. Some patients responded extremely well to the light therapy, and their symptoms of depression disappeared. The responders to light therapy stayed on the light therapy for an additional three or four months. Four patients received morning light, and five used their light boxes at midday. Participants also continued to take their prescribed medications throughout the study period.

“Three of the women who received morning light initially developed what we call a mixed state, with symptoms of depression and mania that occur all at once – racing thoughts, irritability, sleeplessness, anxiety and low mood,” said Dr. Sit. “But when another group began with midday light therapy, we found a much more stable response.”

I am curious to know whether lights with high UVB would work better due to increased vitamin D synthesis and an anti-depressant effect from vitamin D. Also, light causes some endorphin release that might account for these results.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 04 01:04 AM  Brain Depression
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2008 January 02 Wednesday
Photovoltaic Prices To Drop In Half By 2010?

Skyrocketing demand has kept up the prices for solar photovoltaics for several years running. However, the Earth Policy Institute expects rising production capacity to finally cause a big decline in photovoltaics cost in the next few years.

The average price for a PV module, excluding installation and other system costs, has dropped from almost $100 per watt in 1975 to less than $4 per watt at the end of 2006. (See data.) With expanding polysilicon supplies, average PV prices are projected to drop to $2 per watt in 2010. For thin-film PV alone, production costs are expected to reach $1 per watt in 2010, at which point solar PV will become competitive with coal-fired electricity. With concerns about rising oil prices and climate change spawning political momentum for renewable energy, solar electricity is poised to take a prominent position in the global energy economy.

Regarding competitiveness with coal: There are the not so minor details of where and when. Certainly photovoltaics become cost competitive in Arizona before Colorado and in Colorado before Alberta or England. So in the more northern climes and in cloudier areas the prices of photovoltaics will have to drop much further before becoming competitive. Also, photovoltaics will compete on June 21 in the northern hemisphere years before they compete on March 21, let alone December 21. Plus, we need really cheap electric power storage before day time photovoltaic energy will help us much during the night time. So keep in mind all the caveats and short-comings of solar power when you read rosy scenarios about solar energy.

The company which many observers think has the best chance to cause this big cost decrease is Nanosolar. CEO Martin Roscheisen says Nanosolar can get their production costs below $1 per watt.

- the world’s first printed thin-film solar cell in a commercial panel product;

- the world’s first thin-film solar cell with a low-cost back-contact capability;

- the world’s lowest-cost solar panel – which we believe will make us the first solar manufacturer capable of profitably selling solar panels at as little as $.99/Watt;

- the world’s highest-current thin-film solar panel – delivering five times the current of any other thin-film panel on the market today and thus simplifying system deployment;

- an intensely systems-optimized product with the lowest balance-of-system cost of any thin-film panel – due to innovations in design we have included.

The printed thin film process with which Nanosolar has just started commercial production looks like the ticket. They avoid the costs of the thick polysilicon crystals and supposedly can produce at fast speed using a printing technology.

Nanosolar has nanoparticles and the ability to process long rolls of metal and put photovoltaic materials on continuously.

The San Jose-based Nanosolar developed a proprietary ink that is based on “nanoparticles” of a material called copper indium gallium selenide (CIGR), which can be printed on metal foil, which is cheaper and 20 times more conductive than stainless steel.

Other companies that also specialise in 'thin-film solar' technology also use CIGRs, but require a vacuum chamber to disperse the particles. Nanosolar says its method of printing is cheaper and more effective. It can literally produce huge rolls of the product that are metres wide and up to kilometers long.

But Nanosolar is already sold out into 2009. If their process turns them a big profit during this time they obviously can and will ramp up. So how quickly will they ramp up? Will they run into troubles running their manufacturing process continuously?

By Randall Parker 2008 January 02 11:39 PM  Energy Solar
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Vitamin D Forms D2 And D3 Work Equally Well

If you've been persuaded (certainly I've tried) that you need more vitamin D maybe (but probably not) you've wondered what form of vitamin D you should take. Well renowned vitamin D researcher Michael Holick, PhD, MD, basically has found that you can take vitamin D as D2 or D3 without worrying which is more potent.

Boston, MA— Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) have found that vitamin D2 is equally as effective as vitamin D3 in maintaining 25-hydroxyvitamin D status. The study appears online in the December 2007 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Researchers studied healthy adults aged 18-84 who received either placebo, 1,000 International Units (IU) of vitamin D3, 1,000 IU of vitamin D2, or 500 IU of vitamin D2 plus 500 IU of vitamin D3 daily for three months at the end of winter to establish what effect it had on circulating levels of total 25 (OH)D as well as 25(OH)D2 and 25(OH)D3. Sixty percent of the adults were vitamin D deficient at the start of the study.

Adults who received the placebo capsule daily for three months demonstrated no significant change in their total 25(OH)D levels during the winter and early spring. Adults who ingested 1,000 vitamin D2/d gradually increased their total 25(OH)D levels during the first six weeks. Adults who ingested 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 had a baseline 25(OH)D that was statistically no different from the baselines of either the placebo group or the groups that took 1,000 IU of vitamin D2/d or 500 IU vitamin D2 plus 500 IU vitamin D3/d. The vitamin D3 group increased their serum 25(OH)D levels similar to that of the group that ingested vitamin D2.

The circulating levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D increased to the same extent in the groups that received 1,000 IU daily as vitamin D2, vitamin D3, or a combination of 500 IU vitamin D2 and 500 IU vitamin D3. The 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 levels did not change in the group that received 1,000 IU vitamin D2 daily. One thousand IU of vitamin D2 or vitamin D3 did not raise 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in vitamin D deficient subjects above 30 ng/ml.

Even if you haven't wondered about this particular burning vitamin D research question at least this serves as a reminder that vitamin D probably will reduce your odds of cancer, auto-immune disorders, infections, osteoporosis, and assorted other maladies.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 02 10:02 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2008 January 01 Tuesday
Lack Of Sleep Lowers Insulin Sensitivity

Getting your high quality deep sleep interrupted might put you at greater risk of insulin insensitive type 2 diabetes.

Suppression of slow-wave sleep in healthy young adults significantly decreases their ability to regulate blood-sugar levels and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, report researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center in the “Early Edition” of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, available online as soon as Dec. 31, 2007.

Deep sleep, also called “slow-wave sleep,” is thought to be the most restorative sleep stage, but its significance for physical well-being has not been demonstrated. This study found that after only three nights of selective slow-wave sleep suppression, young healthy subjects became less sensitive to insulin. Although they needed more insulin to dispose of the same amount of glucose, their insulin secretion did not increase to compensate for the reduced sensitivity, resulting in reduced tolerance to glucose and increased risk for type 2 diabetes. The decrease in insulin sensitivity was comparable to that caused by gaining 20 to 30 pounds.

Previous studies have demonstrated that reduced sleep quantity can impair glucose metabolism and appetite regulation resulting in increased risk of obesity and diabetes. This current study provides the first evidence linking poor sleep quality to increased diabetes risk.

"These findings demonstrate a clear role for slow-wave sleep in maintaining normal glucose control," said the study's lead author, Esra Tasali, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "A profound decrease in slow-wave sleep had an immediate and significant adverse effect on insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance."

Get your sleep or lose control of your glucose. You have a decision to make. Don't be a chump. Stay in control.

We get less deep sleep as we get older. That decay in sleep quality might contribute to the rise in the incidence of type 2 diabetes as we age.

“Since reduced amounts of deep sleep are typical of aging and of common obesity-related sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea these results suggest that strategies to improve sleep quality, as well as quantity, may help to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes in populations at risk,” said Eve Van Cauter, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and senior author of the study.

So many processes of aging create a vicious cycle. Your sleep quality deteriorates. Then your glucose levels go to high. That accelerates your aging and that makes your sleep quality even worse. The cycle repeats. We need rejuvenation therapies that will break this vicious cycle. We need to stop the downward spiral.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 01 10:41 PM  Aging Lifestyle Studies
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No Testosterone Performance Boost For Aged?

Pro baseball players might get a performance boost from testosterone supplements. But a study of some old guys in the Netherlands found testosterone supplements for low testosterone old guys didn't boost their performance.

Older men with low testosterone levels who received testosterone supplementation increased lean body mass and decreased body fat, but were no stronger and had no improvement in mobility or cognition compared with men who did not use the supplement, according to a study in the January 2 issue of JAMA.

I find it surprising the men had more lean muscle mass but weren't any stronger. However, a lot of guys would enjoy the decrease in body fat since they'd look better.

“Male aging is associated with a gradual but progressive decline in serum levels of testosterone, occurring to a greater extent in some men than in others. Decline in testosterone is associated with many symptoms and signs of aging such as a decrease in muscle mass and muscle strength, cognitive decline, a decrease in bone mass, and an increase in (abdominal) fat mass,” the authors write. Clinical trials examining whether testosterone supplementation provides benefits or adverse effects have yielded mixed findings.

Marielle H. Emmelot-Vonk, M.D., of University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands, and colleagues conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled study to assess the effects of testosterone supplementation on functional mobility, cognition, bone mineral density, body composition, lipids, quality of life, and safety parameters in older men with testosterone levels less than 13.7 nmol/L (less than the average level in this age group) during a period of six months. The trial, conducted from January 2004 to April 2005, included 207 men between the ages of 60 and 80 years. Participants were randomly assigned to receive 80 mg of testosterone undecenoate or a matching placebo twice daily for six months.

The results were mixed. I think what is needed is a much longer term study so that differences in all cause mortality could become clear.

The researchers found that during the study, lean body mass increased and fat mass decreased in the testosterone group compared with the placebo group but these factors were not accompanied by an increase of functional mobility or muscle strength. Cognitive function and bone mineral density did not change. Insulin sensitivity improved but high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) decreased. By the end of the study, 47.8 percent in the testosterone group vs. 35.5 percent in the placebo group had the metabolic syndrome (a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, a group of several metabolic components in one individual including obesity and dyslipidemia). This difference was not statistically significant.

Quality-of-life measures did not differ aside from hormone-related quality of life in the testosterone group. Adverse events were not significantly different in the two groups. Testosterone supplementation was associated with an increase in the concentrations of blood creatinine, a measure of kidney function, and hemoglobin and hematocrit, two red blood cell measures. No negative effects on prostate safety were detected (some reports have suggested that testosterone therapy could increase the risk of development or progression of prostate disease or cancer).

This is an important study because the differences in testosterone levels were caused by testosterone supplementation, not by naturally occurring differences between people. Other studies have found indications of possible benefit from having naturally occurring higher testosterone. See my posts Low Testosterone Men Die More Rapidly and Low Testosterone Men Die Sooner and Higher Testosterone Men Face Lower All Cause Mortality. But these studies on naturally occurring testosterone levels do not demonstrate the order of cause and effect. It could be that the men with higher testosterone have higher testosterone because they are more healthy. Maybe their genes cause them to age more slowly and age-adjusted relative youthfulness of their bodies allows their bodies to make more testosterone.

We need long term double blind controlled clinical studies of testosterone supplementation to find out if it is a net help or net harm. We simply do not know at this point. Personally, I'd rather have rejuvenated stem cell therapies, gene therapies, and nanomachine repair devices injected into me (at least as long as they won't take over my brain). I don't hold out big hopes for hormone supplementation therapies. We need to fix and replace what wears out. For that we need gene therapies and cell therapies.

By Randall Parker 2008 January 01 10:30 PM  Aging Treatment Studies
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