2008 February 28 Thursday
Doggie Robot Cheers Old Folks Almost As Well As Real Dog

Being a DNA-based life form chauvinist I do not like this result.

To test whether residents connected better with Sparky or Aibo, researchers divided a total of 38 nursing home residents into three groups. All were asked questions to assess their level of loneliness. One group saw Sparky once a week for 30 minutes, another group had similar visits with Aibo, and a control group saw neither furry nor mechanical critter.

During visits, Marian Banks, Banks’ wife and co-researcher, brought Sparky or Aibo into a resident’s room and placed the pet companion near the resident. Both pets interacted with residents -- wagging their tails and responding to the people they visited.

After seven weeks, all residents were asked questions about how lonely they felt and how attached they were to Sparky or Aibo.

The residents who received visits from real and artificial pooches felt less lonely and more attached to their canine attention-givers than those who got visits from neither.

There was no statistical difference between whether the real or robotic dog did a better job easing loneliness and fostering attachments.

I would just plain refuse to have my heart warmed up by a visit from Aibo. Get that crude excuse for a silicon-based life form out of here.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 28 09:36 PM  Robots Pets
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Tumor Blood Vessels Help Cancers Grow?

This might be why anti-angiogenesis drugs (which block blood vessel growth) as tools against cancer have scored so few real successes.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Tumors require a blood supply to grow, but how they acquire their network of blood vessels is poorly understood. A new study here shows that tumor blood vessels can develop from precancerous stem cells, a recently discovered type of cell that can either remain benign or become malignant.

Researchers say the findings provide new information about how tumors develop blood vessels, and why new drugs designed to block tumor blood-vessel growth are often less effective than expected.

The study by scientists at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and Department of Pathology is to be published Feb. 20 in the journal PLoS ONE.

“These findings suggest that tumor blood vessels are derived mainly from tumor cells, with a smaller number coming from normal blood-vessel cells,” says principal investigator Jian-Xin Gao, assistant professor of pathology.

“This may explain why many anti-angiogenic drugs fail to block tumor growth.”

The recently deceased pioneer of anti-angiogenesis research against cancer, Harvard Medical School's Judah Folkman MD, in lectures showed stained slides of thyroids and other organs showing as people get older they have lots of small cancers in their bodies (yes, you have lots of small cancers in your body). These little cancers are all stuck at a stage where they can't grow any larger due to lack of ability to stimulate blood vessel growth. So they are stopped by lack of nutrients.

Maybe some cancers get past that obstacle by having some of their cells mutate into blood vessel generating cells. Or maybe mutations in blood vessel cells happen near existing mutated cancer cells. Then these two cell types basically team up to kill you. Either way, this report is bad news.

You can read the full research paper available in open access: Precancerous Stem Cells Can Serve As Tumor Vasculogenic Progenitors.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 28 09:35 PM  Biotech Cancer
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2008 February 27 Wednesday
Meta-Analysis Finds No Benefit From SSRI Antidepressants

A Plos Medicine meta-analysis of studes on 4 antidepressant drugs finds no benefit from their use for all but the most severely depressed. The 4 drugs are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Seroxat, Paxil), venlafaxine (Effexor), and nefazodone (Serzone). Do these big name SSRIs really fail to help people?

What Did the Researchers Do and Find?

The researchers obtained data on all the clinical trials submitted to the FDA for the licensing of fluoxetine, venlafaxine, nefazodone, and paroxetine. They then used meta-analytic techniques to investigate whether the initial severity of depression affected the HRSD improvement scores for the drug and placebo groups in these trials. They confirmed first that the overall effect of these new generation of antidepressants was below the recommended criteria for clinical significance. Then they showed that there was virtually no difference in the improvement scores for drug and placebo in patients with moderate depression and only a small and clinically insignificant difference among patients with very severe depression. The difference in improvement between the antidepressant and placebo reached clinical significance, however, in patients with initial HRSD scores of more than 28—that is, in the most severely depressed patients. Additional analyses indicated that the apparent clinical effectiveness of the antidepressants among these most severely depressed patients reflected a decreased responsiveness to placebo rather than an increased responsiveness to antidepressants.

So then why do some people swear by the benefits they've gotten from Prozac and Paxil? Are they just lucky they started taking an SSRI just as their depression was about to lift? Or do SSRIs lift depression for short periods of time?

The researchers analyzed data from 35 clinical trials.

The dataset comprised 35 clinical trials (five of fluoxetine, six of venlafaxine, eight of nefazodone, and 16 of paroxetine) involving 5,133 patients, 3,292 of whom had been randomized to medication and 1,841 of whom had been randomized to placebo.

If you click through on the link you can read the full original paper. Plos Medicine is an open source scientific journal.

The SSRI drug makers find fault with this paper and claim it does not use more recent studies. However, the researchers who did this analysis claim they used the least biased among the available studies.

The more troubling question concerns what kind of data is appropriate for analyzing a drug's efficacy. The companies are correct in claiming there is far more data available on SSRI drugs now than there was 10 or 20 years ago. But Kirsch maintains that the results he and colleagues reviewed make up "the only data set we have that is not biased."

One point: The problem is that SSRIs seem to deliver a benefit but one not much better than placebos. Well, doctors can't get away with prescribing a placebo. So they might as well get their patients on SSRIs and get that beneficial placebo effect.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 27 09:52 PM  Brain Depression
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2008 February 26 Tuesday
Military Robots General Threat?

Do you see Terminators threatening all of humanity in the future?

A robotics expert at the University of Sheffield will today (27 February 2008) issue stark warnings over the threat posed to humanity by new robot weapons being developed by powers worldwide.

In a keynote address to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Professor Noel Sharkey, from the University’s Department of Computer Science, will express his concerns that we are beginning to see the first steps towards an international robot arms race. He will warn that it may not be long before robots become a standard terrorist weapon to replace the suicide bomber.

Many nations are now involved in developing the technology for robot weapons, with the US Department of Defence (DoD) being the most significant player. According to the Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2013 (published in December 2007), the US propose to spend an estimated $4 billion by 2010 on unmanned systems technology. The total spending is expected to rise above $24 billion.

Over 4,000 robots are currently deployed on the ground in Iraq and by October 2006 unmanned aircraft had flown 400,000 flight hours. Currently there is always a human in the loop to decide on the use of lethal force. However, this is set to change with the US giving priority to autonomous weapons - robots that will decide on where, when and who to kill.

I see at least one big obstacle in the way of a robotic take-over: The need for robots to refuel. They just can't carry enough energy for sustained operation without refueling. Power supply limitations are a major obstacle in the way of development of better prosthetic arms and legs.

The development of mini fusion reactors would lift that limitation. Or perhaps some other technologies will allow robots to operate autonomously for extended periods of time.

Another problem with robot take-over scenarios is that they presumably won't all be running the same software. Unless they all run the same software they could be made by humans to be hostile toward robots that carry other software. Why would robots all feel kinship? I don't expect they will unless they are all produced out of the same factory and programmed to feel that dangerous kinship.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 26 10:46 PM  Robots Dangers
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Cats Cut Heart Attack Risk?

Fluffy warms your heart and keeps it beating.

Owning a cat could reduce your risk of a heart attack by nearly one third, researchers told delegates of the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference in New Orleans last week. The finding provoked a mixed reaction from heart experts and veterinarians.

The finding was the main result of a 10 year study of more than 4,000 Americans by researchers at the University of Minnesota's Stroke Institute in Minneapolis. Executive director of the Institute, Dr Adnan Qureshi, who is also senior author of the study, was reported by US News & World Report to have said:

The study didn't include enough dog owners to prove a benefit from dogs. My suspicion is that dogs reduce heart attack risk as well - especially dogs whose owners let the dogs become personal trainers. A big Australian Shepherd Red Merle named Oakley did more to make me exercise than any hobby or person ever did.

This study probably tells us that a lot of people feel a fair amount of stress. If cats cut our heart risks they probably do this my making us feel more relaxed. Well, if that is the case a lot of people are killing themselves with worry. What to do about it? Try living below your means. Then a job loss or unexpected expenses will cause less stress.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 26 08:47 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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2008 February 25 Monday
Bratty Adolescents Have Bigger Amygdalas

A team of scientists at the University of Melbourne in Australia watched some 11 to 14 year old early adolescent children discuss points of disagreement with their parents and measured their reactions. Then the scientists measured the size of brain areas in each of the children. Well, the children more prone to tantrums and sulking had different sizes of various brain areas as compared to the more agreeable children. Is anyone surprised by this result?

Next the team scanned the children’s brains, focusing on three regions: the amygdala, which triggers impulsive reactions to emotional situations, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) – pre-frontal parts of the brain involved in more thoughtful and reflective responses.

Children of both sexes who behaved more aggressively during the problem-solving tasks had bigger amygdalas, while boys who had smaller ACCs on the left side of the brain, compared with the right, stayed aggressive for longer. Also, boys with smaller OFCs on the left side were more likely to respond to a parent’s sulky behaviour with a sulk of their own.

Picture our genetically engineered future. I expect many prospective parents to opt to give their offspring genetic variations that will make their brains develop bigger anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) brain regions and to develop those regions sooner during adolescence. Just genetically engineer surliness and brattiness right out of kids. Why not?

From the abstract of the PNAS paper:

In a sample of 137 early adolescents, we investigated the relationship between aspects of the adolescents' brain structure and their affective behavior as assessed during observation of parent–child interactions. We found a significant positive association between volume of the amygdala and the duration of adolescent aggressive behavior during these interactions. We also found male-specific associations between the volume of prefrontal structures and affective behavior, with decreased leftward anterior paralimbic cortex volume asymmetry associated with increased duration of aggressive behavior, and decreased leftward orbitofrontal cortex volume asymmetry associated with increased reciprocity of dysphoric behavior. These findings suggest that adolescent brain structure is associated with affective behavior and its regulation in the context of family interactions, and that there may be gender differences in the neural mechanisms underlying affective and behavioral regulation during early adolescence. Particularly as adolescence marks a period of rapid brain maturation, our findings have implications for mental health outcomes that may be revealed later along the developmental trajectory.

For most kids the bratty punk surly rude inconsiderate phase won't last. But the behavior of some adults suggests that not all escape from this phase. These who get stuck in adolescence probably need brain gene therapy to push their brains along a sorely needed development path.

Team leader Nicholas Allen, a clinical psychologist with the University of Melbourne and the Orygen Research Centre, said: "The good news is that to a certain extent it's a phase. Parents do find it helpful to understand that some of the inexplicable behaviours teenagers come up with is part of a brain developmental phase."

What were you thinking?

Professor Allen said that the research also cast light on why teenagers who one day approached tasks with a maturity beyond their years could act with immaturity the next. “Your 6ft 2 son can manage some very complicated work yet still do these dumb things. ‘What were you thinking?’ has been asked by every parent of teenagers,” he said.

Also see my previous post Adolescence Is Tough On The Brain.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 25 10:36 PM  Brain Development
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2008 February 24 Sunday
Solazyme Algae Biodiesel

Solazyme is pursuing an unusual process for using algae to produce liquid fuels including biodiesel. In the Solazyme approach they keep the algae in the dark and feed it sugar.

The new process combines genetically modified strains of algae with an uncommon approach to growing algae to reduce the cost of making fuel. Rather than growing algae in ponds or enclosed in plastic tubes that are exposed to the sun, as other companies are trying to do, Solazyme grows the organisms in the dark, inside huge stainless-steel containers. The company's researchers feed algae sugar, which the organisms then convert into various types of oil. The oil can be extracted and further processed to make a range of fuels, including diesel and jet fuel, as well as other products.

The company uses different strains of algae to produce different types of oil. Some algae produce triglycerides such as those produced by soybeans and other oil-rich crops. Others produce a mix of hydrocarbons similar to light crude petroleum.

I am very interested in algae biodiesel because I think it might turn out as the best approach for doing biomass energy. But most other research groups pursuing algae biodiesel are using photosynthesis where the algae get their energy from being exposed to sunlight. Can the Solazyme approach work better?

Solazyme's approach is supposed to let them use cellulose. So trees, switchgrass and other non-grain crops which can produce more biomass per acre can serve as food sources for the algae. Solazyme avoids the need to build ponds with glass or plastic coverings on a massive scale.

Estimates for how much biodiesel can be produced using the pond approach run into the thousands of gallons per acre per year (one figure: 4000 gallons). One big problem with these approaches is the cost of physical plant structure over many acres. If instead an acre is used to grow switchgrass or trees how many gallons of biodiesel can the Solazyme approach produce?

If anyone can point to some good sources of information on the viability of algae biodiesel please post in the comments.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 24 11:13 PM  Energy Biomass
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Starch Rich Foods Risks For Breast And Ovarian Cancers

Animal products are associated with lowered risks of breast and ovarian cancers. Eat diets richer in vitamins, fiber, unsaturated fats, and animal fats.

We identified 4 major dietary patterns named Animal products, Vitamins and fiber, Unsaturated fats and Starch-rich. The animal products pattern and the unsaturated fats pattern were inversely associated with breast cancer (OR = 0.74, 95% CI: 0.61-0.91 and OR = 0.83, 95% CI: 0.68-1.00, respectively, for the highest consumption quartile), whereas the starch-rich pattern was directly associated with it (OR = 1.34, 95% CI: 1.10-1.65). The vitamins and fiber pattern was inversely associated with ovarian cancer (OR = 0.77, 95% CI: 0.61-0.98), whereas the starch-rich pattern was directly associated with it (OR = 1.85, 95% CI: 1.37-2.48). In conclusion, the starch-rich pattern is potentially an unfavorable indicator of risk for both breast and ovarian cancers, while the animal products and the vitamins and fiber patterns may be associated with a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers, respectively.

Yes kids, glucose can do more damage to your body than protein. That could be the result of higher blood levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factor. My guess is that a lower glycemic index diet might not increase cancer risks as much as a higher glycemic index diet with the same amount of carbohydrates.

Previous studies have produced different results. We can't be certain this latest study is correct.

High alcohol intake has been consistently linked to breast cancer risk, but when it comes to other facets of the diet, studies have yielded conflicting results, according to the researchers on the current work, led by Dr. Valeria Edefonti of the University of Milan.

Another study just out in the American Journal of Epidemiology finds that men who eat a high fat diet are at greater risk of benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH).

The researchers found that a high-fat diet increased the risk of benign enlargement of the prostate by 31 percent, and that daily consumption of red meat increased the risk by 38 percent.

The study also found that eating four or more servings of vegetables daily was associated with a 32-percent reduction in risk, consuming high amounts of lean protein (about 20 percent of daily calorie intake) was associated with a 15-percent risk reduction, and that regular, moderate alcohol consumption (no more than two drinks a day) was associated with a 38-percent decline in BPH risk.

Note that for women that alcohol consumption will probably up your breast cancer risk. Also, other studies find increased risk of colon cancer from eating processed meats. So avoid the hot dogs and salami.

Proteins from lean sources are best for men.

Red meat increased the likelihood of BPH, but only in men who ate it every day. Men who ate the most fat were 31% more likely to develop BPH, while the highest consumers of protein actually cut their risk by 15%.

The protein finding "doesn't mean go out and eat lean meat, it means go out and find lean sources of protein, which can be quite diverse," Kristal told Reuters Health, pointing to beans and vegetable proteins as two possibilities.

I wonder whether the BPH risk comes from all sources of fats or just particular kinds of fats.

While the net effects of some types of foods might seem controversial note that the benefits of vegetables consumption seem pretty clear. Vegetables will cut the risks of many types of cancer as well as other diseases of old age.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 24 12:15 AM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2008 February 23 Saturday
Daytime Dozing Elderly Stroke Risk Factor

But the dozing might just be a proxy for sleep apnea.

Regular daytime dozing forewarns of a significantly increased risk of stroke in older Americans, researchers reported at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2008.

Stroke risk was two- to four-fold greater in those with moderate dozing. This suggests that daytime dozing “may be an important and novel stroke risk factor,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, Ph.D., lead author of the study.

In this study, dozing refers to a person unintentionally falling asleep.

Among 2,153 participants in a prospective study with an average follow-up of 2.3 years, the risk of stroke was 2.6 times greater for those classified as doing “some dozing” compared to those with “no dozing.” Those in the “significant dozing” group had a 4.5 times higher risk.

“Those are significant numbers,” said Boden-Albala, an assistant professor of neurology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. “We were surprised that the impact was that high for such a short period of time.”

Sleep scientists previously have found evidence that people who experience apnea, brief periods when breathing stops during sleep, have an increased stroke risk. Research indicates that daytime sleepiness can result from sleeping poorly because of nighttime apnea.

Maybe the sleep apnea causes a sleep deficit which causes cardiovascular damage. Or maybe an oxygen deficit all night long while repeatedly going into shallow breathing modes causes the damage.

Sleep apnea is linked to all sorts of diseases you want to avoid like heart disease and cognitve decline. Of the various risk factors for sleep apnea about the only one you can do something about is obesity (unless you want to get a sex change operation into being a female).

Getting a stroke is up there with brain cancer and Alzheimer's Disease on the list of Terrible Things That Happen To Our Brains In Old Age. Together they provide a very compelling reason why we should support more rapid development of rejuvenation treatments to reverse the aging process.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 23 03:16 PM  Aging Studies
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2008 February 21 Thursday
Fast Freezing Works For Human Eggs?

A San Francisco, California fertility clinic claims it can get excellent rates of viable embryos using eggs frozen with a rapid vitrification technology.

A Pacific Fertility Center (PFC) patient, who underwent an embryo transfer with embryos created from vitrified and warmed donor oocytes (eggs), successfully delivered a baby in late October 2007. A healthy baby boy was born at term. Three other pregnancies are ongoing and are expected to deliver in 2008.

The key is very rapid freezing.

In recent months, the newer vitrification technology has been used at PFC for unfertilized egg preservation. Vitrification works by using higher concentrations of cryoprotectants and much faster cooling rates. Cells are cooled in tiny straws which achieve cooling rates of several thousand degrees per minute. When vitrification straws and cryoprotectants were first approved by the FDA for human embryos, PFC began the process of adapting the technology to unfertilized eggs (oocytes). "Even though we've been handling oocytes and embryos for many years, this technology provided new challenges due to the tiny size of the straws and the speed at which they had to be cooled," says Joe Conaghan, Ph.D., HCLD, Laboratory Director and Embryologist at PFC. "Once proficient with the procedure, we began to freeze high quality oocytes from donors that had proven fertility. Using these quality oocytes, we could be assured that any failure would be the result of the vitrification technology and not the oocytes."

Five oocyte donors in their twenties were recruited and all of their oocytes were vitrified immediately after their oocyte retrieval procedures. The oocytes were then offered to specific PFC patients waiting for embryo donation. The immediate availability of the vitrified oocytes and the ability to choose the sperm source made this a great alternative to accepting donated embryos.

PFC had immediate success with the first recipient. "We had vitrified 16 oocytes from the first donor. For the first recipient we warmed only 7 of these," explains Dr. Conaghan. "Four hours later we injected a single sperm into 6 oocytes that survived the vitrification process (1 oocyte had not come through the process successfully). The next morning, 3 of the oocytes had fertilized. Two days later, 3 embryos were transferred. A positive pregnancy test and ultrasound confirmed a singleton pregnancy. This success was a great reward for our efforts."

Overall, PFC had 7 out of 10 embryos implant after transfers to 6 recipients. What is very exciting is that this implantation rate (70%) is comparable to the implantation rates seen with donor oocytes which have not been cryopreserved.

This technology will expand the market for donor eggs because buyers won't be limited to choices among the cohort of women who are both currently fertile and willing to sell their eggs.

This technology will let women pursue careers for more years before finally trying to have kids.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 21 10:31 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2008 February 20 Wednesday
Big Corn Ethanol Industry Even Without Subsidies

The corn ethanol industry would be only a third smaller without government subsidies.

One of the most dramatic aspects of the ethanol "revolution" is a ballooning percentage of corn crops being made into ethanol, which prior to 2004 had always been lower than 10 percent. This year, for the first time, ethanol replaced exports to become the second largest use of the grain behind that of domestic animal feed. With a fixed subsidy in effect, the amount of corn used for ethanol increases from 12 percent for $40 oil to 52 percent for $120 oil, the model predicts. With the renewable fuel standard, the ethanol share is quite stable, ranging from 44 percent for $40 oil to 47 percent for $120 oil, Tyner said. With the fixed subsidy in effect, ethanol production ranges from 3.3 billion gallons a year at $40 oil to 17.6 billion gallons with $120 oil, according to Tyner. The variable and no-subsidy policies yield 6.5 billion gallons at $80 oil and 12.7 billion for $120 oil.

As the price of oil goes up the price of corn will follow. The rise in the price of corn will pull up prices of other grains as farmers shift their fields to corn and they produce less of other grains. Peak Oil means high food prices.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 20 09:33 PM  Energy Biomass
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2008 February 19 Tuesday
4 Unique Human Cognitive Abilities?

Do humans really have unique modes of thought? Some of the ways which humans were believed to be unique in intellectual abilities have since been found present in other species. But a professor at Harvard believes other methods of thinking are uniquely human.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Shedding new light on the great cognitive rift between humans and animals, a Harvard University scientist has synthesized four key differences in human and animal cognition into a hypothesis on what exactly differentiates human and animal thought.

In new work presented for the first time at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Marc Hauser, professor of psychology, biological anthropology, and organismic and evolutionary biology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, presents his theory of “humaniqueness,” the factors that make human cognition special. He presents four evolved mechanisms of human thought that give us access to a wide range of information and the ability to find creative solutions to new problems based on access to this information.

“Animals share many of the building blocks that comprise human thought, but paradoxically, there is a great cognitive gap between humans and animals,” Hauser says. “By looking at key differences in cognitive abilities, we find the elements of human cognition that are uniquely human. The challenge is to identify which systems animals and human share, which are unique, and how these systems interact and interface with one another.”

Recently, scientists have found that some animals think in ways that were once considered unique to humans: For example, some animals have episodic memory, or non-linguistic mathematical ability, or the capacity to navigate using landmarks. However, despite these apparent similarities, a cognitive gulf remains between humans and animals.

Do these really seem like uniquely human intellectual abilities?

Hauser presents four distinguishing ingredients of human cognition, and shows how these capacities make human thought unique. These four novel components of human thought are the ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding; to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation; to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input; and to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.

Earlier scientists viewed the ability to use tools as a unique capacity of humans, but it has since been shown that many animals, such as chimpanzees, also use simple tools. Differences do arise, however, in how humans use tools as compared to other animals. While animal tools have one function, no other animals combine materials to create a tool with multiple functions. In fact, Hauser says, this ability to combine materials and thought processes is one of the key computations that distinguish human thought.

How certain can we be that no other animal creates tools with multiple functions?

The advantage that humans have with "floodlight" cognition seems one of degree.

According to Hauser, animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which a specific solution is used to solve a specific problem. But these solutions cannot be applied to new situations or to solve different kinds of problem. In contrast, humans have “floodlight” cognition, allowing us to use thought processes in new ways and to apply the solution of one problem to another situation. While animals can transfer across systems, this is only done in a limited way.

“For human beings, these key cognitive abilities may have opened up other avenues of evolution that other animals have not exploited, and this evolution of the brain is the foundation upon which cultural evolution has been built,” says Hauser.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 19 09:54 PM  Brain Evolution
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Immune System Gene Therapy Cures Rat Brain Cancer

Aliens from outer space might marvel at how hard humans try to cure diseases in other species.

A new gene therapy approach that attracts and “trains” immune system cells to destroy deadly brain cancer cells also provides long-term immunity, produces no significant adverse effects and -- in the process of destroying the tumor -- promotes the return of normal brain function and behavioral skills, according to a study conducted by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Board of Governors Gene Therapeutics Research Institute.

The study was conducted in a recently developed laboratory rat model of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) that closely simulates outcomes in humans and supports the translation of this procedure to human clinical trials later this year. Results of the study are described in the Feb. 19 issue of Molecular Therapy, the journal of the American Society for Gene Therapy.

Gene therapy to train immune systems to attack cancers seems one of the most promising approaches against cancer.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 19 09:42 PM  Biotech Cancer
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2008 February 18 Monday
Inaccurate Predictions Of Enjoyment When Compared

If you compare something you might do with either something you enjoyed or disliked in the past you'll underestimate or overestimate how much you like it. Comparisons can make you less able to predict enjoyment of an experience.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Researchers have identified a key reason why people make mistakes when they try to predict what they will like. When predicting how much we will enjoy a future experience, people tend to compare it to its alternatives—that is, to the experiences they had before, might have later, or could have been having now. But when people actually have the experience, they tend not to think about these alternatives and their experience is relatively unaffected by them.

In new research funded by the National Science Foundation and presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, shares the findings in a presentation titled, “Why People Misimagine the Future: The Problem of Attentional Collapse.” The research was done with Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University, Karim Kassam of Harvard, Kristian Myrseth of the University of Chicago, and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia.

The actual experience distracts you from the alternatives you could have done.

Gilbert presents the results of four experiments, all involving predicted versus actual enjoyment of a very simple experience—eating potato chips. In three of the experiments, participants predicted how much they would like eating potato chips before, after, or instead of eating a much better food (chocolate) or a much worse food (sardines). They then ate the chips and reported how much they liked them. The results showed that the chocolate and the sardines had a large impact on participants’ predictions, but no impact whatsoever on their actual experiences. Those participants who compared the chips to sardines overestimated how much they’d enjoy eating the chips, and those who compared them to chocolate underestimated how much they’d enjoy eating the chips.

Why does this happen? “Experience typically demands our attention,” says Gilbert, “leaving us little time to think about the alternatives to it.”

But if you slow down and think about the alternatives while having the experience the alternatives will affect how much you enjoy the experience. So slow down and think about lousy alternatives.

To demonstrate this, participants in a fourth experiment were asked to eat the potato chips to the beat of a metronome. Those participants who ate the chips at a normal pace made the same mistake as did participants in the previous experiments. But participants who ate the chips at an unusually slow pace did not. Specifically, participants who ate slowly actually did enjoy the chips more when the alternative was sardines than when the alternative was chocolate—just as they had predicted.

Gilbert argues that slowing down the experience of eating gave participants the opportunity to think about the chocolates or the sardines.

“A very slow family reunion may well be worse if the alternative was Bermuda than if the alternative was working an extra shift,” says Gilbert. “When experiences don’t demand our attention, our minds are free to wander to all the other things we might have been doing instead. If those things are better, we feel worse, and if they are worse, we feel better.”

Should ice cream parlours and candy stores heighten the customer experience by putting pictures of asparagus and broccoli on their walls? Should resort hotels show pictures of traffic jams and pollution on their walls to remind people of worse places they are escaping from? But what sorts of pictures do you want to see on the wall at your mother-in-law's?

By Randall Parker 2008 February 18 10:23 PM  Brain Economics
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Shark Numbers In Sharp Decline Due To Overfishing

Yet another sign that the human population has become too big:

Sharks are disappearing from the world’s oceans. The numbers of many large shark species have declined by more than half due to increased demand for shark fins and meat, recreational shark fisheries, as well as tuna and swordfish fisheries, where millions of sharks are taken as bycatch each year.

This is going to get much worse. The human population is increasing and Asian industrialization is massively increasing the number of people who can afford to eat fish caught in the ocean.

Now, the global status of large sharks has been assessed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, scientific-based information source on the threat status of plants and animals.

“As a result of high and mostly unrestricted fishing pressure, many sharks are now considered to be at risk of extinction,” explained Julia Baum, a member of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group who will be speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Conference in Boston, which runs from February 14 to 18. She will outline management measures required to conserve sharks at an afternoon press conference on February 17.

“Of particular concern is the scalloped hammerhead shark, an iconic coastal species, which will be listed on the 2008 IUCN Red List as globally ‘endangered’ due to overfishing and high demand for its valuable fins in the shark fin trade,” added Baum, who is an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The capture of sharks makes more fish from lower in the food chain available for human consumption. Humans are basically displacing other predators at the top of large numbers of food chains.

It is always open season in shark fishing in international waters. Every year the amount of capital available to sweep the oceans free of fish keeps going up.

Baum pointed out that fishing for sharks in international waters is unrestricted, and she supports a recently adopted United Nations resolution calling for immediate shark catch limits as well as a meaningful ban on shark finning (the practice of removing only a shark’s fins and dumping the still live but now helpless shark into the ocean to die).

Will growing Asian buying power overwhelm any attempt to stop fisheries shrinkage?

By Randall Parker 2008 February 18 09:36 PM  Trends Extinction
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2008 February 17 Sunday
Rare Few People Maintain New Love Feelings Long Term

For most couples mutual attraction gradually wanes. But for some statistical outliers the initial intense attraction seems to last.

Psychologists studying relationships confirm the steady decline of romantic love. Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline.

Think about all those people becoming steadily less satisfied with each other. The outcomes of natural selection are cruel.

Are those who feel thrilled about their mates for many years different in some neurobiological way? One would expect that to be the case. Some scientists decided to investigate the statistical outliers using brain scans.

About 15 years ago, Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, became curious about couples outside the norm. His own work turned up the usual pattern of declining passion. But he was drawn to what statisticians call outliers, points way off the curve. These dots represented people who claimed they'd been madly in love for years. "I didn't know what to make of that," Dr. Aron says. "Was it random error? Were they self-deceiving? Were they deceiving others? Because it's not supposed to happen."

Not supposed to happen? I wouldn't say that. More likely there's a large range of genetic variations that govern how the brain develops in areas related to sex and bonding. Some people probably get genetic variations that make them feel romantically high for decades just like some people are natural optimists who always feel happy even in adverse circumstances.

Brain scans show the perpetually in love as different than the masses. Those people in long term relationships who profess to still feel very excited about their partners have more intense brain activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brain just like the newly fallen in love do.

Days after Mrs. Tucker's brain scan, Dr. Brown, the neuroscientist, sat in her book-lined office looking at the results. "Wow, just wow," she recalls thinking. Mrs. Tucker's brain reacted to her husband's photo with a frenzy of activity in the ventral tegmental area. "I was shocked," Dr. Brown says.

The brain scan confirmed what Mrs. Tucker said all along. But when she learned the result, she too was a bit surprised. "It's not something I expected after 11 years," she says. "But having it, it's like a gift."

The scan also showed a strong reaction in Mrs. Tucker's ventral pallidum, an area suspected from vole studies to have links with long-term bonds. Mrs. Tucker apparently enjoyed old love and new. In the months since, Dr. Brown analyzed data from four more people, including Ms. Jordan, who also showed brain activity associated with new love. The study is ongoing, and more volunteers are being sought.

This research has many ramifications. Do those who stay thrilled have lower rates of divorce? I would expect so. But people who have the neurological tendency to maintain intense romantic love probably are at risk for getting into relationships with people who do not share that tendency. So they can get their hearts broken pretty badly. If they could find each other (neuro-scan dating services that screen to pair people up with neuro-like potential mates) then they could bond to someone who will bond back just as strongly and for just as longly.

Longer term: Neurobiologists will develop a better understanding of why some maintain a long term romantic high off of pair bonding. They will eventually develop the ability to manipulate it. Will people decide to undergo treatments to prevent their romantic feelings from declining with time? Or will they turn down and suppress these feelings so that romance becomes less of a distraction from career ambitions?

What happens once bonding behavior gets traced back to genetic variations and genetic engineering of offspring becomes possible? Will people choose to give their children genetic variations that make them pair up in very stable long-lasting relationships? Or will they give future generations genetic variations that cause serial monogamy or general promiscuity? Also, will parents make male offspring and female offspring more or less different in their mating preferences?

The coming of offspring genetic engineering probably won't unite humanity into a single style of living. I expect society to divide up into groups that make different sorts of decisions about genetic endowments for how their children will form relationships, romantic and otherwise. Some groups will choose genetic variations that make their kids more monogamous. Others will intentionally create children who are more promiscuous. Still others will genetically engineer women to happily join polygamous marriages without jealousy.

Also see my previous post Romantic Love Seen As Motivation Or Drive Rather Than Emotional State.

Update: If you aren't going to get divorced there is some appeal to the idea of making yourself feel thrilled once again about your spouse. Tuning up your brain's love spot would probably increase your enjoyment of life. But if your spouse is abusing you or otherwise creating a disaster in your life then you really need a way to turn down your enthusiasm far enough to get out of the relationship.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 17 09:07 PM  Brain Love
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99% Detection On Early Stage Ovarian Cancer

Imagine a future where all cancer is caught and removed before it gets the chance to metastasize.

New Haven, Conn. — Researchers at Yale School of Medicine have developed a blood test with enough sensitivity and specificity to detect early stage ovarian cancer with 99 percent accuracy.

Results of this new study are published in the February 15 issue of the journal Clinical Cancer Research. The results build on work done by the same Yale group in 2005 showing 95 percent effectiveness of a blood test using four proteins.

So what became of the blood test that is 95% efficient? What would it cost for mass usage? How frequent would a test like this need to be delivered? Once a year? Once a quarter? How quickly does the cancer go from being detectable to having metastasized? Also, how hard is it to find and remove only the still very small early stage cancer and not the whole organ?

“The ability to recognize almost 100 percent of new tumors will have a major impact on the high death rates of this cancer,” said lead author Gil Mor, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at Yale. “We hope this test will become the standard of care for women having routine examinations.”

Epithelial ovarian cancer is the leading cause of gynecologic cancer deaths in the United States and three times more lethal than breast cancer. It is usually not diagnosed until its advanced stages and has come to be known as the “silent killer.”

Pinpointing the exact location of a cancer is needed for some types of cancer. Got ovarian cancer? Remove both ovaries. A woman can live without her ovaries (though major bummer if the woman is young and wanted kids). But suppose an early stage pancreatic cancer becomes detectable via blood test. Well, you need your pancreas. A blood test doesn't tell exactly where the cancer is located. How hard will it be to find cancers detected at very early stage by blood tests?

I'm excited about the prospects for early stage cancer detection and removal. But I'm even more excited by a different approach: rejuvenate and rev up immune systems to create extreme anti-cancer cells. Getting medically cured of specific diseases is not as exciting as enhancing your body so it can fix itself. But we are going to get both advances. The better testing will come sooner and is already happening. Vaccines against cancers will also come sooner but won't be anywhere near as effective as rejuvenating and enhancing the immune system.

We need immune system rejuvenation anyway so that we don't have to worry about getting killed by influenza or a bacterial infection when we get older. Immune system rejuvenation will reduce the frequency of infections, severity of infections, frequency of auto-immune diseases, and also frequency of cancer.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 17 09:11 AM  Biotech Cancer
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2008 February 16 Saturday
Topic Requests At FuturePundit?

Got questions? Always wanted to see a post about the future of some technology, social trend, stage in evolution, or looming disaster? I'd like to hear from you about your burning curiosities and topics you think deserve more attention than they get. Post in the comments or send me an email.

Update: I'm not feeling desperate for topics to write about. But I figure maybe there are major areas of interest that haven't occurred to me. Or perhaps someone has an interesting question that will pique my curiosity.

Writing this web log has given me a lot of brain food as I search out reports and data sources on an assortment of topics. I've reworked my views of the world as I have been forced to dig up relevant references to support or undermine various positions. But maybe there are areas of interest where the right questions haven't occurred to me. Or maybe I neglect some important areas (e.g. artificial intelligence comes to mind) that are far more important for the future than the quantity of my writings would lead you to expect. So what am I missing?

By Randall Parker 2008 February 16 01:12 PM  Miscellaneous Coverage
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IVF Embryo Selection Method Boosts Success 50%

Using a microscope to choose among fertilized embryos for implantation German and Chinese researchers have found a way to boost success rates for in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In future a new method could help some couples who are childless against their will. The microscopic procedure significantly improves the success rate of 'ICSI' (intracytoplasmic sperm injection). This was discovered by scientists at the University of Bonn together with colleagues from China and industrial partners in a study of 124 women. Up to now, the desire to have a child is only fulfilled for every third couple that decides to have ICSI. In a study the artificial insemination method was twice as successful. The scientists have now published their data in the journal 'Reproductive BioMedicine'. (Online version available at http://www.rbmonline.com/Article/3161).

Improvements in artificial insemination technology are going to eventually move into the mainstream when genetic testing starts providing a big advantage for those who choose to start pregnancies with IVF. So you might think an advance like this one only applies to the small minority with fertility problems. But in fact this technique or others like it will eventually get used to start a large fraction of all pregnancies in developed nations.

In cases where they can identify 2 promising ova they can achieve a 50% success rate.

Which of the fertilised ova are finally implanted has usually been left up to chance. But today it is known that not all ova have the same quality. Using a special procedure the Bonn scientists can select the two most suitable candidates. 'For this we observe the ovule integument under a DIC microscope,' Dr. Montag explains. 'There it appears as a luminescent orange-red ring. The brighter this ring is and the more uniformly it shines, the greater the chance that it becomes a child.' The reason for this is that the ovule integument always seems to have a particularly uniform structure if the cell has matured under good conditions.

Normally every third ICSI is successful. But if medics used two 'good ' ova in their experiment, this rate increased to more than 50 per cent. With a 'good' and a 'bad' ovum the success rate was still around 40 per cent, using two 'bad' ones only 20 per cent. 'Mind you, two “good” ova are rare,' Markus Montag emphasises. 'Only with two out of ten cells does the ovule integument have an intense regular orange colour.'

If only 2 out of 10 IVF ova look good by this criteria that makes genetically-based embyro selection harder to do. Ideally one would want to be able to choose among dozens of genetically tested and viable embryos. The more you can choose between the closer you can get to your ideal combination of genes that you'll want to pass along to offspring.

To make selection of offspring by genetic testing viable we still need a few more pieces of biotechnology. First off, we need lots of information about what all the genetic variations mean. That information is now coming in a rapidly increasing torrent. Five years from now we are going to know about hundreds or thousands of genetic variations that contribute to health, size, musculature, coordination, personality, intelligence, endurance, and other characteristics. Second, we need the ability to test for thousands of genetic variations in a cell removed from an embryo. Well, the cost of testing for those genetic variations in cells removed from embryos will continue to fall rapidly. So that's not going to be an obstacle for much longer.

Our third and hard problem: The limited number of good ova. You can't test what you don't have. You can only choose among the viable fertilized embryos that can survive and develop into a baby. To solve this problem we probably need the ability to turn adult cells into eggs. Just turning adult cells into eggs isn't enough. The eggs also need all the regulatory state (called epigenetic state). They need the right genes activated and deactivated.

How long will it take to solve the problem of how to mass produce human eggs with correct epigenetic state from adult cells? Once that problem gets solved the rate of human evolution will accelerate by orders of magnitude.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 16 12:45 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2008 February 14 Thursday
5% Can Influence Movement Direction Of Crowds

Professor Jens Krause, a biology professor at University of Leeds, has found that only 5% of a moving crowd can influence the direction of the rest of the crowd.

Professor Krause, with PhD student John Dyer, conducted a series of experiments where groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. Within the group, a select few received more detailed information about where to walk. Participants were not allowed to communicate with one another but had to stay within arms length of another person.

The findings show that in all cases, the ‘informed individuals’ were followed by others in the crowd, forming a self-organising, snake-like structure. “We’ve all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd,” says Professor Krause. “But what’s interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to talk or gesture to one another. In most cases the participants didn’t realise they were being led by others.”

Other experiments in the study used groups of different sizes, with different ratios of ‘informed individuals’. The research findings show that as the number of people in a crowd increases, the number of informed individuals decreases. In large crowds of 200 or more, five per cent of the group is enough to influence the direction in which it travels. The research also looked at different scenarios for the location of the ‘informed individuals’ to determine whether where they were located had a bearing on the time it took for the crowd to follow.

Okay, we need to recruit people to form the core 5% that will lead the rest of Western societies in the direction of developing full body rejuvenation therapies. We can do this. We just need to start signaling to everyone else that we can do this. We don't need to convince everyone. We just to get a vanguard to say this is possible and worth doing. Then the crowd will follow.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 14 09:37 PM  Brain Society
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2008 February 13 Wednesday
New Record For Solar Concentrator Energy Production

A solar concentrator steam system has achieved a new efficiency record for its type.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —On a perfect New Mexico winter day — with the sky almost 10 percent brighter than usual — Sandia National Laboratories and Stirling Energy Systems (SES) set a new solar-to-grid system conversion efficiency record by achieving a 31.25 percent net efficiency rate. The old 1984 record of 29.4 percent was toppled Jan. 31 on SES’s “Serial #3” solar dish Stirling system at Sandia’s National Solar Thermal Test Facility.

The conversion efficiency is calculated by measuring the net energy delivered to the grid and dividing it by the solar energy hitting the dish mirrors. Auxiliary loads, such as water pumps, computers and tracking motors, are accounted for in the net power measurement.

“Gaining two whole points of conversion efficiency in this type of system is phenomenal,” says Bruce Osborn, SES president and CEO. “This is a significant advancement that takes our dish engine systems well beyond the capacities of any other solar dish collectors and one step closer to commercializing an affordable system.”

Phenomenal? If it took them 24 years to gain 2% of efficiency and it is still more expensive than coal electric or nuclear (and that's probably the case) then I'm not so excited.

Improved optics helped to achieve this record.

Andraka says the first and probably most important advancement was improved optics. The Stirling dishes are made with a low iron glass with a silver backing that make them highly reflective —focusing as much as 94 percent of the incident sunlight to the engine package, where prior efforts reflected about 91 percent. The mirror facets, patented by Sandia and Paneltec Corp. of Lafayette, Colo., are highly accurate and have minimal imperfections in shape.

Note, however, that they also benefited from a cold day. This suggests that in sustained operation the real efficiency would be lower.

The temperature, which hovered around freezing, allowed the cold portion of the engine to operate at about 23 degrees C, and the brightness means more energy was produced while most parasitic loads and losses are constant.

Still, they've moved the state of the art closer to commercial feasibility. But will nanomaterial photovoltaics blow right past stirling engines for lower cost solar power? Or can the solar concentrator approach fall substantially in cost too?

By Randall Parker 2008 February 13 09:36 PM  Energy Solar
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Nuclear Powered Liquid Hydrocarbons For $4.60 Per Gallon

Synthesis of liquid hydrocarbons from atmospheric carbon dioxide and water could be nuclear powered.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a low-risk, transformational concept, called Green Freedom™, for large-scale production of carbon-neutral, sulfur-free fuels and organic chemicals from air and water.

Currently, the principal market for the Green Freedom production concept is fuel for vehicles and aircraft.

At the heart of the technology is a new process for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making it available for fuel production using a new form of electrochemical separation. By integrating this electrochemical process with existing technology, researchers have developed a new, practical approach to producing fuels and organic chemicals that permits continued use of existing industrial and transportation infrastructure. Fuel production is driven by carbon-neutral power.

The New York Times reports that using nuclear power plants as an energy source to drive the process will yield liquid fuel for only $4.60 per gallon which is much cheaper than gasoline is projected to get under various doomer scenarios for Peak Oil.

This plan has a minor hurdle, too; the electricity for driving the chemical processes, according to a white paper describing the overarching concept, would come from nuclear power. The proposal says it’d be worth it to have a payoff of steady, secure streams of methanol and gasoline with no carbon added to the atmosphere (and a price for gasoline at the pump of perhaps $4.60 a gallon — comparable to petroleum-based fuels as oil becomes harder to find).

At $4.60 per gallon we can switch to hybrid and diesel cars and keep moving around just as much as we do now.

I see this as good news because it puts a long term ceiling on liquid fuels prices and also puts a long term ceiling on grain costs. Once grain-derived ethanol and biodiesel get above $4.60 a gallon the demand for grain biomass energy will flatten out and biomass energy demand for grains will cease to grow. But since nuclear power plant construction takes years we could still go through a period with much higher transportation fuels costs.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 13 06:07 PM  Energy Transportation
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2008 February 12 Tuesday
People Sense Scarcity Of Whatever They Desire

Some scientists have come up an interesting way of measuring whether people tend to overestimate or underestimate desired goods. They give the experimental subjects some reason to desire one or another of two things. Then they show an equal mix of those two things and then ask the subjects which did they see more of: What they desired or what they didn't desire. People always think they see less of what they really desire even if they are viewing equal amounts of two things.

Xianchi Dai, Klaus Wertenbroch and Miguel Brendl from INSEAD, the international business school with campuses in France and Singapore, have been studying what they call the “value heuristic.” A heuristic is a sort of cognitive short cut or “rule of thumb” that we use when we are unable to make a truly informed decision. The psychologists’ research suggests that many mate-seekers are unwittingly subbing something clear and simple -- their yearning for a potential mate -- for a complicated and unknowable statistic (i.e., how many of the relationship-worthy bachelors and bachelorettes are still available).

The connection between scarcity and value is something we all know; for example, gold is considered precious because it is rare, not because it makes for a poor construction material. The psychologists’ research suggests that this link has become deep-wired into our neurons, so that even its inverse is unconsciously called upon for life decisions -- what’s valuable must be scarce.

To test their value heuristic theory, the researchers had a group of young people view nearly one hundred pictures, half of birds and half of flowers, in random order. They then told participants that they would get paid a few cents either for each bird picture or for each flower picture they had seen. To determine whether a participant would be paid for bird or for flower pictures, the researchers let each participant flip a coin. Before being paid accordingly, all participants were asked to estimate the total number of bird pictures and the total number of flower pictures they had seen.

The results were unambiguous. As described in the January issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, people who were paid for spotting flower pictures thought there were fewer flowers than birds, and likewise, those who were made to value birds determined they were scarcer than flowers. Nobody knew that in fact there were exactly the same number of flowers and birds.

So in effect, their experimentally-induced yearning caused them to wrongly perceive scarcity.

So if you really want something that'll tend to make you think you can't get enough of it. Learn how to enjoy what you don't want? Do people who want the most feel the most sense of scarcity?

People viewing pictures of men and women also tended to believe there were fewer of the opposite sex even when there were equal numbers of each sex.

To increase the validity of their findings, the scientists ran several other experiments. In one, participants of both sexes viewed portraits of men and women, some attractive and some not. When questioned later, both men and women believed that there were fewer attractive people of the opposite sex than there were of the same sex.

If the portraits were unattractive, they tended not to perceive a sense of scarcity. As in the first experiment, the participants appeared to be substituting their emotional desire for calculation, and ended up believing that what they wanted was less likely to be found.

I hear Dwight Yockum singing "I ain't ever satisfied".

By Randall Parker 2008 February 12 08:46 PM  Brain Economics
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2008 February 11 Monday
UCLA Group Turns Skin Cells Into Embryonic Cells

Confirming work reported a few months ago by other researchers, a group at UCLA have demonstrated that adult human skin cells can be reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells.

UCLA stem cell scientists have reprogrammed human skin cells into cells with the same unlimited properties as embryonic stem cells without using embryos or eggs.

Led by scientists Kathrin Plath and William Lowry, UCLA researchers used genetic alteration to turn back the clock on human skin cells and create cells that are nearly identical to human embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to become every cell type found in the human body. Four regulator genes were used to create the cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells.

The UCLA study confirms the work first reported in late November of researcher Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University and James Thompson at the University of Wisconsin. The UCLA research appears Feb. 11, 2008, in an early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

The implications for disease treatment could be significant. Reprogramming adult stem cells into embryonic stem cells could generate a potentially limitless source of immune-compatible cells for tissue engineering and transplantation medicine. A patient’s skin cells, for example, could be reprogrammed into embryonic stem cells. Those embryonic stem cells could then be prodded into becoming various cells types – beta islet cells to treat diabetes, hematopoetic cells to create a new blood supply for a leukemia patient, motor neuron cells to treat Parkinson’s disease.

“Our reprogrammed human skin cells were virtually indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells,” said Plath, an assistant professor of biological chemistry, a researcher with the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research and lead author of the study. “Our findings are an important step towards manipulating differentiated human cells to generate an unlimited supply of patient specific pluripotent stem cells. We are very excited about the potential implications.”

This research helps to get around the opposition to embryonic stem cell research. But these results also demonstrate progress in understanding cellular differentiation. Scientists first had to discover genes that play a role keeping cells in the embryonic state before they could know how to turn very differentiated (specialized) cells into much more flexible wider purpose cells

Our biggest obstacle for turning stem cells into useful therapies probably is our limited understanding of how cells regulate their conversion into a large assortment of specialized cell types. If we knew much more about how cells regulate themselves we'd have a much better idea of how to intervene to control them for therapeutic purposes.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 11 10:13 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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Aubrey de Grey On Colbert Report

Dave Gobel tells me Aubrey de Grey (he of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence fame on how to make our bodies youthful again) will be on the Colbert Report tonight. For those with access to the Comedy Central channel check it out. Steve Colbert should find some new humorous angles on living young for many centuries.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 11 07:15 PM  Aging Debate
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2008 February 10 Sunday
Artificial Sweeteners Cause Weight Gain?

Its not nice to fool mother nature.

WASHINGTON — Want to lose weight" It might help to pour that diet soda down the drain. Researchers have laboratory evidence that the widespread use of no-calorie sweeteners may actually make it harder for people to control their intake and body weight. The findings appear in the February issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, which is published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Psychologists at Purdue University’s Ingestive Behavior Research Center reported that relative to rats that ate yogurt sweetened with glucose (a simple sugar with 15 calories/teaspoon, the same as table sugar), rats given yogurt sweetened with zero-calorie saccharin later consumed more calories, gained more weight, put on more body fat, and didn’t make up for it by cutting back later, all at levels of statistical significance.

Appetite regulatory mechanisms in the body might get confused by the taste of sweetness followed by a lack of blood sugar rise and perhaps the mechanisms respond by upping appetite?

Artificial sweeteners in diet soda might be behind the results from a recent paper in Circulation which found diet soda as amount the dietary factors associated with a higher incidence metabolic syndrome (which includes higher weight, higher blood pressure, and higher blood sugar).

  • When further adjustment was made for intake of meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables, refined grains, and whole grains, analysis of individual food groups revealed that foods adversely associated with incident metabolic syndrome were meat (P for trend < .001), fried foods (P for trend = .02), and diet soda (P for trend < .001).
  • Compared with individuals in the lowest quintile of meat consumption, those in the highest quintile of meat consumption were at 26% greater risk of developing the metabolic syndrome.
  • Intake of hamburger, hot dogs, and processed meat seemed to promote the adverse association between meat and incident metabolic syndrome.
  • Compared with individuals in the lowest tertile of fried food intake, those in the highest tertile of intake were at 25% greater risk of developing the metabolic syndrome.
  • Compared with individuals in the lowest tertile of diet soda intake, those in the highest tertile of intake were at 34% greater risk for the metabolic syndrome.

But a causal link between diet soda consumption and obesity is not proven.

“This is interesting,” said Lyn M. Steffen, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the paper, which was posted online in the journal Circulation on Jan. 22. “Why is it happening? Is it some kind of chemical in the diet soda, or something about the behavior of diet soda drinkers?”

By Randall Parker 2008 February 10 10:31 PM  Brain Appetite
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Lack Of Sleep Makes Children Fatter

Maybe video games and TV are keeping the kids up and that is causing the childhood obesity epidemic?

Less sleep can increase a child’s risk of being overweight or obese, according to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their analysis of epidemiological studies found that with each additional hour of sleep, the risk of a child being overweight or obese dropped by 9 percent. The results are published in the February 2008 edition Obesity, the journal of The Obesity Society.

“Our analysis of the data shows a clear association between sleep duration and the risk for overweight or obesity in children. The risk declined with more sleep,” said Youfa Wang, MD, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor with the Bloomberg School’s Center for Human Nutrition. “Desirable sleep behavior may be an important low cost means for preventing childhood obesity and should be considered in future intervention studies. Our findings may also have important implications in societies where children do not have adequate sleep due to the pressure for academic excellence and where the prevalence of obesity is rising, such as in many East Asian countries.”

Sleep well and stay skinny. You'll also get sick less often.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 10 09:59 PM  Brain Appetite
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2008 February 07 Thursday
Studies Find Most Biomass Energy Increases Carbon Dioxide Emissions

The clearing of lands for biomass energy crops releases so much carbon dioxide that it takes many decades to cut the CO2 by as much as the land clearance originally released.

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a figure of 93 years to get a payback for US grassland converted to corn ethanol.

But corn ethanol is far from the worst offender. Conversion of Indonesian peatlands to palm oil biodiesel takes 423 years to pay off.

The conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up the greatest carbon debt which would require 423 years to pay off. The production of soybeans in the Amazon, which would not "pay for itself" in renewable soy biodiesel for 319 years.

The shifting of US croplands into biomass energy causes lands in other parts of the world to shift into crop production. (this is called stating the obvious but with a scientific study to make the obvious harder to deny)

Searchinger's study focused on the global ripple effect of changing the use of farmland. U.S. farmers have been replacing soybean fields with cornfields to meet the rising demand for ethanol, lowering the world supply of soybeans and driving up their price.

As a result, farmers in Brazil are clearing rain forest to plant soybeans, he said.

His model estimated that devoting 12.8 million hectares of cornfields in the U.S. for ethanol production would bring 10.8 million hectares of additional land into cultivation throughout the world, including 2.8 million hectares in Brazil and 2.3 million hectares in China and India -- much of it forests and grasslands.

This demonstrates the foolishness of European Union rules to prevent import of biodiesel from high ecological value converted lands. Such bans just shift the biomass energy production onto other lands while shifting food production from those other lands onto the lands that otherwise would have produced biomass energy crops. The only way to prevent habitat destruction from biomass energy is to use little land for biomass energy crops.

People who want less ecological damage have a few alternatives staring at them: First, promote wider birth control use. Babies never conceived will never use land for biomass energy or for food to eat. Second, support energy sources that use small land footprints per amount of energy produced. Nuclear energy best fits the bill.

But if biofuels become large net producers of energy then they'll drastically increase in popularity regardless of their CO2 emissions effects.

A new analysis shows that the energy balance of biodiesel is a positive ratio of 3.5-to-1. For every unit of fossil energy needed to produce the fuel over its life cycle, the return is 3.5 units of energy, according to new research conducted at the University of Idaho in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The announcement of the increase—up from 3.2—was made today (6th February) at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in Orlando.

The yield of soybeans per acre keeps rising while energy inputs are not rising. So the ratio of energy out to energy in keeps rising.

The researchers found national soybean yield data from 1975 to 2006 shows that the yield has increased at the rate of 0.6 bushels per acre per year. Yet, the fertilizer application rate has essentially remained the same and the herbicide application rate has declined to one-fifth of its rate in 2000. Reduced herbicide applications have the added benefit of requiring less diesel for field spraying.

At the processing level, technology improvements at soybean crushing facilities led to 55 percent less energy needed than what was reported in the NREL study.

The best option I can see coming up for biomass energy is biodiesel algae. The algae approach might allow thousands of gallons of diesel to be produced per acre per year. But it is not clear when algae biodiesel will become cost effective. Maybe sooner than we think once oil production declines send oil prices into the stratosphere.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 07 10:14 PM  Energy Biomass
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2008 February 06 Wednesday
Electronic Reminders More Than Double Exercise

Stanford researchers find that electronic hand held Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) that periodically remind people to exercise more than double the amount of exercise that people engage in.

The researchers invited the public to participate in this new study through local mass-media outlets, like the Palo Alto Daily News and the San Jose Mercury News. Out of 69 callers who were screened for eligibility, 37 were invited to be study participants and randomly assigned to an eight-week program in which they either received a Dell Axim X5 PDA, or traditional handouts related to physical activity.

"Then we let 'em roll," King said.

While Hollywood stars use personal trainers to accomplish similar goals a far cheaper PDA works very well. A human personal trainer could call you several times a day to achieve the same goal. Or an automated phone calling service could do the same thing. But that'd get annoying. Text messaging would be less intrusive.

The Dell Axim X5, chosen for its large-sized, easy-to-read screen and good contrast, was fitted with a program that asked participants approximately three minutes' worth of questions. Among the questions: Where are you now" Who are you with" What barriers did you face in doing your physical activity routine" The device automatically beeped once in the afternoon and once in the evening; if participants ignored it the first time, it beeped three additional times at 30-minute intervals. During the second (evening) session, the device also asked participants about their goals for the next day.

With this program, participants could set goals, track their physical activity progress twice a day and get feedback on how well they were meeting their goals. After eight weeks, the researchers found that while participants assigned to the PDA group devoted approximately five hours each week to exercise, those in the control group spent only about two hours on physical activities-in other words, the PDA users were more than twice as active.

One surprise was the participants' positive response to the program's persistence. The PDA users liked the three additional "reminder" beeps that went off if they failed to respond to the first one. In fact, almost half of them wound up responding to the PDA only after being beeped for the fourth time.

"The PDAs can really keep on you," King observed with wry humor. "We were surprised by that; we thought by the time they heard the fourth beep, they might find it annoying and not respond at all."

The researchers want to use cell phones next.

Wait until PDAs include sensors and include the ability to read sensors embedded in your body. Then they'll be able to tell you when you are becoming too fatigued, sleep deprived, hungry, or angry. A PDA will become a full life coach. Add in a wireless link to an artificial intelligence running somewhere on a server and the PDA could remind you of all manner of things you ought to do or not do and say or not say.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 06 10:04 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2008 February 05 Tuesday
Long Lived Skinnier People Run Up Higher Medical Costs

You shouldn't complain to fat people about their weight. They are saving you money. A study in Plos Medicine found that obesity costs more in the short term but earlier death cuts total medical costs.

Background

Obesity is a major cause of morbidity and mortality and is associated with high medical expenditures. It has been suggested that obesity prevention could result in cost savings. The objective of this study was to estimate the annual and lifetime medical costs attributable to obesity, to compare those to similar costs attributable to smoking, and to discuss the implications for prevention.

Methods and Findings

With a simulation model, lifetime health-care costs were estimated for a cohort of obese people aged 20 y at baseline. To assess the impact of obesity, comparisons were made with similar cohorts of smokers and “healthy-living” persons (defined as nonsmokers with a body mass index between 18.5 and 25). Except for relative risk values, all input parameters of the simulation model were based on data from The Netherlands. In sensitivity analyses the effects of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions were assessed. Until age 56 y, annual health expenditure was highest for obese people. At older ages, smokers incurred higher costs. Because of differences in life expectancy, however, lifetime health expenditure was highest among healthy-living people and lowest for smokers. Obese individuals held an intermediate position. Alternative values of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions did not alter these conclusions.

Conclusions

Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures.

However, if you expect the development of artificial intelligence and/or nanobots to make manufacturing cheaper in a few decades then it makes sense to get everyone to eat less and stop smoking now. Any deferral of medical costs, even if they'll be greater in the future, will be easy to afford once the Singularity happens.

Of course, if the nanobots take over and turn hostile toward us in the Singularity (and FuturePundit does not wear Panglossian glasses) then we won't get treated for illnesses and we won't become young again. Just as the technology comes into existence that can make our bodies young again the artificial intelligences in control of that technology might just make us extinct.

Update: This study ignores one important consideration: productivity A healthier person produces more wealth. One needs to look at lifetime income earned and taxes paid along side of health care costs to come up with net economic effects. I'm expecting non-smokers to produce more than smokers because the brains of non-smokers operate less toxified. Non-smokers are going to miss fewer days of work due to illness and operate more productively while they are there. I watch the smokers taking smoking breaks. What does that cost?

By Randall Parker 2008 February 05 09:37 PM  Aging Studies
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Bush Medical Research Freeze Means Cut After Inflation

Bush's freeze on the funding of the National Institutes of Health research budget turns into a budget cut of a few percent once inflation is factored in.

In his FY 2009 budget, released this morning, President George W. Bush calls to freeze the National Institutes of Health's budget at last year's level of about $29 billion while shaving more than $370 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2008 budget.

The president's budget also suggests decreasing research funding at the US Department of Agriculture by more than $350 million, but proposes increasing the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) budget by 5.7 percent over last year, giving the agency $2.4 billion in FY 2009.

A slow down in medical research increases our chances of getting killed by the diseases which pose far far larger threats to our lives than terrorists do. This spending cut comes in a context where the United States is burning $3 billion a week in Iraq toward a goal that will not substantially reduce our risk of death from terrorism.

The Bush defense budget increase is bigger than the total NIH budget. That $515.4 billion does not include the Iraq or Afghanistan war spending.

Bush on Monday proposed a $515.4 billion budget for the Defense Department's 2009 fiscal year, up 7.5 percent from this year and setting a record in dollar terms.

If your goal is to stop and reverse aging then take a hard look at the many government programs that spend in areas that could be cut back without pauperizing anyone. Social programs that allows healthy people to retire while they still could work diverts money away from medical research spending that could lengthen lives. Military spending on a pointless war similarly diverts money away from research spending that could lengthen heathy productive lives.

More generally, anyone who recognizes that aging is a curable condition should reevaluate the priorities they assign to various government spending programs. Is the government really spending on what will do the most to protect and extend your life as a free and independent person? Think about it.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 05 09:24 PM  Policy Science
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2008 February 04 Monday
Males Get Greater Pleasure In Territory Capture Video Games

The ladies just don't get as much of a thrill out of capturing territory in a video game. File under "no surprise here".

STANFORD, Calif. - Allan Reiss, MD, and his colleagues have a pretty good idea why your husband or boyfriend can't put down the Halo 3. In a first-of-its-kind imaging study, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than women during video-game play.

"These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become 'hooked' on video games than females," the researchers wrote in their paper, which was recently published online in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

More than 230 million video and computer games were sold in 2005, and polls show that 40 percent of Americans play games on a computer or a console. According to a 2007 Harris Interactive survey, young males are two to three times more likely than females to feel addicted to video games, such as the Halo series so popular in recent years.

The ladies can capture the territory. Doing that just doesn't turn up the mesocorticolimbic center of their brains as much as it does for guys.

"The females 'got' the game, and they moved the wall in the direction you would expect," said Reiss, who is director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. "They appeared motivated to succeed at the game. The males were just a lot more motivated to succeed."

After analyzing the imaging data for the entire group, the researchers found that the participants showed activation in the brain's mesocorticolimbic center, the region typically associated with reward and addiction. Male brains, however, showed much greater activation, and the amount of activation was correlated with how much territory they gained. (This wasn't the case with women.) Three structures within the reward circuit - the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex - were also shown to influence each other much more in men than in women. And the better connected this circuit was, the better males performed in the game.

The findings indicate, the researchers said, that successfully acquiring territory in a computer game format is more rewarding for men than for women. And Reiss, for one, isn't surprised. "I think it's fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial," he said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species-they're the males."

So then when offspring genetic engineering becomes possible will prospective parents choose to give their sons or daughters brains that get more or less thrill out of territory capture than the average boy or girl born today? Will genetically engineered boys be more or less territorial than they are today? What about for the girls? Parents might choose to give girls some of the cognitive characteristics that make them more likely to strive to succeed and rise above in competitions at work. Think that likely?

By Randall Parker 2008 February 04 10:10 PM  Brain Sexuality
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2008 February 03 Sunday
Solar Material Makes Hydrogen From Water

Instead of using photons to produce electricity a start-up is using photons to split apart the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water.

Nanoptek, a startup based in Maynard, MA, has developed a new way to make hydrogen from water using solar energy. The company says that its process is cheap enough to compete with the cheapest approaches used now, which strip hydrogen from natural gas, and it has the further advantage of releasing no carbon dioxide.

Nanoptek, which has been developing the new technology in part with grants from NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE), recently completed its first venture-capital round, raising $4.7 million that it will use to install its first pilot plant. The technology uses titania, a cheap and abundant material, to capture energy from sunlight. The absorbed energy releases electrons, which split water to make hydrogen. Other researchers have used titania to split water in the past, but Nanoptek researchers found a way to modify titania to absorb more sunlight, which makes the process much cheaper and more efficient, says John Guerra, the company's founder and CEO.

Suppose this Nanoptek approach really works and eventually can be used to make hydrogen cheaply. What to do with it? Hydrogen is still difficult to transport and store. But hydrogen attached to carbon is very useful in both gas and liquid forms. The problem then becomes where to get the carbon? Ethanol seems a good candidate. It contains a partially oxidized carbon that'd be more useful if its oygen got replaced with a hydrogen. That would lead to ethane and eventually ethylene. The ethylene has many industrial chemical uses.

The hydrogen could also be used with the exhaust of an coal electric power plant to combine with the carbon in the carbon dioxide to again make reduced carbon in gaseous or liquid form. A hydrocarbon with longer carbon chains would be ideal since it would be liquid at room temperature and hence useful for powering cars and trucks. So a light-driven process for splitting water would be most useful combined with a process to reduce carbon into liquid hydrocarbon molecules.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 03 09:54 PM  Energy Solar
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50,000 Square Miles Of Tropical Forest Cleared Per Year

The rate of rain forest destruction has accelerated.

From Brazil to central Africa to once-lush islands in Asia's archipelagos, human encroachment is shrinking the world's rain forests.

The alarm was sounded decades ago by environmentalists _ and was little heeded. The picture, meanwhile, has changed: Africa is now a leader in destructiveness. The numbers have changed: U.N. specialists estimate 60 acres of tropical forest are felled worldwide every minute, up from 50 a generation back. And the fears have changed.

The best solution to this problem? Free contraceptives and other forms of birth control to everyone in the world. We have too many people. We aren't going to persuade them all to consume less. They will gobble up more and more habitat.

Since large chunks of our elites have decided (in a sort of madness of the intellectual crowds) that anthropogenic global warming (now renamed as Climate Change as part of that madness) is the biggest problem facing the planet they have decided that habitat loss must be seen through the lens of global warming (er, climate change).

"If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change," declared more than 300 scientists, conservation groups, religious leaders and others in an appeal for action at December's climate conference in Bali, Indonesia.

They can't imagine really mobilizing to stop the problem of habitat destruction unless they can shout "Climate Change!" It is not enough for them to say "Oh wait, it sure is nice to see elephants, lions, tigers, orangutans, bonobos, and lots of other species living in their native habitats and we should prevent the destruction of those habitats at the hands of human population expansion and economic growth." Nope, they need a core source of motivation that points its way back to industrial activity rather than destruction of habitats as the core evil. I think they aren't making sense.

Isn't this pretty bad even if it does not change average global temperature? Do we really need to be able to forecast a change in average global temperature in order to decide this trend is really bad? I mean, I don't need to consider the temperature effects of so much deforestation in order to decide this is bad.

"Deforestation continues at an alarming rate of about 13 million hectares (32 million acres) a year," the U.N. body said in its latest "State of the World's Forests" report.

Because northern forests remain essentially stable, that means 50,000 square miles of tropical forest are being cleared every 12 months _ equivalent to one Mississippi or more than half a Britain.

The extensive deforestation in Brazil is running at about 5 to 6 percent of the world total per year.

The Brazilian government has announced a huge rise in the rate of Amazon deforestation, months after celebrating its success in achieving a reduction.

In the last five months of 2007, 3,235 sq km (1,250 sq miles) were lost.

Gilberto Camara, of INPE, an institute that provides satellite imaging of the area, said the rate of loss was unprecedented for the time of year.

Growing demand for cattle and soy beans is driving the Amazon destruction.

In the past 40 years, close to 20% of the Amazon has been cut down.

Land cleared for cattle is the leading cause of deforestation, while the growth in soya bean production is becoming increasingly significant. Illegal logging is also a factor.

Deforestation and forest fires are now responsible for nearly 75% of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

While the Amazon seems to get the most press attention the deforestation rate in Indonesia is a few times the rate in Brazil.

Whether it was arming forest police or backing schemes to certify legal logs, no tactic could silence the chain saws or douse the intentional fires that each day destroy 20 more square miles (50 more square kilometers) of Indonesia's rain forests, and an estimated 110 square miles (285 square kilometers) elsewhere in the world's tropics.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 03 09:37 PM  Trends Habitat Loss
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2008 February 02 Saturday
Hate Fluorescent And Dreading Incandescent Bulb Phase Out?

Writing in Slate Ron Rosenbaum captures a widely shared (including by me) hatred of fluorescent light.

Yes, the idiots in Congress, too torpid and ineffectual to pass a health-care bill for children, have busy-bodied themselves in a bumbling way with the way you light up your world. In December, they passed legislation that will, in practice, outlaw incandescent bulbs because they won't be able to meet the new law's strict energy-efficiency standards. The result: Between 2012 and 2014, incandescent bulbs will be driven from the market. Replaced by the ugly plasticine Dairy Queen swirl of compact fluorescent lights.

From a purely environmental perspective, this move is shortsighted. CFLs do use less energy, which is good. But they also often contain mercury, one of the most damaging—and lasting—environmental toxins. Not a ton of mercury, but still: A whole new CFL recycling structure will be required to prevent us from releasing deadly neurotoxins into the water table. CFLs: coming soon to sushi near you.

The compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are supposed to replace the incandescent light bulb. But they've got major drawbacks. As Rosenbaum sees it, the real evil of flourescents is aesthetic.

But the greater crime of the new bulbs is not environmental but aesthetic. Think of the ugly glare of fluorescence, the light of prisons, sterile cubicle farms, precinct stations, emergency rooms, motor vehicle bureaus, tenement hallways—remember Tom Wolfe's phrase for the grim, flickering hallway lights in New York tenements: "landlords' haloes"?—and, of course, morgues. Fluorescents seem specially designed to drain life and beauty from the world. Don't kid yourself if you hope Hell is lit by fire. More likely fluorescents.

Yes, fluorescents. Buzzing, flickering, able to cause epileptic seizures in the susceptible, in addition to headaches and other neurological symptoms. Let's smash all the incandescent lights and replace their glowing beauty with the harsh anatomizing light of fluorescence. The flickering tinny corpse light of bureaucracies and penal institutions.

I'm more down on them due to their distracting effect. I have enough interruptions to my concentration as things stand without the mental fatigue and distraction caused by flicker.

In the book of Genesis God did not say "let there be flickering".

The new CFLs pulse faster than their ancestors, so the flickering is less perceptible, but at some level, it's still there. CFL manufacturers may be right that the new bulbs are an improvement, but there is still something discontinuous, digital, something chillingly one-and-zero about fluorescence, while incandescent lights offer the reassurance of continuity rather than an alternation of being and nothingness. If I remember correctly, the line from genesis was "Let there be light," not "Let there be flickering."

I bought some CFLs several years ago to use in places I spend little time in. But my light fixtures in most of those places can't fit the CFLs.

Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times shares Rosenbaum's lack of enthusiasm for fluorescents and also thinks LED lights are not good substitutes either.

As a good liberal, I’m ready to embrace, and pay for, more efficient lighting. And yet, I’m already feeling what might be called Edison nostalgia. Even a bare bulb hanging from a wire is a thousand times more bewitching, more jocund and welcoming than a CFL screwed into the most arty fixture featured in Wallpaper magazine. The light from a CFL—stark and shadowless and overcorrecting—is a scold: Why haven’t you dusted? Why haven’t you taken better care of your skin? (This is the well-known public lighting effect.) LEDs, by their very nature, produce a single frequency of light, a sliver of the visible spectrum. In the case of “white” LEDs that would replace the common bulb, they are actually a ghastly white shade of blue, and that’s why everyone looks a touch cyanotic under them. The quality of light from these instruments will get better, but they only can approximate—only counterfeit—the warm, wide-spectrum glory of a filament that radiates across the visible spectrum and beyond.

But on FuturePundit there's the obligatory "but can't technological advances solve all problems?" angle to any story. Some Turkish researchers might have found a way to make LED light more acceptable.

Topping LEDs with a coating of carefully tuned nanocrystals makes their light warmer and less clinical, a new study shows. The researchers argue this is a must for energy-efficient LED lights to make headway in the commercial market.

...

To accomplish this, Hilmi Volkan Demir and colleagues at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, coated blue LEDs with a layer of nanocrystals. These crystals are made from a core of cadmium selenide with a surrounding layer of zinc sulphide.

The crystals absorb some of the LED's blue output and emit their own red and green light. That combines with the remaining blue light to produce a soft white glow.

A New York Times panel looked at 21 alternatives to incandescents and found most of the compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) disgusting. But they liked some of the LED and halogen choices and even found a few CFLs acceptable.

Another object of excitement was the Pharox bulb (upscalelighting.com) from Lemnis Lighting, which uses a light-emitting diode, or L.E.D. This technology, which works by illuminating a semiconductor chip, is more efficient than compact fluorescent lighting. But because L.E.D.'s emit directional rather than diffuse light, they are typically implanted in flat surfaces like walls or light panels.

Not all the bulbs were met with negativity. Panelists favored the light cast by halogen bulbs (including the Daylight Plus and the BT15 from Sylvania, and G.E.'s Edison 60), which last twice as long as incandescents, requiring less energy for the production and distribution of replacements, and are therefore more efficient.

One halogen model, the Philips Halogena, was not only pleasing to the eye - "nice, soft, golden light" one panelist said - but efficient enough to meet the criteria of the new energy bill.

...

The n:vision TCP Home Soft White, for example, was deemed "a warm pleasant light." The TCP Spring Light/Soft White was "almost warmer than incandescent," one person said. And the MaxLite SpiraMax was generally liked.

That LED Pharox bulb costs $59. Not exactly cheap.

Since we will have halogen and LED alternatives the death of incandescent bulbs won't force us to use CFLs. LED costs are falling and moving into wider spread use on cars. That bodes well. But as we near incandescent phase-out dates if LEDs and halogens aren't looking like acceptable and affordable alternativs you might want to lay in a few year supply of incandescents to provide more time for the non-fluorescent alternatives to improve.

Update: Brendan Koerner defends CFLs.

The irony of CFLs is that they actually reduce overall mercury emissions in the long run. Despite recent improvements in the industry's technology, the burning of coal to produce electricity emits roughly 0.023 milligrams of mercury per kilowatt-hour. Over a year, then, using a 26-watt CFL in the average American home (where half of the electricity comes from coal) will result in the emission of 0.66 milligrams of mercury. For 100-watt incandescent bulbs, which produce the identical amount of light, the figure is 2.52 milligrams.

...

The last, desperate swipe at CFLs—as elucidated by the Lantern's colleague last week—is that their light is cold and dreadful. Perhaps this was true in years past, but the Lantern just doesn't see it anymore: In a recent test, Popular Mechanics rated CFL light as far superior to that produced by incandescent bulbs.

You can always try one of the higher rated CFLs and judge for yourself. But I continue to hate the workplace long tube fluorescents that I come across.

By Randall Parker 2008 February 02 07:37 PM  Energy Lighting
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