2008 May 31 Saturday
Playing Golf Extends Life 5 Years?

At least in Sweden golfers live longer.

Golf can be a good investment for the health, according to a new study from the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet. The death rate for golfers is 40 per cent lower than for other people of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status, which correspond to a 5 year increase in life expectancy. Golfers with a low handicap are the safest.

The lower death rate by lower handicap suggests that part of the effect might flow from fitness of one's nervous system. Maybe more coordinated people live longer. Maybe the handicap gets worse faster for those whose nervous systems and muscles are aging more rapidly.

It is a well-known fact that exercise is good for the health, but the expected health gains of particular activities are still largely unknown. A team of researchers from Karolinska Institutet has now presented a study of the health effects of golf – a low-intensity form of exercise in which over 600,000 Swedes engage.

The study, which is published in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, is based on data from 300,000 Swedish golfers and shows that golf has beneficial health effects. The death rate amongst golfers is 40 per cent lower than the rest of the population, which equates to an increased life expectancy of five years.

Golfing involves walking some miles. Plus, it is a social game with groups of people discussing things as they walk around the course. A cause and effect relationship seems highly plausible.

Professor Anders Ahlbom, who has led the study with Bahman Farahmand is not surprised at the result, as he believes that there are several aspects of the game that are proved to be good for the health.

"A round of golf means being outside for four or five hours, walking at a fast pace for six to seven kilometres, something which is known to be good for the health," he says. "People play golf into old age, and there are also positive social and psychological aspects to the game that can be of help."

Getting more exercise is a good idea. Engaging in stress-lowering activities is similarly a good idea. Whether you want to play golf or not getting involved in regular stress-lowering exercise will provide real benefits.

The bigger benefit for blue collar workers is interesting. I would expect blue collar workers to get more exercise in their jobs. But they also have lower status and therefore more stress. Maybe golf relieves more stress for blue collar workers?

Golf players have a lower death rate regardless of sex, age and social group. The effect is greater for golfers from blue-collar professions than for those from white-collar professions. The lowest rates are found in the group of players with the lowest handicap (i.e. the best golfers).

Does SES control for IQ differences? Smarter people live longer. Are golfers smarter than non-golfers at the same levels of SES?

Update: In the comments "Fat Man" makes a very good point: Lots of golf courses require that you use a golf cart. So you do not get the exercise. I wonder if this is more an American phenomenon. Do Swedish golfers mostly walk their courses?

By Randall Parker 2008 May 31 12:30 PM  Aging Studies
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2008 May 29 Thursday
Tomato Powder Strongest Against Prostate Cancer

In a study that throws doubt on lycopene as the source of suspected protective effects of tomatoes against prostate cancer a compound found in rehydrated tomato powder seems to deliver the biggest protective effect against prostate cancer.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – New cancer research from the University of Missouri suggests that eating a certain form of tomato product could be the key to unlocking the prostate cancer-fighting potential of the tomato. The positive effect of tomato products has been suggested in many studies, but, until now, researchers did not know exactly what caused this effect.

“It appears that the greatest protective effect from tomatoes comes from rehydrating tomato powder into tomato paste,” said Valeri Mossine, research assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “Processing of many edible plants through heating, grinding, mixing or drying dramatically increases their nutritional value and cancer-fighting potential.”

Mossine and his colleagues found that FruHis – an organic carbohydrate present in dehydrated tomato products – exerts a strong protective effect against prostate cancer. Rats, injected with prostate cancer-causing chemicals, were divided into groups and fed different diets. The group fed a diet of tomato paste plus additional FruHis demonstrated the longest survival rate. Only 10 percent in that group had developed prostate tumors. Sixty percent in the control group had tumors; 30 percent of the group fed tomato powder had tumors; and 25 percent of the group fed tomato paste alone had prostate tumors.

“Before this study, researchers attributed the protective effect of tomatoes to ascorbic acid, carotenoids or phenolic compounds. FruHis may represent a novel type of potential dietary antioxidant,” Mossine said. “Our ongoing research now focuses on unraveling the mechanisms behind why this has a beneficial effect. This knowledge may lead to other avenues of research and drug development for prostate and other cancers. Results of this study certainly warrant clinical trials.”

Tomato paste still did pretty well and even did better than tomato powder that didn't have the extra FruHis added. So keep eating tomato paste.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 29 11:07 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Gene Therapy Scores Small Success Against Cancer

A stem cell therapy that deliver a tumor suppressing gene showed some benefit in phase III clinical trials.

HOUSTON - A gene therapy invented at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center is the first to succeed in a U.S. phase III clinical trial for cancer, as announced today at the American Society of Gene Therapy annual meeting in Boston.

Introgen Therapeutics, Inc., reported results of its phase III trial of Advexin(r), a modified adenovirus that expresses the tumor-suppressing gene p53, for end-stage head and neck cancer.

"Cells become cancerous because p53 no longer functions. Restoring p53 works unlike any current cancer treatment because it treats the cancer genome," said Jack Roth, M.D., professor in M. D. Anderson's Department of Thoracic & Cardiovascular Surgery, who invented the drug and co-founded Introgen. He remains a shareholder and paid consultant to Introgen, and the University of Texas System is also a shareholder in Introgen.

The p53 gene is inactivated in many types of cancer. Its normal role is to halt the division of a defective cell and then force the cell to kill itself.

But the benefit is pretty small. Average life expectancy was still only 7.2 months.

The trial showed that p53 expression in the patient's tumor before treatment is a reliable biomarker for how to treat head and neck cancer. Patients with a favorable p53 profile who received Advexin(r) had a median survival of 7.2 months, compared with 2.7 months for those whose tumor expressed high levels of mutant p53 before treatment. Patients with this unfavorable profile were better off taking the chemotherapy drug methotrexate, resulting in median survival of 5.9 months.

A measly 7.2 months counts as an improvement. Geez.

Just when will cancer cures become easy to do? 10 years? 20 years? Progress still seems excruciatingly slow.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 29 10:58 PM  Biotech Cancer
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Big Oil Producers Cut Exports In 2007

As reported by the Wall Street Journal the Export Land Model comes home to roost. The big oil producers are producing less oil.

And about one of those other big sources of economic worry, the alleged bubble in oil markets? Further undermining the bubble theory, the Journal reports that "the world's top oil producers are proving unable to put more barrels on thirsty world markets despite sky-high prices, a shift that defies traditional market logic and looks set to continue." Citing U.S. Energy Department data, the paper says that "the amount of petroleum products shipped by the world's top oil exporters fell 2.5% last year, despite a 57% increase in prices, a trend that appears to be holding true this year as well," and that this is partly due to higher demand for oil from within the petroleum-rich Persian Gulf region.

That is really bad news. How long will Pangloss have to stay on the Turkish galley before he figures it out? (I've had to explain the term "Panglossian" to so many people lately that I wonder why I even try to be the least bit literary in my references. Still, now I can use it with a lot of people and "so I got that going for me - which is nice")

China the biggest problem? The Arabs can export less oil and make more money while doing so. Not exactly an incentive to export.

For all the attention paid to China's increasing energy thirst, rising energy demand in the Middle East may pose the greater challenge. Last year, the region's six largest petroleum exporters -- Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq and Qatar -- curbed their output by 544,000 barrels a day. At the same time, their domestic demand increased by 318,000 barrels a day, leading to a loss in net exports of 862,000 barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The Journal even refers to Export Land Model theorist Jeffrey Brown. Peak Oil continues to head into the mainstream.

Since 2004, Saudi oil consumption has increased nearly 23%, to 2.3 million barrels a day last year. Jeffrey Brown, a Dallas-based petroleum geologist who studies net export numbers, said that at its current growth rate, Saudi Arabia could be consuming 4.6 million barrels a day by 2020.

In the Export Land Model rapid growth of internal consumption by big oil producers causes available oil supplies to decline far more rapidly than global production declines. See my September 28, 2007 post Declining Exports From Big Oil Exporters Expected for a discussion of this and a link to an analysis by Brown and his writing partner "Khebab". Also see Brown's Net Oil Exports and the "Iron Triangle".

My advice: Buy only high fuel efficiency cars. Also, make commuting distances an important consideration when moving and switching jobs.

Update: If the rise in oil prices stops and backs off for a while that is because a whole lot of demand destruction is going on.

During the week leading up to the Memorial Day holiday, the traditional start of vacation season, Americans pumped 5.5 percent less gasoline than a year ago as average prices hit a peak $3.84 a gallon, MasterCard Advisors said in a report.

But US demand destruction will eventually again be overwhelmed by demand growth in Asia and the Middle East.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 29 08:02 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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Deep Fat Compartment Refill Makes Face More Youthful

Plastic surgeons are figuring out where to add fat in order to restore sunken old faces.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Not only are cheeks central to your face – they are central to the American concept of beauty. A study in June’s Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery®, the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), found that a deep fat compartment located within the cheek is vital to a youthful-looking face. Not only does rejuvenating or returning volume to this fat compartment make the cheek more youthful, it also improves volume loss under the eyes, helps eliminate “parentheses” lines around the nose and mouth and gives more curve to the upper lip – essentially restoring a youthful appearance to the overall face.

“From the irresistible urge to pinch the cheeks of adorable infants to our admiration of Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie, we’ve known for a long time that cheeks are vital to what we consider beautiful,” said Joel Pessa, MD, ASPS Member Surgeon and study co-author. “Adding volume rather than lifting is not a revolutionary concept in plastic surgery. But the idea that restoring volume to deep cheek fat will affect so many areas of the face is a breakthrough in our understanding of how to better treat facial aging.”

Why do fat compartments in the face shrink in the first place? In other parts of the body people fight lifelong battles with too much fat. Are we some day going to get fat stem cell injections in our faces?

By Randall Parker 2008 May 29 06:00 PM  Aging Appearances
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2008 May 28 Wednesday
Climate Engineering Proposals Seen As Cutting Global Rainfall

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, led by atmospheric scientist Govindasamy Bala, find that climate engineering to cancel the warming effects of CO2 would reduce net global rainfall.

In the new climate modeling study, which appears in the May 27-30 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bala and his colleagues Karl Taylor and Philip Duffy demonstrate that the sunshade geoengineering scheme could slow down the global water cycle.

The sunshade schemes include placing reflectors in space, injecting sulfate or other reflective particles into the stratosphere, or enhancing the reflectivity of clouds by injecting cloud condensation nuclei in the troposphere. When CO2 is doubled as predicted in the future, a 2 percent reduction in sunlight is sufficient to counter the surface warming.

This new research investigated the sensitivity of the global mean precipitation to greenhouse and solar forcings separately to help understand the global water cycle in a geoengineered world.

While the surface temperature response is the same for CO2 and solar forcings, the rainfall response can be very different.

“We found that while climate sensitivity can be the same for different forcing mechanisms, the hydrological sensitivity is very different,” Bala said.

The global mean rainfall increased approximately 4 percent for a doubling of CO2 and decreases by 6 percent for a reduction in sunlight in his modeling study.

“Because the global water cycle is more sensitive to changes in solar radiation than to increases in CO2, geoengineering could lead to a decline in the intensity of the global water cycle” Bala said.

Sunlight is probably more important than global atmospheric since the sunlight hits the surface of the oceans and cause more localized heating right on the surface of the oceans where the heat does the most to cause water to evaporate.

I can imagine at least one method to counteract the reduction in water evaporation: Use large floating windmills on the ocean to pump up and spray water into the atmosphere. But I have no idea what scale of windmills would be needed to do this. I suspect it would not be cost effective.

Here's another idea: Use satellites to block sunlight from hitting Earth. But only block the sunlight over land. That way the oceans would still get the full force of solar radiation. Still, satellites are a far more expensive way to reduce solar radiation as compared to spraying aerosols into the atmosphere. So this approach has problems as well.

Anyone have a good idea on how to climate engineer to lower temperatures without lowering water evaporation from the oceans?

By Randall Parker 2008 May 28 10:45 PM  Climate Engineering
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Aubrey de Grey: Senescent Immune Cells Take Up Valuable Space

A couple of days ago I argued immune system rejuvenation is one of the top rejuvenations I'd like to get. Well, in some recent comments Aubrey de Grey describes how part of immune system rejuvenation could be done by killing off senescent CD8 T cells.

Another area of SENS that is completely separate from cancer is the elimination of cells that won’t die. Of course cancer is a problem of having too many cells because the cells are dividing like crazy. They are also dying like crazy, but they are dividing even more crazily. That’s what cancer is. There are other problems that are caused by cells that are actually not dividing, but they are not dying either, and they are accumulating slowly as a result. They get in the way and cause various problems just by being there.

Probably the most serious example of this is the immune system. In the immune system we have a wide range of different types of white blood cells that have different functions in protecting us from infections. They have a large number of different things to do. There is one particular type of white blood cell called a cytotoxic T lymphocyteCD8 is the name of the protein that these cells express on the surface—that is the main problem in respect to this accumulation of cells that I mentioned.

Here is what happens: Some viruses that we get are what are called “persistent,” which means that we get this infection and the immune system brings it under control, there are no symptoms, but the immune system does not succeed in completely eliminating the virus from the body. The virus hangs out, latently, in one or two places. There is a particular family of viruses called the herpes viruses, which are particularly bad at this. Within the family of herpes viruses, there is one virus called cytomegalovirus, which used to be considered completely harmless and uninteresting from a medical point of view.

Cytomegalovirus, clinically, does not present any obvious symptoms except in people who have got advanced AIDS or other really severe problems with their immune system. It seems to be the number one reason why you have these CD8 cells accumulating in old age in most people. Most people are infected with CMV from an early age. The way it seems to work is that these CD8 cells, which are specific to CMV and are involved in controlling it, divide. They essentially get rid of a lot of the virus but not all of it, and every time that the virus tries to have another go, it gets beaten back, but it gets beaten back by another round of division of the same family of cells.

What seems to happen is a sort of somewhat variant form of what is called replicative senescence in virto—the concept that so many of you heard about from Len Hayflick fifty years ago, whereby cells end up, due to telomere shortening, getting into a state where they cannot divide anymore. Now, in the immune system, there is a lot of cell division that goes on, and for that reason, telomerase is turned on when it is needed. But, probably as a secondary anti-cancer strategy, cells in the immune system—especially CD8 cells—do not like to do that indefinitely. They get into a state where the sort of stimulus that would normally make them proliferate and turn on telomerase, only makes them proliferate and not to turn on telomerase very much. It leads to an interesting state where they will not divide at all. It will neither divide nor turn on telomerase.

The ability to kill cancer cells attracts a lot more attention. But the ability to kill senescent cells is badly needed as well. If we could kill off old CD8 cells that would make more room for immune cells that can still attack and kill pathogens. But even better, a younger immune system would do a better job of killing cancer cells. So kill older copies of one kind of cell in order to allow a younger copies to kill cancer cells. We need this capability just as we need the capability to kill cancer cells directly.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 28 10:24 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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Titanium Oxide Crystals For Photovoltaics

Previously I became aware of the potential for paintable titanium nanotubes to make cheap solar photovoltaics from watching a slide show by CalTech researcher Nathan Lewis. So news from the University of Queensland about a cheap way to make titanium oxide crystals suitable for painting and the prospects for cheap photovoltaics strikes me as potentially important information.

Professor Max Lu, from UQ's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), said they were one step closer to the holy grail of cost-effective solar energy with their discovery.

“We have grown the world's first titanium oxide single crystals with large amounts of reactive surfaces, something that was predicted as almost impossible,” Professor Lu said.

“Highly active surfaces in such crystals allow high reactivity and efficiency in devices used for solar energy conversion and hydrogen production.

“Titania nano-crystals are promising materials for cost-effective solar cells, hydrogen production from splitting water, and solar decontamination of pollutants.

“The beauty of our technique is that it is very simple and cheap to make such materials at mild conditions.

“Now that the research has elucidated the conditions required, the method is like cooking in an oven and the crystals can be applied like paints.”

Let us hope that Professor Lu meets with further successes in his research endeavors.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 28 09:50 PM  Energy Solar
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Lead Exposure Boosts Incidence Of Criminality?

The neurotoxin lead appears to have long term negative effects on behavior.

Childhood exposure to lead is associated with adult criminal behaviour, including violent crime, finds a new study in this week’s PLoS Medicine. Dr Kim Dietrich and colleagues (University of Cincinnati, USA) studied the association between exposure to lead in the uterus and during early childhood and criminal arrests in adulthood, in poor areas of Cincinnati.

Lead is known to be toxic to the nervous system. Childhood exposure has been identified as a potential risk factor for antisocial behaviour in adulthood. But this link has relied on indirect measurement of childhood lead exposure in adults or has measured childhood lead exposure directly but has not followed lead-exposed children into adulthood. The new study overcomes both of these limitations.

Between 1979 and 1984, the researchers recruited pregnant women living in poor areas of Cincinnati, which had a high concentration of older lead-contaminated housing. Out of the 376 newborns recruited into the study, 250 were included in the final analysis. Blood lead levels were measured during pregnancy and then regularly until the children were six and a half years old, as an indication of their lead exposure. This exposure was then correlated with local criminal justice records on how many times each of the 250 offspring had been arrested between becoming 18 years old and the end of October 2005.

The researchers found that increased blood lead levels before birth and during early childhood were associated with higher rates of arrest for any reason and for violent crimes. For example, for every 5ug/dl increase in blood lead levels at six years of age, the risk of being arrested for a violent crime as a young adult increased by almost 50% (the “relative risk” was 1.48).

Here is the full research paper.

Testing 5 year olds or maybe 3 year olds for blood lead levels followed by measures to lower lead levels could pay rich dividends in lower crime rates. Note that a lot of evidence points toward the idea that vitamin B1 (thiamin) seems to increase excretion of lead. A few other nutrients might do so as well.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 28 07:11 PM  Brain Development
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2008 May 26 Monday
If You Could Rejuvenate Three Parts Of Your Body

Suppose you find a lamp that contains a genie. Suppose the genie grants you 3 wishes to make parts of your body young again. You have to use the wishes by age 55 (before most old age diseases become apparent) or immediately if you are already over 50. The wishes are for only parts of the body. Each could make an organ (and the skin is an organ) or subsystem (e.g. immune cells or spine) young again. You couldn't wish your entire chest or entire leg be young again. But you could wish your heart or your muscles to return to youthfulness. Also, you could wish any other single organ (or pairs in the case of eyes, kidneys, or other organs that come in pairs or all the parathyroids that come in quadruplets) to be young again.

Okay, with these restrictions in mind what would you wish to make young again in your body?

A woman friend of mine would waste no time in wishing her skin young again. No sags, discolorations, wrinkles. But she'd be at least partially disappointed since the bones in her face and the rest of her body also age and shift around. Also, one would really need to rejuvenate fat cells as well in order to rejuvenate the face. Would you go for appearances? You could opt for younger skin, fat cells, and bones. This would yield benefits other than with appearances.

Some people will have an easy decision to make if they already have heart problems or perhaps failing kidneys or liver damaged by hepatitis C or alcohol. Imminent threats make prioritizing a much simpler task.

Before reading further have you made up your mind? Next I'll say what I would choose for my top rejuvenation wishes.

The first thing I'd go for is a totally rejuvenated vascular system. This would greatly reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke among other cardiovascular diseases. But it would also help the brain substantially by cutting back on brain microbleeds, probably reducing inflammation that leads to Alzheimer's disease, and reducing risk of dementia. My problem would be in deciding when to opt for the therapy. At 50? Or at 55? If I wait longer will I suffer from some otherwise avoidable brain damage? Or will I benefit more by protecting my body into a more distant future?

After the rejuvenated vascular system I would opt for a rejuvenated immune system. Why? Of course some old folks die from influenza and other diseases because their immune systems are too weak. But that is not my biggest reason. One of the most interesting research reports of the last year reported aging immune systems become less able to kill early stage cancer cells. If I could know exactly which organ I might get cancer I would opt to rejuvenate that organ. But since I can't know which organ poses the biggest threat the next best way to cut my cancer risk (short of total body rejuvenation) is to make my immune system young again and far more able to kill aberrant cells before they develop into a full cancer.

Notice how I'm not going for internal organ rejuvenation. That's because I do not know which internal organ of mine puts me at greatest risk. Now, maybe 5 or 10 years from now blood tests and biopsies of internal organs will provide us much longer warnings of which organ looks likely to fail first. In the future then I'd want to have up-to-date lab tests before using my wishes. Heck, given such wishes I would want to go for a full physical even with today's testing capabilities. But absent a firm idea on which organ will fail first my preferences lean toward the circulatory system and immune system.

My third choice is hardest. I could just guess on some internal organ like the heart or maybe the liver or prostate and say "give me a new one". Maybe it would make sense to look at a list of causes of death and choose the organ that rates highest in combined causes. For example, liver failure and liver cancer both kill.

But I'm strongly biased toward rejuvenating my brain. First off, doing so will boost my productivity. Second, I'll avoid the risk of assorted causes of dementia, especially when combined with vascular rejuvenation. Plus, the brain does a lot of chemical endocrine signaling to the rest of the body (e.g. from the hypothalamus). That signaling will be done better by a younger brain.

So what's your list? Got good reasons for rejuvenating one part of your body or another?

By Randall Parker 2008 May 26 11:10 PM  Aging Debate
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Tad Patzek Interview On Biomass Energy Problems

The Oil Drum: Canada has an interesting interview with Tad Patzek, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, about biomass energy sources. Patzek publishes research on the energy return on energy invested for biomass ethanol sources. In this latest interview many topics are covered. The most interesting to me was Patzek's view that biomass energy isn't sustainable because it drains the soil of minerals.

Ben: So, we have identified that the largest energy input is the actual industrial process. People are moving away from natural gas to coal power now because the price of natural gas is too volatile. What if we started burning biomass instead of coal because biomass, some types of biomass such as pelletized switchgrass for instance has a fairly good energy balance, does it not, when you burn it.

Tad Patzek: Right. So here we are running into another problem. The thing about agricultural production is that it requires a substrate. Plants need soil to grow on and that soil needs to be protected from the elements, wind and rain being the most important ones. So a prairie system with switchgrass let us say protects the soil very well because the soil is covered with plants all the time. Prairie in fact is a very good example of a system, which is enormously efficient and whose net productivity, that is, net mass production is zero. That is, everything that the prairie produces is recycled in it. The bison, the buffalo eat the grass. The coyotes and the lions, mountain lions, eat the buffalo, and the wolves and everybody dies on the prairie and their bodies are recycled and so it goes on, the nutrients, and in fact the prairie gets flooded every now and then from the rivers, which bring other nutrients and so it goes on, the nutrients are resupplited. Now we come, we the humans come into that system and we say, “Okay, grass, we are going to cut you every year, year after year. Remove everything that we cut and burn it elsewhere.” Unfortunately, when you do so not only do you remove carbon, but you remove nutrients with the grass and these nutrients are gradually depleted from the soil and of course the whole system stops producing. There is a fundamental problem with removing all biomass from an ecosystem because that ecosystem stops functioning and in order for you to make it function, you have to resupply it back with the nutrients and that of course takes an enormous amount of fossil fuels. So we are back to square one.

Using cellulosic technology to extract energy from plant matter such as switch grass will be even worse for the soil than corn ethanol in this view because a larger percentage of the plant matter will get removed during harvesting. The concentration of minerals in corn kernels (which are mostly starch) is lower than the concentration of minerals in corn stalks or in grasses.

Patzek sees a similar problem with use of sugarcane in Brazil to produce biomass energy. Such farming will deplete the soil faster because more of the plant will get removed from the farm for processing.

Tad Patzek: Sugarcane has another feature that differentiates it from corn. It actually coexists with a bacterium, Rhizobium bacterium, to some extent, which sequestered nitrogen. So sugarcane needs less nitrogen fertilizer than corn. Also, it grows year around not 100 days per year as corn does in the United States. There are differences in the yield. Also, sugarcane in the past centuries was grown organically with no fertilizers and basically what was taken out of the plantation in the end was the sugar juice, the carbon, in terms of sugar, but the rest of it and some fiber from the bagasse, but the rest of it would be returned back to the plantation as malt and as fertilizer and that would actually allow these plantations to go on for three centuries in some places.

Ben: Okay.

Tad Patzek: In Asia and in South America, so very good so far. Now, we are now doing it slightly differently. Now, in order for us to drive the process with sugarcane only, we need to use the entire plant, that is, the bagasse, the leaves and everything else and essentially bury them in the ethanol plants. So now we are removing all biomass from the fields. Of course, that puts us in the quandary that no we will have to be replacing the nutrients just as we do with corn. In Brazil, this is not being done to the same extent yet. So they are essentially depleting the soil and unfortunately they will have to do more and more fertilization as they go on with the system.

My expectation is that very low cost photovoltaics will eventually make an acre of desert capable of producing electrical energy from photovoltaics much more cheaply than an acre of farm land will produce biomass energy. But the electricity won't be as convenient to store and use as are liquid fuels. Better batteries will improve the usefulness of electricity in transportation. But liquid fuels will still provide advantages - especially for longer trips. So even with super cheap photovoltaics I still expect some political demand and economic demand for biomass liquid energy, enough to do a lot of environmental damage.

I think government support for biomass energy is a measure of both the corruption and relative stupidity of our elected officials. That, in turn, is evidence of two problems. First off, the average voter isn't bright. Second, the average voter has little incentive to be well informed about what elected officials believe and do.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 26 05:05 PM  Energy Biomass
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2008 May 24 Saturday
American Car Drivers Cut Back Distance Traveled

For the last few years in some quarters I've read claims that American drivers will drive themselves to financial ruin before they respond to higher gasoline prices and cut back on driving. I'm more of the school that people will restructure their lives (change jobs, move to be closer to jobs, do less recreational driving, etc) out of necessity. My view is that Americans can cut their gasoline usage in half once the need arises (and it will arise as Peak Oil bites harder). Well, with oil north of $100 per barrel and price shocks biting hard American drivers traveled 4.3% fewer miles in March 2008 than in March 2007.

WASHINGTON -- Americans drove less in March 2008, continuing a trend that began last November, according to estimates released today from the Federal Highway Administration.

“That Americans are driving less underscores the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and its reliance on the federal gasoline excise tax,” said Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray.

The FHWA’s “Traffic Volume Trends” report, produced monthly since 1942, shows that estimated vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on all U.S. public roads for March 2008 fell 4.3 percent as compared with March 2007 travel. This is the first time estimated March travel on public roads fell since 1979. At 11 billion miles less in March 2008 than in the previous March, this is the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history.

This is just the beginning. Note this comparison ends in March. Prices have gone much higher since then and still have higher to go this summer. So the cutbacks on driving will get even deeper. People will find lots of ways to cut back that take longer to do. They will move and choose jobs in order to cut back on commuter miles. Some will switch to buses and trains. Others will buy scooters and bicycles and give up cars for many uses.

Last time Americans cut back on driving was in 1979.

THE last time this happened Jimmy Carter was US president. In March, US driving fell an astonishing 4.3 per cent on a year earlier. It was first time driving has fallen in the month since 1979.

US driving began to taper off in November, according to Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration, but at first it was thought the decline could be seasonal, because of bad weather. Then came March, and the largest year-over-year driving drop in the agency's recorded history, going back to 1942.

"We are beginning to see what we think is a very defensible trend beginning," Mr Hecox said.

People now get that the high gasoline prices aren't just a temporary spike. They've been hit hard enough for long enough that the psychology has shifted more toward fear. They don't want their road hogs pulling them down into poverty.

Cost of transportation fuels as a percentage of income is the really interesting number to watch. The portion of income going to transportation fuels is still below that in 1981. But that reflects a large growth in income and buying power that has taken place since 1981. In inflation-adjusted terms we are now paying more per gallon on gasoline than we were back then.

Americans spend 3.7 percent of their disposable income on transportation fuels. At its lowest point, that share was 1.9 percent in 1998, and at its highest, it reached 4.5 percent in 1981, said Ms. Johnson of Global Insight.


Also, Americans pay less to drive a mile today than they did in 1980, once the impact of inflation and gains in fuel efficiency are taken into account, said Lee Schipper, a visiting scholar at the transportation center of the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr. Schipper estimates that the cost of gasoline for each mile traveled will be about 15 cents this year. That is nearly three times the low of 5.6 cents a mile reached in 1998, when fuel efficiency peaked and prices were at their lowest. But it is still cheaper than the record paid in 1980 of 17.1 cents a mile, adjusted for inflation.

A shift toward smaller and more fuel efficient cars will lower the cost per mile traveled. Plus, people will find more ways to reduce the number of miles traveled. How fast all that happens determines how far up prices can go. The more demand destruction at any one price point the less the need for a still higher price point.

If we hit $200 per barrel then gasoline will cost $6 to $7 per gallon in the United States. It already costs that and more in Europe now. So the Europeans will be paying $10 per gallon when Americans are paying $6 per gallon.

If oil hits $200 a barrel, which is the upper end of Goldman Sach's prediction for prices over the next six months to two years, the gasoline picture changes quite dramatically. At $200 a barrel, crude alone would cost $4.76 a gallon. Add on the costs of refining and distributing as well as taxes, and pump prices could rise to a range of $6 to $7 a gallon.

SUV and truck sales are tanking.

According to sales tracker Autodata, full-size pickup sales were down 22% in April compared to a year earlier, while and large SUV sales plunged 32% over the same period.

Meanwhile subcompact sales are booming.

Autodata Corp. reports that sales of large SUVs fell 28 percent in the first quarter this year at a time when subcompact sales rose 32 percent.

Even if some new oil projects can boost world oil production by a few more million barrels of oil per day in the next few years that oil is headed for Asia. Rising Asian demand combined with rising demand in oil producer countries means less oil available for Western industrialized countries. Next time you buy a car get the most fuel efficient one you can stand to drive. We are years away from the point where the crisis eases and energy for transportation starts getting cheap again.

Update: The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) environmentalists have done an excellent job of blocking oil drilling off the US east and west coasts, the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and other US lands. I thank them for preserving that oil for when we really need it (granted that was not their motivation). Because they tirelessly worked to preserve that oil for the future the shifting political winds caused by high gasoline prices will eventually unlock a substantial chunk of US oil for development.

Mounting concerns about global energy supply are fueling a drive by the oil industry and some U.S. lawmakers to end longstanding bans on domestic drilling put in place to protect environmentally sensitive areas.


In a report last week, the federal Bureau of Land Management stated that at current U.S. consumption levels there are four years worth of oil and 10 years worth of natural gas under federal lands. However, more than 90% of that energy was under lands either closed to development or open with significant environmental restrictions. The federal Minerals Management Service said an additional three years worth of oil and gas is in offshore areas where drilling isn't allowed.

It does not matter whether the bans get lifted this year. If $4 gasoline isn't enough to lift the drilling bans then surely $6, $7, or $8 gasoline will do the trick. I can't imagine that $10 per gallon gasoline will be necessary to make people tell their elected officials that they want the drilling rigs unleashed.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 24 11:43 PM  Energy Transportation
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2008 May 23 Friday
Italy To Restart Nuclear Plant Construction

High energy prices seem to powerfully concentrate lots of minds. After banning nuclear power for a couple of decades Italy has had a change of heart.

ROME — Italy announced Thursday that within five years it planned to resume building nuclear energy plants, two decades after a public referendum resoundingly banned nuclear power and deactivated all its reactors.

“By the end of this legislature, we will put down the foundation stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear plants,” said Claudio Scajola, minister of economic development. “An action plan to go back to nuclear power cannot be delayed anymore.”

Italy is partly motivated by Kyoto and EU obligations to cut CO2 emissions. But the huge run-ups in fossil fuels energy costs in recent years and the possibility of far higher energy costs are forcing a lot of people to rethink their energy and environmental priorities. Want to be poor? Or want to build some nukes that put a price ceiling on your energy costs?

Itay's use of oil to generate electricity is really anachronistic (and the US has a few such anachronisms still for dumb political regulatory reasons). Oil is a very expensive way to generate electricity.

Enel, Italy’s leading energy provider, announced this year that it would close its oil-fired power plants because the fuel had become unaffordable. Italians pay the highest energy prices in Europe. Enel has been building coal plants to fill the void left by oil. Coal plants are cheaper but create relatively high levels of carbon emissions, even using the type of new “clean coal” technology Enel had planned.

Back in 2006 Italians were paying .17 Euro per kwh versus .16 in Germany and .11 in heavily nuclear France. Italy buys much of its electric power from Switzerland and some from France. That .17 Euro converts into US dollars at over 25 cents per kwh - which is very expensive. Italy could enjoy substantial savings by scaling up for a big nuclear power build. Italy's use of oil to generate electricity is one of the most expensive ways to generate electric power and one that is little used in the US outside of Hawaii.

In America by contrast retail electric power averaged 10.64 cents/kwh nationwide in 2007 with the highest costs in Hawaii at 24.13 cents/kwh. Hawaii uses oil for a lot of its electric generation and it is likely going to get hit by far higher electric power costs in 2008. Wyoming pays a mere 7.73 cents/kwh with cheap Powder River Basin coal and Washington State with lots of hydro power pays only 7.24 cents/kwh.

Also, Wired Magazine endorses nuclear power.

We really need faster ways to construct nuclear power plants.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 23 01:43 PM  Energy Nuclear
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2008 May 22 Thursday
Solar Photovoltaics Competitive By 2015?

Neodymics inventor Jeff Radtke brings to my attention a claim that there are Moore's Law-like effects happening with photovoltaics prices that will make PV competitive by 2015.

In recent years, global PV production has been increasing at a rate of 50 percent per year, so that accumulated global capacity doubles about every 18 months. The PV Moore’s law states that with every doubling of capacity, PV costs come down by 20 percent. In 2004, installing PV cost about $7 per watt, compared to $1/W for wind, which at that time was beginning to stand on its own feet commercially, Last, year, as recently noted in this blog, average global solar costs had come down to between $4 and $5 per watt, right in line with the PV Moore’s law. Extrapolate those gains out six or seven years, and PV costs will be below $2/W, making photovolatics competitive with 2004 wind.

You can find more details on this argument here. But note that in 2004, 2005, and 2006 PV prices rose in the graph at that link. This is consistent with what I've seen with other sources of PV prices. Government incentives have driven up PV demand so quickly that prices have not fallen. Therefore the cost trend in recent years is hidden by high demand. We need to wait for supply to catch up to demand in order to find out how much costs have dropped in recent years. For example, the US government's Energy Information Administration shows substantial increases in PV module prices from 2005 to 2006.

Rapidly rising demand is likely hiding the effects of production cost declines. So we should see a big cut in PV prices once production capacity starts to catch up with demand. In places with especially high electric costs such and lots of insolation (e.g. SoCal, Italy, Hawaii, Japan) grid parity will come years sooner.

A recent financial report by PV maker Solarfun provides a small window into PV pricing. Solarfun reports PV prices in the first quarter 2008 were higher than in 2007. This is not a sign of declining costs.

. In the recent quarter, Solarfun’s net PV module shipments were 40.3 megawatts at $4.07 per watt, compared to shipments of 6.5 megawatts at $3.77 per watt last year.

Selling prices were particularly strong in Spain and Germany, and the company benefited from a strong euro in the quarter. Solarfun reported that 46.0% of its revenues were generated from Spain, followed by 36.0% in Germany. France accounted for 8.0%, Italy for 6.0% and Switzerland for 4%.

You can find reports about imminent $1/watt PV manufacturing costs. But with prices still running 4 times as high I feel like I'm still waiting for Godot.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 22 11:46 PM  Energy Solar
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2008 May 21 Wednesday
Airports Lose Passenger Flights As Peak Oil Starts To Bite

In what is still the pretty early stages of the Peak Oil transition cities are losing passenger air service.

Financially strapped airlines are cutting service, and nearly 30 cities across the United States have seen their scheduled service disappear in the last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Others include New Haven, Conn.; Wilmington, Del.; Lake Havasu City, Ariz.; and Boulder City, Nev.

Over the same period, more than 400 airports, in cities large and small, have seen flight cuts. Over all, the number of scheduled flights in the United States dropped 3 percent in May, or 22,900 fewer flights than in May 2007, according to the Official Airline Guide.

For me the most surprising aspect of this trend is the level of traffic in January 2007 for airports that have now lost all commercial service. For example, Boulder City Nevada previously had 401 flights in January 2007 and now has none. Though big airports lost a much larger absolute number of flights. Chicago O'Hare lost 3,098 from 33,770 in January 2007 to 30,675 in January 2008.

The US Congress is in denial on the causes of high oil prices. Since less oil will be forthcoming we need to accept the need to use less of it. But rather than simply accept the need to use less fossil fuels in aviation some US Congress critters are trying to increase the amount of tax money allocated to subsidize commercial flights into rural airports.

Now, some lawmakers are pushing for more money for the air service program as part of a broader funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that is before the Senate. The House passed the measure last year.

This same Congress wants to sue OPEC for price fixing. This very same Congress puts obstacles in the way of Brazilian ethanol imports and also subsidizes US agriculture in other ways against foreign producers. But the hypocrisy is less important than the delusion underlying their stance: They at least pretend to believe that OPEC has control over oil prices. Almost all OPEC members are running at maximum capacity. They do not have pricing power.

Business executives face markets that force them to deal with reality. As a result more big cuts are in store for US passenger air transport capacity.

For now, we'll see more capacity-cut announcements. American said it will shrink its mainline domestic schedule in the fourth quarter this year by 11% to 12%. It had previously planned a 4.6% domestic reduction in the fourth quarter. American said it will retire about 75 jets – some regional jets, plus some wide-body A300s and some aging MD-80s narrow-body planes, the workhorse of its domestic fleet.

But I bet flights in China will continue to rise as the rapidly growing Chinese economy outbids the US economy for oil.

I'm actually encouraged by airline cutbacks and crashing sales of SUVs. People are making adjustments and using less oil. We need all that oil demand destruction, the sooner the better. Otherwise oil prices will need to go higher faster in order to force people and businesses to change their ways.

The latest new high for oil of $133.38 per barrel illustrates our need to start finding ways to use less oil.

Oil hits new record: U.S. light crude oil for July delivery rose as high as $133.38 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange before pulling back. Oil prices reacted to the weekly supplies report which showed a surprise drop in crude oil and gasoline inventories and a weaker-than-expected buildup in distillates, used in heating oil.

If you start making choices that lower your oil usage before you are economically forced to cut back then you'll be able to make less costly and less painful choices.

Update: Some people are excited by the prospect for rail. I'm watching for good articles on rail passenger traffic growth in the US and might do a post on it. While looking I came across an LA Times travel blog post about why Amtrak's pacific coast route The Coast Starlight runs so slow which is instructive about rail's pitfalls.

How bad is it? The Coast Starlight ran on schedule 50% of the time in December and 51.7% of the time in November, according to Amtrak statistics. While not great, the numbers are better than in December 2006 (25.8%) and November 2006 (23.3%). Since January, of course, trains have run irregularly because of mudslides, since cleared, that covered tracks in Oregon.

Construction issues: Years of track work by Union Pacific in Oregon and Northern California have contributed to delays on the Coast Starlight, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham. By late last year, a major portion of that work was finished, helping on-time performance, she explained.

Bottlenecks: Although the Coast Starlight gets priority, it runs on the same tracks as freight trains, said Graham and Zoe Richmond, spokeswoman for Union Pacific. And much of its route is on a single track. So if any train stalls, especially if it’s not near a siding, it backs up traffic. It’s like being on a one-lane road without a shoulder. And of course, bad weather can also wreak havoc.

Breakdowns by freight trains, accidents with cars, or assorted reasons to inspect tracks can cause hours of delay each time. Adding a lot more double track rail sections and sidings would help. Upgrades of tracks to allow higher speed operations would help too. But passenger rail today has lots of problems. A train line that runs on time 50% of the time comes on top of the slowness of rail as compared to airplanes.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 21 02:25 PM  Energy Transportation
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2008 May 20 Tuesday
Wind Turbine Costs Up

If you are waiting for alternative energy sources to become much cheaper, well, keep on waiting. Wind turbine costs are up for both offshore and onshore sites.

Shell's decision to sell its stake in London Array shows how difficult it will be to meet those goals. After the announcement on May 1, Skaerbaek, Denmark-based Dong Energy and Dusseldorf- based E.ON, Germany's biggest utility, said they may reduce the size of the project.

``Rising costs of materials,'' including steel and turbines ``are the reasons for reassessment of our position,'' said Shell spokeswoman Eurwen Thomas.

The price of offshore turbines rose 48 percent to 2.23 million euros ($3.45 million) per megawatt in the past three years, according to BTM Consult APS, a Danish wind power consultant. By comparison, land-based rotors cost 1.38 million euros per megawatt after rising 74 percent in the same period.

Some of that price rise might be due to strong demand for wind power. But materials cost increases played a role too. Higher commodities prices have pushed up prices for steel, aluminum, copper, and other materials used in wind tower construction.

So far the only energy source which looks like it might be getting ready for big price drops is solar. But it is also one of the more expensive ways to generate electricity. So it has plenty of room for improvement. The future costs of energy look pretty inflationary to me.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 20 10:40 PM  Energy Wind
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Vitamin D Up-Regulates Protective Enzyme In Prostate Cells

Vitamin D might reduce the risk of prostate cancer by up-regulating an enzyme that breaks down reactive oxygen species (which would otherwise damage cells and perhaps lead to cancer).

By inducing a specific gene to increase expression of a key enzyme, vitamin D protects healthy prostate cells from the damage and injuries that can lead to cancer, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers report.

“Many epidemiological studies have suggested the beneficial properties of vitamin D,” said Yi-Fen Lee, associate professor of urology at the Medical Center who led the research. “Our findings reflect what we see in those studies and demonstrate that vitamin D not only can be used as a therapy for prostate cancer, it can prevent prostate cancer from happening.”

Vitamin D turns up the activity of an enzyme that breaks down reactive oxygen species (ROS or free radicals).

Lee found that vitamin D links with a gene known as G6PD, increasing its activity and the production of an enzyme called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase. Increased activity of the enzyme clears cells of ROS, the molecules that can damage and injure cells.

“If you reduce DNA damage, you reduce the risk of cancer or aging,” Lee said. “Our study adds one more beneficial effect of taking a vitamin D supplement. Taking a supplement is especially important for senior citizens and others who might have less circulation of vitamin D, and for people who live and work areas where there is less sunshine.”

Vitamin D deficiency correlates with a much higher rate of breast cancer metastasis.

Women who had a vitamin D deficiency when they were diagnosed with breast cancer were 94% more likely to have their cancer metastasize and 73% more likely to die within 10 years, Canadian researchers reported Thursday.

The team also found that only 24% of the women in its study had what are normally considered adequate levels of vitamin D at the time of the diagnosis.

The study represents "the first time that vitamin D has been linked to breast cancer progression," said Dr. Pamela Goodwin of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, who led the study.

Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are deficient in vitamin D.

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that only 24 percent of the patients had adequate levels of vitamin D when they were diagnosed.

"This study found that vitamin D deficiency is very common among women with breast cancer, and it suggests that vitamin D deficiency is linked to poorer outcomes in these women," Dr. Nancy Davidson, director of the breast cancer program at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, said during a May 6 press conference. Davidson is president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Vitamin D deficiency is very common because we spend so much time indoors and few eat a lot of food high in vitamin D.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 20 10:24 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Easier Distraction Of Older Brains Seen As Advantage

A new neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research”, provides evidence that the greater tendency to distraction in older brains might bring creative benefits (though most creative work is done while young).

“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”

I think distractibility involves trade-offs. Makes you better at some things such as dealing with a lot of people in a very interweaved way. But a whole lot of work requires single minded concentration to go through all the steps required. A lot of software development work requires ability to go through large stretches of concentration to build up logical models in your mind. Getting distracted sets you back.

For example, in studies where subjects are asked to read passages that are interrupted with unexpected words or phrases, adults 60 and older work much more slowly than college students. Although the students plow through the texts at a consistent speed regardless of what the out-of-place words mean, older people slow down even more when the words are related to the topic at hand. That indicates that they are not just stumbling over the extra information, but are taking it in and processing it.

When both groups were later asked questions for which the out-of-place words might be answers, the older adults responded much better than the students.

Dr. Carson argues her research shows that students who are less able to filter out unwanted sources of stimuli score as more creative. But are they ultimately more productive? In other words, does this enhanced creativity pay off for them? Do they make more scientific discoveries or technological breakthroughs? Do they succeed more often in creating great advertising campaigns?

We can find plenty of examples of people accomplishing great achievements through hyper-focusing their talents on how to solve a single problem while ignoring distractions from their environment. I suspect we have a surplus of distractible people and a shortage of people who can ignore distractions. Maybe we could make better use of distractible people by putting them in workplaces where they'll encounter fewer distractions. Then maybe their creativity and the need to concentrate can find a better synergy.

Distractibility reminds me of Low Latent Inhibition. Possibly there are different kinds of distractibility and some kinds are more productive than others.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 20 05:35 PM  Brain Aging
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2008 May 19 Monday
Reproachful Car Voices Make Drivers Angry

A Stanford professor provides evidence that automated computer car voices shouldn't nag or criticize.

That computer masquerading as a person, seemingly residing somewhere in your car, might be interested in more than mere facts. As it gets to know your voice, your facial expressions (from an onboard camera) and your style, it could adapt its conversation to your mood, just as a human passenger would. If the computer behind the synthetic voice sensed that you were tense, as the car's sensors were silently warning the computer that your driving was becoming erratic, the voice might attempt to calm you down. It would project just the right tone and employ the perfect turn of phrase.

In tests of volunteers driving automobile simulators in the lab, researchers put their subjects into stressful situations and tested out potential responses from the voice. For example, some drivers received a reproachful warning: "You're not driving very well and you need to pay more attention."

"Well, you won't be shocked to learn that people got angry and actually drove worse," laughed Nass as he told the story. As the voice ratcheted up its rhetoric ("You really need to be more careful!"), the driving deteriorated further. Finally, when the voice began insisting that the drivers pull over to the side of the road, they responded by getting into accidents.

In a 2007 study, Nass, doctoral student Helen Harris, and undergraduates Kyle Davis, David Diaz and Brooke Sullivan searched for ways to help people control their emotions in the car in a study called "Car-tharsis." In a frustrating situation, a soothing voice from the car might sympathize with your predicament: "Don't worry. There will be a chance to pass the truck." The unspoken message? You don't need to get upset. Or if you got cut off in traffic, the car might simply do the yelling for you: "Learn to drive!" or "You idiot!"

Maybe the car should answer questions by playing excerpts of songs that encapsulate what the computer wants to say. In that case I expect people who think they are going to be late for an appointment due to a traffic jam should hear "Don't worry, be happy".

Depressed people want depressed cars. I can believe this from personal experience. When I was depressed as an adolescent I used to like to listen to Neil Young's album On The Beach. It was more depressing than me and it made me feel better by comparison.

Depressed drivers drive better when their car speaks as if it, too, were feeling down. "If you're in a really bad mood, do you want a bouncy person around?"

Drivers can trust a local AI built into their car. But they don't trust a centralized Borg AI talking to them through their car.

Drivers feel more engaged with the computer voice if they believe the computer is installed in their car, as opposed to a wireless connection to a distant computer. As a result, they disclose more information to the in-car computer and drive faster.

As we design computer systems to make us do what their designers decided are the best behaviors from us we are effectively designing computer systems to manipulate us. I suspect that the first AIs deployed into widespread use will therefore possess enormous skills for manipulating humans. The ability to automate efforts to manipulate us will make us more manipulated and controlled by computer systems.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 19 02:51 PM  Robotics Cars
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Study Finds Genetic Component Of Musical Aptitude

Before spending a lot of money on piano and singing lessons some day parents will be able to get their kids genetically tested to check for musically inclined genetic profiles. Why waste all that money on a kid who might turn out to be innately tone deaf? A fairly preliminary study in Finland finds evidence for a genetic component to musical ability.

Molecular and statistical genetic studies in 15 Finnish families have shown that there is a substantial genetic component in musical aptitude. Musical aptitude was determined using three tests: a test for auditory structuring ability (Karma Music test), and the Seashore pitch and time discrimination subtests. The study represents the first systematic molecular genetic study that aims in the identification of candidate genes associated with musical aptitude.

The identified regions contain genes affecting cell extension and migration during neural development. Interestingly, an overlapping region previously associated with genetic locus for dyslexia was found raising a question about common evolutionary background of music and language faculties. The results show that musical aptitude is likely to be regulated by several predisposing genes/variants.

“The identification of genes/genetic variants involved in mediating music perception and performance would offer new tools to understand the role of music in human brain function, human evolution and its relationship to language faculty”, says the leader of the study, Dr. Irma Järvelä from the University of Helsinki.

While this study did not identify specific genetic variants as causes of differences in musical ability that level of detail will not be a long time in coming. The continued rapid decline in genetic sequencing costs will make complete personal genetic sequencing affordable in the 2010s. The resulting flood of genetic sequencing data will make identification of genetic causes of cognitive abilities far easier to do than is the case today.

By the year 2035 I expect enhanced musical ability to become a very popular option for parents making genetic engineering decisions in the design of their children.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 19 09:02 AM  Brain Genetics
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2008 May 18 Sunday
Infection Ages White Blood Cell Telomeres

Telomeres, which are caps at the ends of chromosomes are known to get shorter as we age. Shorter telomeres might increase mortality risk. Also, lack of vitamin D and chronic stress both seem to make telomeres shorter. So telomere length really seems to matter. With all that in mind: Exposure to a pathogen causes telomeres to shrink more rapidly.

We experimentally tested whether repeated exposure to an infectious agent, Salmonella enterica, causes telomere attrition in wild-derived house mice (Mus musculus musculus). We repeatedly infected mice with a genetically diverse cocktail of five different S. enterica strains over seven months, and compared changes in telomere length with sham-infected sibling controls. We measured changes in telomere length of white blood cells (WBC) after five infections using a real-time PCR method. Our results show that repeated Salmonella infections cause telomere attrition in WBCs, and particularly for males, which appeared less disease resistant than females. Interestingly, we also found that individuals having long WBC telomeres at early age were relatively disease resistant during later life. Finally, we found evidence that more rapid telomere attrition increases mortality risk, although this trend was not significant.

I have a sore throat as I write this post. Therefore my immune system is getting a little more aged and my white blood cell telomeres are getting shortened. Bummer dudes. Fortunately I only very rarely get sick. But if you live a lifestyle that causes you to get colds and flus every year then think about what steps you can take to cut your frequency of sickness. Every bout with some germ is making you another day older and closer to death.

What we really need: technologies for stem cell manipulation to produce youthful replacement immune system stem cells. That will do more than just reduce deaths of old people from influenza, pneumonia, and other pathogens which kill the elderly. Stronger rejuvenated immune systems will reduce death from cancer and maybe reduce the incidence of auto-immune disorders.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 18 03:05 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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2008 May 15 Thursday
Educational Gap Widening For Longevity

The advantage of being smart is getting bigger when it comes to longevity.

ATLANTA—May 13, 2008—A new study finds a gap in overall death rates between Americans with less than high school education and college graduates increased rapidly from 1993 to 2001. The study, which appears in the May 14 issue of PLoS ONE, says the widening gap was due to significant decreases in mortality from all causes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other conditions, in the most educated while death rates among the least educated remained relatively unchanged. The study is the first to examine recent trends in socioeconomic inequalities in mortality from all causes as well as several leading causes of death in the United States using national individual-level socioeconomic measures.

American Cancer Society epidemiologists led by Ahmedin Jemal, Ph.D., working with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) used data from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) and death certificate information to analyze more than 3.5 million deaths recorded from 1993 to 2001. They found the overall death rate from all causes decreased significantly during the time period among the most educated (≥16 years) men and women, with the largest decrease in black men. In contrast, the all cause death rate actually increased in those with less than a high school education. The annual percent increase was largest among white women with less than 12 years of education (3.2 percent per year), but was also statistically significant (0.7 percent per year) in white women who had completed high school. The authors say the growing gap was caused largely by an unprecedented decrease in the all-cause death rate among the most educated men (totaling 36 percent in black men and 25 percent in white men over the nine-year interval) largely due to decreases in death rates from HIV infection, cancer, and heart disease.

Here from the Plos One paper:

We calculated annual age-standardized death rates from 1993–2001 for 25–64 year old non-Hispanic whites and blacks by level of education for all causes and for the seven most common causes of death using death certificate information from 43 states and Washington, D.C. Regression analysis was used to estimate annual percent change. The inequalities in all cause death rates between Americans with less than high school education and college graduates increased rapidly from 1993 to 2001 due to both significant decreases in mortality from all causes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other conditions in the most educated and lack of change or increases among the least educated. For white women, the all cause death rate increased significantly by 3.2 percent per year in the least educated and by 0.7 percent per year in high school graduates. The rate ratio (RR) comparing the least versus most educated increased from 2.9 (95% CI, 2.8–3.1) in 1993 to 4.4 (4.1–4.6) in 2001 among white men, from 2.1 (1.8–2.5) to 3.4 (2.9–3–9) in black men, and from 2.6 (2.4–2.7) to 3.8 (3.6–4.0) in white women.

Why do I make the claim that this result is due more to intelligence than to education? Linda Gottfredson and Ian Deary have demonstrated intelligence is a powerful variable for influencing longevity (PDF format).

ABSTRACT—Large epidemiological studies of almost an entire population in Scotland have found that intelligence (as measured by an IQ-type test) in childhood predicts substantial differences in adult morbidity and mortality, including deaths from cancers and cardiovascular diseases. These relations remain significant after controlling for socioeconomic variables. One possible, partial explanation of these results is that intelligence enhances individuals’ care of their own health because it represents learning, reasoning, and problem-solving skills useful in preventing chronic disease and accidental injury and in adhering to complex treatment regimens.

Also see Gottfredson's paper Intelligence: Is it the epidemiologists' elusive "fundamental cause" of social class inequalities in health? (PDF format).

My guess is that as the amount of useful knowledge available to influence longevity has increased (e.g. results from dietary and lifestyle research and new types of treatments that require patients to do much self-administration of drugs and therapies) the advantage of being smart has been amplified. If you get sick and you are smart you have more clinical trials to investigate, diets to try, and treatments to follow carefully. You are better able to understand why a treatment should benefit you and therefore more motivated to stick with it. Rather than follow the advice of one doctor you can seek out multiple experts, ask tough questions, and compare notes with other smart people chasing better treatments. You are better able to see through self-serving advice of specialists who are trying to boost their income. You are more likely to recognize serious side effects of treatments and challenge the wisdom of continued use of a treatment.

In the much longer run rejuvenation treatment delivery will become so automated and the treatments so incredibly effective that even the dumbest among us will benefit. But in the shorter run having brains and utilizing those brains to make diet, lifestyle, and other choices to maximize health can provide a big edge.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 15 09:58 PM  Aging Studies
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2008 May 14 Wednesday
Farming Costs Rise Faster Than Crop Price Increases

Under the impression that rising crop price are driven mainly by rising demand? Rising costs suggest that crop production won't rise fast in response to higher prices.

"The price of crops drove what farmers did last year," said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agriculture economist. Now "it's costs, and that's prompting farmers to reevaluate how they allocate their land this year."

The cost of farming an acre of corn, for example, has risen almost 47% over the last year, according to Wells Fargo & Co. estimates, outpacing the 35% increase in the price of corn in the same period.

It's the same with rice. The price on the futures market of U.S.-grown long grain rice -- the type that is in short supply worldwide -- has risen 64% this year to $22.74 per one hundred pounds. (Such a move also pushes up the price of medium grain rice, which makes up most of what is grown in California.) Still, farmers are expected to plant 549,000 acres of California rice this year, up less than 3% from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The fact that the cost of farming an acre of corn went up faster than the price of corn makes me think that corn's Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) is rather low. How much of that corn inputs cost increase comes from nitrogen fertilizer whose production is very energy intensive or other chemicals whose production is very energy intensive?

That higher cost of production combined with high prices for wheat and soy are combining to restrict corn plantings. In spite of rising demand for corn for both food and ethanol and a huge increase in prices the amount of corn planted in the United States in 2008 will go down.

Farmers are now expected to plant 86 million acres of corn this year, the Department of Agriculture predicted March 31, down 8 percent from last year, which was the highest since World War II.

Soy doesn't need nitrogen fertilizer since soy roots cooperate with bacteria to fix hydrogen to nitrogen to produce ammonia. The USDA March 2008 plantings report shows some signs of the effects of the high cost of ammonia fertilizer with a shift toward soy and away from corn.

The March 31 report says farmers in all but one U.S. state intend to plant more soybeans this year.

An estimated 75 million acres will be dedicated to the crop, an 18 percent jump from 2007. The U.S. is the world's No. 1 soybean producer.

An acre of corn might yield 160 bushels. Each bushel of corn has about 400,000 BTU of energy (less or more depending on whether you use it for heating or eating). So what happens to total produced available human caloric energy when crops shift from corn to soy? Acreage planted in soybeans might yield 30-43 bushels per acre (depending on whether irrigated). We get 60 lbs per bushel of soy and 17,035 BTU per pound. That is about 1 million BTU per bushel which is higher than the 400,000 or so BTU per bushel of corn. But since land produces only a quarter the number of bushels per acre of soybeans as compared to corn the result is less energy produced per acre. Less energy in. Less energy out. The problem for us is that as we gradually lose the ability to use fossil fuels to produce ammonia fertilizer our crop yields will drop.

The cost of nitrogen fertilizers will likely go much higher as fossil fuels costs continue to rise. But what about other types of fertilizer? A Fortune article about Canadian potash mining company Mosaic reveals expansion of potash mines takes many years.

All this begs a key question: Won't rising demand and sky-high prices lead to new fertilizer supply coming online and eventually to lower prices? Over time, it probably will. But the barriers to entry for newcomers are high. The mine shaft in Esterhazy cost $50 million when it was completed in 1962. "To replicate that today would be $500 million--just to put the shaft down," says Prokopanko. "And it's going to take you five years minimum to develop a new mine complex and a mill and all the infrastructure. Total, it would probably cost you $2.5 billion." (Mosaic recently announced mine-expansion plans that will increase its annual potash production from 10 million metric tons to 17 million, a project expected to cost $3.2 billion over 12 years.)

But in the bigger scheme of things $2.5 billion is not a lot of money. Phosphate and potassium production can probably scale up to meet growing demand - albeit with a delay until big capital expenditures bring new production capacity on line. But ammonia's big price run-up is driven by fossil fuels price increases and the relief there is harder to imagine.

What I'd like to know about the long term cost of nitrogen fertilizer: How much higher does nitrogen fertilizer cost need to rise before electricity as a power source for generating nitrogen fertilizer would become cost competitive? That price, whatever it is, represents the longer term ceiling on nitrogen fertilizer prices.

In spite of recent record highs in the price of a bushel of corn the amount of corn planted in Ohio will go down 13% in 2008.

Maumee agribusiness The Andersons Inc. raised its price for diammonium phosphate farm fertilizer by 177 percent in the last 1½ years.

A short ton, which cost $260 in October, 2006, was $721 in February.

“Fertilizer prices continue to soar. It seems like they just keep going up and up and up,” Mr. Durham, the Henry County farmer, said.

As a result, a March 1 survey by the Ag Department’s Ohio office showed state farmers will plant 3.35 million acres of corn this year, a decrease of 13 percent from last year.

Meanwhile, planting of soybeans, which produce their own nitrogen, will be up 8 percent.

Pennsylvania, which has a lot of manure available from livestock, will see an increase in corn plantings in 2008.

Farmers across the country are expected to plant 8 percent fewer acres in corn this year than in 2007, but Pennsylvania farmers will plant 1 percent more corn than last year, according to a crops expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The rise in natural gas prices has pushed up the cost of ammonia (which is nitrogen with some hydrogens attached).

A recent NCGA white paper reported that natural gas, which supplies hydrogen for the production of ammonia and has historically accounted for 70 percent of the cost of ammonia production, has seen its price quadruple since 1999 -- from $2 to $8 per million BTUs, ballooning its share of the total ammonia production cost to 85 to 90 percent. Since then, 26 ammonia plants have closed and U.S. production capacity has decreased by 40 percent.

The report also accounts how transportation and distribution costs have jumped, driving up the price of nitrogen since the U.S. has turned to global sources. Ocean freight fees rose from 300 percent to 400 percent from January 2003 to 2008, and shipping anhydrous ammonia by rail has almost doubled since January 2005.

Edward Yardeni, made famous for calling the big 1990s bull market in advance, claims the flow of capital into agriculture will cut crop prices.

TORONTO — Market strategist Ed Yardeni, who made a name for himself with accurate calls on the U.S. stock market's bull runs of recent decades, says that soaring food prices won't last because farmers are rushing to plant more crops and agricultural productivity is increasing with new investment.

“There's so much capital now that's going to pour into agriculture that I think food prices are going to come down sharply,” Mr. Yardeni said at a presentation Wednesday morning sponsored by Thomson Reuters Academy.

That only works if costs do not keep pace with prices. Well, our really big question for your consideration: Will farm costs keep pace with rising food demand from industrializing Asia?

By Randall Parker 2008 May 14 08:30 PM  Trends Agriculture
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Web Sites Specialize In Watching You

If you feel paranoid because you feel you are being watched then your reaction is rational. Though I would advise "Don't worry, be happy".

Zaba Inc.'s ZabaSearch.com turns up public records such as criminal history and birthdates. Spock Networks Inc.'s Spock.com and Wink Technologies Inc.'s Wink.com are "people-search engines" that specialize in digging up personal pages, such as social-networking profiles, buried deep in the Web. Spokeo.com is a search site operated by Spokeo Inc., a startup that lets users see what their friends are doing on other Web sites. Zillow Inc.'s Zillow.com estimates the value of people's homes, while the Huffington Post's Fundrace feature tracks their campaign donations. Jigsaw Data Corp.'s Jigsaw.com, meanwhile, lets people share details with each other from business cards they've collected -- a sort of gray market for Rolodex data.

Check up on the political leanings of your neighbors.

Some sites use the ability to snoop as a selling point. The Huffington Post's Fundrace feature, which allows users to enter their addresses and see a map showing their neighbors' political donations, uses this come-on: "Want to know ... whether that new guy you're seeing is actually a Republican or just dresses like one?"

Got a friend, neighbor, boss, or local political figure whose personal details pique your curiosity? Give these sites a whirl and let us know if you are successful in finding out surprising facts about them.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 14 02:13 PM  Surveillance Society
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2008 May 13 Tuesday
Nuclear Plant Costs Double To Quadruple Previous Estimates

Rebecca Smith of the Wall Street Journal reports on the thinking of big new nuclear power plant buyers. Nuclear power is seen to cost double to quadruple previous estimates.

A new generation of nuclear power plants is on the drawing boards in the U.S., but the projected cost is causing some sticker shock: $5 billion to $12 billion a plant, double to quadruple earlier rough estimates.

What became of all the efforts to develop newer lower cost designs? Are these cost increases due to the Asian demand for commodities driving up the cost of iron ore, concrete, and other construction materials?

The latest projections follow months of tough negotiations between utility companies and key suppliers, and suggest efforts to control costs are proving elusive. Estimates released in recent weeks by experienced nuclear operators -- NRG Energy Inc., Progress Energy Inc., Exelon Corp., Southern Co. and FPL Group Inc. -- "have blown by our highest estimate" of costs computed just eight months ago, said Jim Hempstead, a senior credit officer at Moody's Investors Service credit-rating agency in New York.

Oil costs a lot. Then coal and natural gas go up in price in response. Optimists think we still have nuclear as another substitute. But its costs have skyrocketed as well. The inflationary pressures seem inescapable. Photovoltaics might be our only hope for cheap future energy. It doesn't do well as a baseline energy source. But PV makers are coming up with innovations that lower costs.

The Congressional Budget Office still hopes for eventual cheaper nukes.

The Congressional Budget Office just finished a rosy-glasses report on nuclear economics. Even while acknowledging that historical costs for nuclear plants always doubled or tripled their initial estimates, the CBO took heart from promises made by manufacturers of next-generation reactors and a single on-time and on-budget project in Japan to project cheaper nuclear construction costs in the future.

Whether nuclear costs can come down depends on why they are high in the first place. Does anyone know where these cost increases come from? Can innovations in speed of construction yield big cost savings?

Back 8 months ago Moody's was already pretty pessimistic on nuclear costs. But they've become even more pessimistic.

While utilities reportedly have priced the cost of a kilowatt of nuclear power at $3,000 to $4,000, Moody's Investors Services said in October that a more realistic price would be $5,000 to $6,000. That puts the cost of a 1,500-megawatt nuclear plant at about $9 billion, according to reports.

The chairman of a German electric power plant operator puts the cost of new nukes at almost $10 billion.

Wulf Bernotat, chairman and chief executive of E.ON, the German energy giant that owns Powergen, has told The Times that the cost per plant could be as high as €6 billion (£4.8 billion) - nearly double the Government's latest £2.8 billion estimate.

Still, getting your own national nuclear power plant has become all the rage.

VIENNA -- At least 40 developing countries from the Persian Gulf region to Latin America have recently approached U.N. officials here to signal interest in starting nuclear power programs, a trend that concerned proliferation experts say could provide the building blocks of nuclear arsenals in some of those nations.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 13 10:09 PM  Energy Nuclear
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2008 May 12 Monday
Kashagan Oil Field Production Start Hits Another Delay

On a day when oil hit a new intra-day trading high of $126.40 we also received indications that attempts to boost world oil production continue to hit roadblocks.

Eni, Italy's largest oil company, and partners developing the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea may delay production by as much as two years, the fourth postponement at the 7 billion- to 9 billion-barrel Kazakhstan discovery.

The start of commercial output may not occur until 2012 or 2013, said Dinara Shaimardanova, an aide to Energy Minister Sauat Mynbayev, confirming his remarks earlier in the capital, Astana. Eni in January said the field, which was the world's biggest discovery in three decades, was expected to start in 2011.

The original plan was to get it into production in 2005. Then it slipped to 2008 and then to 2011. Now production on this field, which is projected to peak at 1.5 million barrels per day, looks to come too late to delay Peak Oil. In a way that is a good thing since the late arriving Kashagan oil will slow the rate to production decline as the world comes off peak production.

Indonesia's leaders think they should leave OPEC because Indonesia has become a net oil importer.

While polemics were going on on its plan to increase domestic fuel oil prices prompted by world crude price hikes, the Indonesian government came up this week with an idea to quit the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The story of Indonesia fits perfectly with the Export Land Model where demand in the exporting countries soars while their production declines. Look at how oil production and consumption have played out in Indonesia.

House Speaker Agung Laksono said Indonesia`s domestic oil prices much depended on the price of world oil. Indonesia`s oil production and consumption were quite unbalanced with a production of 925,000 barrels per day while its consumption reached 1.4 million barrels per day.

He said that 15 years ago, Indonesia`s daily oil production reached 1.4 million barrels while its consumption reached only about 300,000 barrels per day.

Other oil producing countries are heading down Indonesia's path. Some of the big oil producing countries sell gasoline internally at far below market prices. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Bahrain and a few other countries sell gasoline for less than $1 per gallon. These gasoline prices mean demand surges in those countries and if they only maintain constant production their exports go down. On top of that Asian demand rises. The Western industrialized countries can afford to outbid some of the poorest countries. But Asian demand and oil producer internal demand will take oil away from the West. Hence the rapid run up in oil prices.

Russia has peaked.

The country's oil production fell for a fourth straight month in April, confirming pessimistic forecasts for the year, while exports rose on the back of improved weather.

Industry and Energy Ministry data released Sunday showed that production stood at 9.72 million barrels per day, down from 9.76 million bpd in March and more than 2 percent lower compared with the post-Soviet high of 9.93 million bpd in October.

Russia is one of the more rapidly growing markets for cars. More metal mouths to feed.

Russian oil executives are claiming that lower taxes could turn around oil production. But this is the same message we heard from the US oil industry in the 1970s. It didn't work then. It won't work now.

Oil output in Russia, the world's biggest supplier after Saudi Arabia, has ``peaked'' and may decline in the coming years, said billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, an owner of BP Plc's venture TNK-BP.

Russian companies need tax breaks to spur exploration and development of new fields to revive growth, Vekselberg told an American Chamber of Commerce conference in Moscow today.

Lukoil president Vagit Alekperov tells a similar story. Leave aside the reason they say Russian production will decline and focus on the decline itself. Russia is one more country that has crossed over onto the list of countries on the down slope for oil production.

The sooner you prepare for what is coming the easier your transition will be. Go smaller with your next car purchase. When you buy that car gasoline will sell for much less than gas will cost when you sell it. Think about how else you can get yourself more energy efficient. Think about whether you can move closer to work or switch to a job which is closer to home. Your commute will make a big impact on your living standard. Find lower energy hobbies. Our energy situation will get much worse before it starts to get better.

Update: Fund manager Tim Guinness, chairman of Investec Asset Management, says oil demand destruction in the industrialized countries is getting offset by demand growth in China, India, and the Middle East. He expects oil prices to hit $200 by 2010.

"What is going on is that OECD demand destruction is somewhere between 200,000 to 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) at the moment, while demand growth in the developing world is still over one million bpd," he said.

This will be a recurring pattern in coming years. Oil consumption in industrialized countries has probably peaked. I expect prices to keep going up at least until the whole world goes into a recession.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 12 10:11 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 May 11 Sunday
One Hundred Thousand Dollars For Ideal Egg Donor?

Writing in the Yale Daily News Divya Subrahmanyam points to high dollar offers for ideal egg donors.

“Ivy League Egg Donor Wanted.”

Sound familiar? From the News to the New Haven Register, this and similar ads for egg donors have appeared in the pages of local newspapers, attempting to lure intelligent Yale women with sums ranging from $5,000 to $100,000.

One Web site, offering $35,000 is looking for a “Genius Asian donor,” and describes the ideal match: “You should have or be working on a university degree from a world-class university, you should have high standardized test scores, and preferably have some outstanding achievements and awards.”

Another, EliteDonors.com seeks a donor who is Caucasian, “very attractive,” “height 5’9” or taller” and “athletic.” The ad claims to offer $100,000 as minimum compensation.

That $100,000 seems like a large sum of money for human eggs today. But suppose that choosing the right egg results in a smarter child with a responsible, calm, and motivated disposition. The boost in life time income could be many times that initial $100,000 investment.

The value from choosing "premium" eggs will soar as plummeting costs of DNA sequencing technologies bring about an explosion of discoveries about genetic variations for controlling intelligence and personality. The ability to choose between eggs based on detailed genetic profile of donors will greatly increase the probability of getting some desired genetic outcome.

The initial genetic screening of potential donors still doesn't control for the randomness of which portion of a person's DNA went into each egg. But that will become a solvable problem. Fertilization of multiple eggs and genetic testing of each embryo is already possible today. Once we know what thousands of genetic variations do to determine IQ, personality, physical attractiveness, and many other attributes screening of multiple embryos will become very desirable. At that point expect to see skyrocketing prices for donor eggs with the most desired attributes.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 11 11:32 AM  Bioethics Reproduction
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IVF Starts Pregnancy In 16 Year Old Jerusalem Arab Girl

An Israeli Jewish doctor successfully started a pregnancy in an Arab girl at the age of 16.

The total fertility rate in Israel is currently estimated at 2.77 children born per woman, one of the highest rates in the world. Ronit Haimov-Kochman, a gynaecologist at Hadassah Mount Scopus Medical Center in Jerusalem, recently led a team of doctors that successfully performed in vitro fertilization (IVF) on a 16-year-old girl. The patient, AH, had had extensive medical and surgical fertility treatment since the age of 14. Haimov-Kochman tells Ewen Callaway why she helped a teenager get pregnant – and why other Arab teens are likely to follow.

The Israelis are losing a demographic battle of the womb to the much more fertile Arabs.

This fertility doctor sees respecting the mentality and cultural norms of another group as important drivers in her decision. Personally, I'm not suicidal. Quite the opposite in fact. But I respect the cultural norms that cause this doctor to behave suicidally for her culture (though I'd lose all that respect if my own culture was threatened). On second thought, introspecting I see that I do not feel that respect. Indifference is more like it. Not my country. Not my culture.

So what contributed to your team's eventual decision to treat AH?

Treatment of AH was based on the couple's decision to start therapy. Respecting the patient's mentality and cultural norms, the patient's right for therapy, and its wide availability in Israel all contributed to our decision to treat the patient.

It is understandable that in a society with an exceedingly high fertility rate, where the major role of the female spouse is to bear and rear children, strong peer and family pressure is imposed on infertile patients – especially the young and less educated ones.

What do you all think? Do 14 year old Muslim girls in Jerusalem have a right to begin fertility treatment?

More basically, is there a basic right to reproduction? If so, why? Does it not matter what the consequences are?

By Randall Parker 2008 May 11 08:54 AM  Bioethics Reproduction
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2008 May 08 Thursday
Wilds Of World To Get Converted To Farm Land?

The Financial Times reports the Chinese government wants the Chinese to buy lots of farmland in other countries in order to boost production to feed China.

Chinese companies will be encouraged to buy farmland abroad, particularly in Africa and South America, to help guarantee food security under a plan being considered by Beijing.

A proposal drafted by the Ministry of Agriculture would make supporting offshore land acquisition by domestic agricultural companies a central government policy. Beijing already has similar policies to boost offshore investment by state-owned banks, manufacturers and oil companies, but offshore agricultural investment has so far been limited to a few small projects.

Industrialization causes higher demand for food which causes higher food prices which causes a flood of capital to go into agriculture. The result? Less land for animals. More pollution from agriculture.

But this plan only works if the target countries allow export of the increased production.

Argentina has banned beef exports, while Egypt and India have stopped shipments of rice.

Kazakhstan has prohibited wheat exports. Russia has slapped a 40pc export duty on shipments, and Pakistan a 35pc duty.

China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Philipines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam have all imposed export controls or forms of rationing to ease the crisis.

Asian populations grow and become more affluent and as a result more land gets shifted into urban development.

Instead, Asia is increasingly transforming farmland into office parks and suburbs. In the Philippines, half of irrigated land has been transformed into urban development in the past two decades. While this fuels new economic engines such as services and industry, it also undercuts resources needed to grow food.


The population in the Philippines has grown by roughly 2 percent a year since 2000, one of the highest rates in Asia, leading to a corresponding leap in rice consumption. And across Asia, exploding middle classes with more money and bigger appetites are eating more rice – and more meat. Meat production requires huge amounts of water, labor, and grains to feed cattle, which in turn diverts resources away from rice production.

Paul Collier sees lots of undeveloped land in Africa and other areas that could be turned into farm land to allow the Chinese to eat higher on the food chain.

Why have food prices rocketed? Paradoxically, this squeeze on the poorest has come about as a result of the success of globalization in reducing world poverty. As China develops, helped by its massive exports to our markets, millions of Chinese households have started to eat better. Better means not just more food but more meat, the new luxury. But to produce a kilo of meat takes six kilos of grain. Livestock reared for meat to be consumed in Asia are now eating the grain that would previously have been eaten by the African poor. So what is the remedy?

The best solution to a problem is often not closely related to its cause (a proposition that might be recognized in the climate change debate). China’s long march to prosperity is something to celebrate. The remedy to high food prices is to increase food supply, something that is entirely feasible. The most realistic way to raise global supply is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies supplying for the world market. To give one remarkable example, the time between harvesting one crop and planting the next, in effect the downtime for land, has been reduced an astounding thirty minutes. There are still many areas of the world that have good land which could be used far more productively if it was properly managed by large companies. For example, almost 90% of Mozambique’s land, an enormous area, is idle.

But to the wild animals in Africa and South America the land doesn't look undeveloped. It looks like where they get their food from.

Asian economic development translates into land development for farming in Africa. The more capital accumulates the more capital available to bring more land into production for human uses. Africa's problems have been an obstacle for Western and East Asian people to develop the place. But given high enough food prices the costs of dealing Africa's problems will become affordable for large farming businesses from outside of Africa. The money Bill Gates is spending to develop treatments for tropical diseases will bring treatments that let farmers work in areas which otherwise offer some protection to wildlife due to disease barriers.

Birth control offers a different way to solve the food problem which will save a lot of land from agricultural development.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 08 10:27 PM  Trends Agriculture
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2008 May 07 Wednesday
Obesity Boosts Dementia Risk

Being too skinny also poses a dementia risk?

Being obese can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by as much as 80 per cent, according to a study in the May issue of Obesity Reviews.

It is harder to tease out harmful effects of low weight as compared to overweight because people who have undiagnosed diseases often lose weight before getting diagnosed. So the population of skinny people include people who are about to get diagnosed with cancer or some other disease. The longer a group gets followed the less that bias influences the results.

But it’s not just weight gain that poses a risk. People who are underweight also have an elevated risk of dementia, unlike people who are normal weight or overweight.

US researchers carried out a detailed review of 10 international studies published since 1995, covering just over 37,000 people, including 2,534 with various forms of dementia. Subjects were aged between 40 and 80 years when the studies started, with follow-up periods ranging from three to 36 years.

The review, which included studies from the USA, France, Finland, Sweden and Japan, also included a sophisticated meta-analysis of seven of the studies, published between 2003 and 2007 with a follow-up period of at least five years.

All kinds of dementia were included, with specific reference to Alzheimer’s Disease and to vascular dementia – where areas of the brain stop functioning because the blood vessels that supply them are damaged by conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease.

“Our meta-analysis showed that obesity increased the relative risk of dementia, for both sexes, by an average of 42 per cent when compared with normal weight” says Dr Youfa Wang, Associate Professor of International Health and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore.

“And being underweight increased the risk by 36 per cent.

“But when we looked specifically at Alzheimer’s Disease, the increased risk posed by obesity was 80 per cent. The increased risk for people with vascular dementia was 73 per cent.

The harmful effects of obesity suggest that bariatric surgery ought to be considered by the chronically obese. Here's another reason: bariatric surgery might cure type 2 insulin resistant diabetes.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 07 11:19 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2008 May 06 Tuesday
Mitochondrial DNA Risk In Macular Degeneration

If we could upgrade the DNA in our mitochondria (which break down sugar in cells to provide energy) then we could cut our risk of age-related macular generation (AMD) of the eye.

Genetic variation in the DNA of mitochondria – the “power plants” of cells – contributes to a person’s risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), Vanderbilt investigators report May 7 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Mitochondrial genes are a logical place to expect genetic variants to influence the rate of aging. The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) accumulates damage and mtDNA damage is probably a major cause of aging through out the body.

The study is the first to examine the mitochondrial genome for changes associated with AMD, the leading cause of blindness in Caucasians over age 50.

“Most people don’t realize that we have two genomes,” said lead author Jeff Canter, M.D., M.P.H., an investigator in the Center for Human Genetics Research. “We have the nuclear genome – the “human genome” – that makes the cover of all the magazines, and then we also have this tiny genome in mitochondria in every cell.”

Canter teamed with Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., and Paul Sternberg, M.D., experts in AMD genetics and treatment, to examine whether a particular variation in the mitochondrial genome is associated with the disease. The genetic change occurs in about 10 percent of Caucasians, referred to as mitochondrial haplogroup T.

The tiny bit of mtDNA is much more vulnerable to damage because the mitochondria have lots of reactive chemicals in them in the process of getting converted from sugar into more useful forms of chemical energy. Some of those reactive chemicals bump into the mtDNA and cause damage that messes up energy production. But better mtDNA sequences code for mitochondrial enzymes that basically break down the sugar more cleanly with less intracellular pollution by free radicals.

Members of this team have already discovered a few other genetic variants that contribute to AMD risk.

The genetics of AMD has been a “hot” area lately, Canter said. Haines led a team that identified a variant in the Complement Factor H (CFH) gene as accounting for up to 43 percent of AMD. Variations in ApoE2 and a gene called LOC387715 on chromosome 10 have also been linked to the disease, and Haines and colleagues demonstrated an interaction between the chromosome 10 gene and smoking in raising AMD risk.

The current study also examined variation in these nuclear genes in 280 cases and 280 age-matched controls, and demonstrated that the mitochondrial genome variation was independent of the known nuclear factors.

Once cell therapy and gene therapy become practical I want to upgrade various parts of my body with stem cells that will create longer lasting tissue. We should rejuvenate our bodies. But we should also reduce the maintenance intervals. Studies such as the one above point us in the direction of how to make longer lasting components.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 06 10:45 PM  Aging Genetics
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Cloudy Coastlines Caused By Kelp?

Stressed kelp cause more reflective cloud formation. Could their growth be boosted on a large scale as a way to cause global cooling?

Scientists at The University of Manchester have helped to identify that the presence of large amounts of seaweed in coastal areas can influence the climate.

A new international study has found that large brown seaweeds, when under stress, release large quantities of inorganic iodine into the coastal atmosphere, where it may contribute to cloud formation.

A scientific paper published online today (Monday 6 May 2008) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) identifies that iodine is stored in the form of iodide – single, negatively charged ions.

Can you think of a way to increase the area of kelp growth in order to boost cloud formation? Seems hard to do. The press release says the kelp need intertidal zones. Most of the ocean seems unsuited and hard to make suitable.

The paper’s co-author, Dr Gordon McFiggans, an atmospheric scientist from The University of Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences (SEAES) said: “The findings are applicable to any coastal areas where there are extensive kelp beds. In the UK, these are typically place like the Hebrides, Robin Hood's Bay and Anglesey. The kelps need rocky intertidal zones to prosper - sandy beaches aren't very good.

“The increase in the number of cloud condensation nuclei may lead to ‘thicker’ clouds. These are optically brighter, reflecting more sunlight upwards and allowing less to reach the ground, and last for longer. In such a cloud there are a higher number of small cloud droplets and rainfall is suppressed, compared with clouds of fewer larger droplets.

“The increase in cloud condensation nuclei by kelps could lead to more extensive, longer lasting cloud cover in the coastal region – a much moodier, typically British coastal skyline.”

A flat area near a coastline, if flooded, might be convertible into a massive kelp bed. Seems very expensive to do though.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 06 10:20 PM  Climate Engineering
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Ibuprofen Cuts Alzheimer's Disease Risk?

Does taking Ibuprofen cut Alzheimer's risk or does some cause of pain cut Alzheimer's risk?

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Long-term use of ibuprofen and other drugs commonly used for aches and pains was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in the May 6, 2008, issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Previous studies have shown conflicting results, but this is the longest study of its kind.

For the study, researchers identified 49,349 US veterans age 55 and older who developed Alzheimer’s disease and 196,850 veterans without dementia. The study examined over five years of data and looked at the use of several non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The veterans received medical care and prescriptions through the VA Health Care system.

The study found people who specifically used ibuprofen for more than five years were more than 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Results also showed that the longer ibuprofen was used, the lower the risk for dementia. In addition, people who used certain types of NSAIDs for more than five years were 25 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than non-users.

While other NSAIDs such as indomethacin may also have been associated with lower risks, others such as celecoxib did not show any impact on dementia risk.

My guess is that the NSAIDs do this risk cutting. The fact that some have stronger risk reduction effects suggests the drugs themselves make the difference. Also, lots of research finds chronic inflammation increases risk of a variety of diseases of old age.

But long term NSAIDs might not reduce all cause mortality. They might increase risks of other diseases. Safer bets for Alzheimer's disease risk reduction include fruit and vegetable juices, tea, the Mediterranean Diet, fish oils, and curcumin.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 06 10:13 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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2008 May 05 Monday
Sunrgi To Solve Photovoltaics Cost Problem?

A start-up company, Sunrgi, with a photovoltaics design based around focusing lenses and heat radiators claims that within 12 to 15 months they can get radically cheaper photovoltaics into mass production.

A new patents pending solar energy system will soon make it possible to produce electricity at a wholesale cost of 5 cents per kWh (kilowatt hour). This price is competitive with the wholesale cost of producing electricity using fossil fuels and a fraction of the current cost of solar energy.

XCPV (Xtreme Concentrated Photovoltaics), a system that concentrates the equivalent of more than 1,600 times the sun’s energy onto the world’s most efficient solar cells, was announced today by Sunrgi, a solar energy system designer and developer, at the National Energy Marketers Association’s 11th Annual Global Energy Forum in Washington, DC. The technology will enable power companies, businesses, and residents to produce electricity from solar energy at a lower cost than ever before.

“Solar Power at 5 cents per kWh would be a world-changing breakthrough,” said Craig Goodman, president, National Energy Marketers Association. “It would make solar generation of electricity as affordable as generation from coal, natural gas or other non-renewable sources, without requiring a subsidy.”

“In a little more than a year we were able to develop and successfully test XCPV,” said Robert S. (Bob) Block, co-founder and Sunrgi principal. “We expect the Sunrgi system to become available for both on- and off-grid power applications, worldwide, in twelve to fifteen months.”

What differentiates Sunrgi’s XCPV system from any other solar energy system includes: a proprietary, integrated low profile technology for concentrating sunlight; a proprietary technology and methodology for cooling solar cells; a low cost, modular system optimized for mass-production; less land area or “roof top” requirements than typical solar energy systems; a technology roadmap for continuous improvement; low-cost field installation; and, a custom-designed system for easy operation and maintenance.

Their device concentrates the sunlight by a factor of 1600. This allows them to use far less photovoltaic material. But it also requires excellent heat removal from the spots where the light gets concentrated. Since they use such small amounts of photovoltaics they can use highly efficient photovoltaics. So they plan to use Spectrolab (part of Boeing) PV material that is 37.5% efficient. They also track the sun during the day and so get less drop-off in power output in morning and afternoon.

Can they pull this off? Your guess is as good as mine.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 05 10:04 PM  Energy Solar
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Warren Buffett And Charlie Munger On Peak Oil

On a day when oil went over $120 per barrel you might wonder which direction production and prices are headed. Well, the richest man in the world (Warren Buffett or WB below) asked his long time business partner (Charlie Munger or CM below) where he sees oil production in 25 years. Charlie Munger sees oil production down in 25 years and Warren Buffett thinks a peak is possible in 5 to 10 years.

WB: Oil won’t run out - it doesn’t work this way. At some point the daily productive capacity will level off and then start declining gradually. There is the depletion aspect and the decline curves. We are producing 86m barrels per day or so, more than ever produced. We are closer, by my calculations, to almost our productive capacity, than we have ever been. I think our surplus capacity is less, and quite a bit less, than in past. Whatever that peak is, whether 5 or 10 yrs, the world will adjust, and we will think about it. Adjustments will cause demand to taper off. I don’t know how much oil is there, but there are lots of barrels of oil in place. We never recover total potential. We may have better engineering recovery in future. It is nothing like an on and off switch. You may still have enormous political considerations to get access to avail oil since it so important. There is nothing you can do over short period of time to wean world off oil.

CM: If we get another 200 yrs of growth dispersed over the world while population goes up, all oil coal and uranium will run out so you will have to use the sun. I think there will be some pain in this process. I think it is stupid to use up hydrocarbons of world so quickly. Stupid when there are few and limited alternatives. What should we have done? We should have brought all the oil over from Middle East and put it in our ground. Are we doing it now? No. Government policy is behind in rationality. If we have prosperous civilization, we must use the sun.

WB: Charlie, what is your over/under for oil production in 25 yrs?

CM: Oil in twenty five years, down.

I think that's a very easy call. Trying to call the next 5 years is harder because it is hard to guess how much the oil megaprojects will slip from their scheduled completion dates. Generally the big projects have been taking longer. We might already have peaked in conventional crude production. Or maybe a bunch of megaproject production start dates will line up and cause a new record in production.

Given where China is going with its oil demand (way way up) Buffett grasps what this means for prices.

WB: If this is true, that is big number. China is doing 10m cars this year, so down in 25ys is significant.

44 out of 1000 people in China own a car as compared to about 800 per 1000 in America (and some of us own multiple cars). China's car sales grew by 22% in 2007. China is going to bid up the price of oil so high that Americans will get a shrinking slice of the pie. American daily oil consumption might already have peaked.

We need good batteries to let us shift a substantial portion of all cars to electric power. I wonder whether Warren Buffett expects Burlington Northern Santa Fe (one of his investments) to electrify some of its rail lines once oil hits much higher prices points.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 05 07:54 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 May 04 Sunday
Revival Comes For Weather Modification

The Chinese are predictably undeterred by worries about weather engineering efforts.

The most extensive operations are taking place in China, however. Here, for example, weather-modification "authorities" use conventional military weaponry to bombard clouds with silver-iodide particles. Under the guidance of the China Meteorological Administration (CMA), local "weather changing" offices employ some 39,000 staff equipped with 7,113 anti-aircraft cannons, which, in 2006, were used to fire a million rounds of silver iodide into the atmosphere (with the country spending over $100m a year in the process). The Chinese state news agency claims that between 1999 and 2006, China produced 250 billion metric tonnes of artificial rain, though researchers take this with a pinch of salt.


The Chinese have gone public with their intention to stop drizzle ruining the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.

Think the world can be convinced to give up crop genetic engineering, human genetic engineering, weather modification, or continual construction of large numbers of coal electric plants? Not with the rise of China. The Chinese remind me of America in the 1950s.

Weather modification still finds prominent advocates in the United States as well.

New technologies let researchers follow atmospheric events as they happen, says Roelof Bruintjes of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, Colorado. "This really is a new era of weather modification."

"There have been big improvements in radar, satellites, and airborne instrumentation, and unmanned aerial vehicle technology," says Joe Golden of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, DC, US.

While Bruintjes favors weather modification he thinks China's methods for trying to do it are too crude and unscientific.

Bruintjes is skeptical of China's claims because they rely on the results of studies done in the 1960s and 70s before the complexity of Earth's weather was fully understood and there is little data to back-up claims of success.

"There is no evaluation, there is no scientific literature available that can substantiate their claims," he said.

Imagine what China will do once weather modification works well.

Bruintjes is trying to enhance rainfall in many parts of the world.

One of the world's leading experts on weather modification, Bruintjes has helped design cloud seeding and other weather modification programs on every continent except Antarctica. His work focuses primarily on attempts to enhance rainfall in arid and semi-arid regions of the world, including ongoing projects in Wyoming, Australia, Turkey, the Middle East, and West Africa. He has also consulted with Chinese experts about their programs in rainfall enhancement and prevention. In addition to evaluating various cloud seeding technologies, Bruintjes researches inadvertent weather modification, including the effects of smoke and pollution on clouds and rainfall.

People around the world are going to modify the weather. One can easily imagine conflicts between nations because a country that is more upstream causes water to come down on their territory leaving less water to rain down on a country that is more downstream.

A recent gathering of weather modification experts in Westminster Colorado called for a restart of research efforts to develop weather modification technologies.

It's high time the federal government fund research in modifying the weather to bring more rain to the thirsty West and to slow down deadly hurricanes, top scientists said Tuesday.

The brainpower is available, instrumentation is vastly improved, but the feds haven't funded weather-modification research since the mid-1990s, Joe Golden, a scientist specializing in atmospheric modification, said at an international symposium being held this week in Westminster.

The US Department of Homeland Security asked Joe Golden to gather together experts to discuss the idea of diverting hurricanes. Golden and his colleagues think research efforts should aim at diverting and weakening hurricanes.

The hurricane diversion argument seems compelling. Imagine that aircraft had seeded Hurricane Katrina before it approached the Louisiana coast. Tens of billions of dollars of damage might have been avoid.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 04 10:43 PM  Climate Engineering
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Alcohol Suppresses Brain Response To Fearful Faces

Alcohol makes us somewhat blind to the meaning of facial expressions.

Working with a dozen healthy participants who drink socially, research fellow Jodi Gilman, working with senior author Daniel Hommer, MD, at the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study activity in emotion-processing brain regions during alcohol exposure. Over two 45-minute periods, the study participants received either alcohol or a saline solution intravenously and were shown images of fearful facial expressions. (Previous studies have shown that expressions of fear signal a threatening situation and activate specific brain regions.)

The same group of participants received both alcohol and placebo, on two separate days.

Comparing brain activity, Gilman’s team found that when participants received the placebo infusion, fearful facial expressions spurred greater activity than neutral expressions in the amygdala, insula, and parahippocampal gyrus—brain regions involved in fear and avoidance—as well as in the brain’s visual system. However, these regions showed no increased brain activity when the participants were intoxicated.

In addition, alcohol activated striatal areas of the brain that are important components of the reward system. This confirms previous findings and supports the idea that activation of the brain’s reward system is a common feature of all drugs of abuse. Gilman’s team found that the level of striatal activation was associated with how intoxicated the participants reported feeling. These striatal responses help account for the stimulating and addictive properties of alcohol.

Does alcohol have a similar suppressive effect in reaction to a happy face? Or does it amplify our emotional response to happy smiling people?

A hobbled ability to detect threats can get one into trouble.

“The key finding of this study is that after alcohol exposure, threat-detecting brain circuits can’t tell the difference between a threatening and non-threatening social stimulus,” said Marina Wolf, PhD, at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, who was unaffiliated with the study. “At one end of the spectrum, less anxiety might enable us to approach a new person at a party. But at the other end of the spectrum, we may fail to avoid an argument or a fight. By showing that alcohol exerts this effect in normal volunteers by acting on specific brain circuits, these study results make it harder for someone to believe that risky decision-making after alcohol ‘doesn’t apply to me’,” Wolf said.

Do some people have minds that naturally fail to identify threatening or fearful or angry faces? Can one lack this ability yet still have the ability to identify happy faces or faces that communicate other emotional states? My guess is that some of these facial expression reading abilities vary separately from each other.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 04 11:42 AM  Brain Addiction
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2008 May 03 Saturday
10 Year Cooling Break From Global Warming Predicted

Many climate models show a steadily hotter century because of atmospheric carbon dioxide build-up. But Dr. Noel S. Keenlyside and colleagues at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany and at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg predict in a paper in Nature that global temperatures might stay flat or decline in the next decade.

One of the first attempts to look ahead a decade, using computer simulations and measurements of ocean temperatures, predicts a slight cooling of Europe and North America, probably related to shifting currents and patterns in the oceans.

The team that generated the forecast, whose members come from two German ocean and climate research centers, acknowledged that it was a preliminary effort. But in a short paper published in the May 1 issue of the journal Nature, they said their modeling method was able to reasonably replicate climate patterns in those regions in recent decades, providing some confidence in their prediction for the next one.

This model might not be correct. But suppose this model is correct. Then the climate models which predict warming due to CO2 emissions are inaccurate at least for the next decade. These models might be accurate in their longer term predictions. But we might not know that based on what happens in the next decade.

If Keenlyside is correct then we'll see warming in 15 to 20 years.

It may partly explain why temperatures rose in the early years of the last century before beginning to cool in the 1940s.

"One message from our study is that in the short term, you can see changes in the global mean temperature that you might not expect given the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)," said Noel Keenlyside from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University.

His group's projection diverges from other computer models only for about 15-20 years; after that, the curves come back together and temperatures rise.

On the bright side, in 15 to 20 years we'll have much better climate models and also better climate engineering technology.

Roger Pielke Jr. points to the basic unfalsifiability of current climate models. If a lack of warming doesn't falsify predictions then what does that say about how we should treat the predictions?

I am sure that this is an excellent paper by world class scientists. But when I look at the broader significance of the paper what I see is that there is in fact nothing that can be observed in the climate system that would be inconsistent with climate model predictions. If global cooling over the next few decades is consistent with model predictions, then so too is pretty much anything and everything under the sun.

This means that from a practical standpoint climate models are of no practical use beyond providing some intellectual authority in the promotional battle over global climate policy. I am sure that some model somewhere has foretold how the next 20 years will evolve (and please ask me in 20 years which one!). And if none get it right, it won't mean that any were actually wrong. If there is no future over the next few decades that models rule out, then anything is possible. And of course, no one needed a model to know that.

Global warming might well be a big real problem coming up on us. But science is about predicting behavior. If we can understand a system well enough in theory our model of that system ought to allow us to make accurate predictions about it. Well, climate models can't do that.

The development of climate models is a very worthwhile human endeavor. But we can't use climate models to decide what to do about global warming because those models are highly inaccurate and unverifiable.

Update: A Some months back a highly accomplished planetary scientist of my acquaintance (whose aversion to politicized science debates is strong enough that he doesn't want to be quoted by name unfortunately) explained to me that he sees science as the ability to predict. He thinks the sources of error remaining in existing climate models are so large that these models aren't predictive.

The models are going to get better. But unless you happen to have a Ph.D. in atmospheric physics (or, far better, a time machine) it is going to be hard to know when the models cross over into high accuracy. Even once the models get really good we won't know until some time has gone by so that we can see that they really predict. Even then their results will still need to be stated with qualifiers such as "assuming total solar radiation doesn't change much" unless we develop the ability to accurately forecast future output of the sun.

I see the climate change models as having problems similar to the Reagan era Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI) program when computer scientist David Parnas opined that there was no way to verify the correctness of the software that would control the anti-missile defense system. How to prove the correctness of the models? This is a very serious question. Verification and validation of software is hard. For climate models it is especially hard because the systems that the models seek to simulate are not sufficiently well understood, the systems have chaotic effects, and our computers do not have enough capacity. Plus, we can't know what correct outputs look like without using a time machine.

We end up needing to just decide that since CO2 causes more heat to be retained that higher CO2 means a substantial probability of warming which melts Antartica and Greenland ice and floods lots of land. We ought to do something to be on the safe side not because we can prove a future disaster but rather because it is just some unknown but probably substantial probability. That's a harder sell than the absolute certainty that you'll hear from the likes of Al Gore.

In a way the debate between elites in Europe and the United States on global warming is irrelevant. China has sailed past the United States in CO2 emissions and that gap is only going to grow larger in future years. The Chinese aren't going to restrain their CO2 emissions. They want economic growth. Even in Western Europe the voting publics have shown an aversion to severe sacrifice to cut back on CO2 emissions. 50 coal electric plants are coming on line in Europe in the next 5 years even as Germany maintains its commitment to phase out nuclear electric power.

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.

In the United States, fewer new coal plants are likely to begin operations, in part because it is becoming harder to get regulatory permits and in part because nuclear power remains an alternative.

Before you cry out that Euroes do far more than ugly polluting Americans (who are more opposed to coal pollution than are Europeans probably because Americans have higher living standards) keep in mind that European nations have still done far less than needed if we accept some of the more pessimistic IPCC forecasts and arguments about the resulting deleterious effects. Also, looks to me that they've reached the political limits of how much they'll sacrifice.

In a nutshell, people aren't going to sacrifice very much and the number of people who are consuming fossil fuels goes up every year and the average amount of fossil fuels consumed per person goes up every year. Asian industrialization swamps all other effects.

Since a lack of willingness to sacrifice and the difficulty in proving what CO2 build-up will do to temperatures I think we need to approach the problem differently. Admit there is a risk of warming and resulting risks of flooding, crop failures, and other problems. But also admit that humans aren't going to inflict major sacrifices on themselves to do much about it. The big surge in Prius sales is coming mostly from high oil prices, not due to concern about the Greenland ice mass. Though you can expect many Prius buyers to try to claim higher status due to their supposed environmental consciousness.

So what to do? Accelerate the development of technologies for getting energy from non-fossil fuels sources. Also, develop technologies for climate engineering.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 03 11:31 PM  Climate Trends
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Chronic Pain An Ugly Side Of Aging

Some argue that aging is a dignified and life-enriching process. But the accumulation of damage to the body exacts a terrible price in human suffering.

A novel study that attempts to paint the most accurate and detailed description yet of how Americans experience pain has found that a significant portion of the population -- 28 percent -- are in pain at any given moment and those with less education and lower income spend more of their time in pain. Those in pain are less likely to work or socialize with others and are more inclined to watch television than the pain-free.

The study, which appears in the May 3 issue of The Lancet, was prepared by Alan Krueger, a professor of economics at Princeton University, and Arthur Stone, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stony Brook University. The work is the first of its type, according to the authors, to quantify a "pain gap" in American society, with the "have-nots" suffering a disproportionate amount in relation to the "haves."

This focus on a "pain gap" distracts from the more basic problem: our bodies wear out as we age and the accumulated damage causes pain. Our limited capacity to regenerate our bodies means that many of us suffer as we age.

One problem is that manual laborers suffer more wear and tear on their bodies.

Workers in blue collar jobs reported higher occurrences and more severe pain than did those in white collar jobs. For blue collar workers, pain was lower when they were off work than when they were working. The 13 percent of people who reported a work-related disability experienced very high rates of pain, and accounted for 44 percent of the total amount of time that Americans spent in moderate to severe pain.

But keep in mind that 56% of those suffering moderate to severe pain did not get it as a result of a work-related injury. Some get injuries in sports, car accidents, and in other activities. Others get damaged by rheumatoid arthritis and other auto-immune disorders. Still others just get worn out joints and connective tissue from the aging process. The result is chronic pain and suffering. Shouldn't we want to develop regenerative therapies to reverse this decay and end the suffering that so many of us are otherwise destined for?

Once you get the painful injury the suffering lasts for decades.

Alarmingly, those in pain were likely to suffer over years, even decades. "The pain doesn't go away in many cases, when people stop working," Krueger said. Pain was higher and more common for older individuals, but the amount of pain reported remained relatively constant for individuals from their mid-40s to their mid-70s.

We need stem cell therapies, tissue engineering techniques, and gene therapies that will fix damaged tissue and eliminate the causes of chronic pain.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 03 10:37 PM  Aging Population Problems
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2008 May 02 Friday
Big Photovoltaic Price Drop Due To Large Silicon Supplies?

Government policies spurred a rapidly rising demand for photovoltaics and these policies caused a rise in market prices. But an article in Technology Review reports some photovoltaics industry analysts are predicting a large drop in PV costs owing to rapidly growing capacity for making silicon crystals. The end of polysilicon shortages could cause PV costs to drop in half.

"It takes about two or three years to add capacity," says Travis Bradford, an industry analyst for the Prometheus Institute. The shortage has been severe enough to drive up silicon prices to more than 10 times normal levels, to $450 a kilogram, adds Ted Sullivan, an analyst at Lux Research.

The added silicon production capacity is now starting to begin operations. While only 15,000 tons of silicon were available for use in solar cells in 2005, by 2010, this number could grow to 123,000 tons, Sullivan says. And that will allow existing and planned production of solar panels to ramp up, increasing supply. "What that means, practically, is that [solar] module prices are going to come down pretty dramatically in the next two or three years," Bradford says.

Last week I linked to a PV stock analyst claiming a big drop in polysilicon costs is coming real soon now. But I'm still left wondering: How far above market prices is the manufacturing cost of polysilicon?

The rise in PV prices in the last several years might finally reverse itself. We can hope so. We need price relief from rising oil and natural gas prices. That price relief can only come in the form of cheaper substitutes.

Update: Japanese PV maker Sharp claims a new thin film PV plant will create PV cells for half the current costs.

In 2007, Sharp started operations at its Toyama plant in Japan for the manufacture of silicon for solar cells and more recently, in February 2008, it announced a collaboration with a production equipment company to develop equipment for manufacturing thin-film solar cells, giving the company a foothold in everything from raw materials to devices across a range of technologies, including polycrystalline and thin-film. In 2005, Sharp began mass production of tandem thin-film solar cells, for instance.

Sharp adds that the end of the 2009 financial year (March 2010) will see the start of operations at its new thin-film solar cell plant in Sakai City, Osaka prefecture in Japan, which will have an annual capacity of about 1 GW, the cost of generating solar power will be about half current levels in 2010. This, says Sharp, will be equivalent to around ¥23/kWh (US¢22/kWh), which is close to the current cost of domestic electricity.

The solar PV market has gotten so big with so many players and technological approaches that substantial price declines seem likely just due to the number of competing teams.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 02 11:29 PM  Energy Solar
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2008 May 01 Thursday
US Congress Passes Legislation Against Genetic Discrimination

Genetic sequences contain information useful for judging people for health risks and potential productivity in different occupations. But the US Congress doesn't want employers or insurers to use the results of genetic tests.

A bill that would prohibit discrimination by health insurers and employers based on the information that people carry in their genes won final approval in Congress on Thursday by an overwhelming vote.

But here's one of the problems with this legislation: People will make decisions about their insurance levels based on genetic test results. So the insurers won't be able to discriminate. But the insurees will discriminate. The ones most likely to get sick will buy more insurance and the ones least likely to get sick will buy less.

The personal use of knowledge about health conditions already influences some people to take jobs which offer better health benefits. Greater knowledge of genetic risk for disease will motivate more higher risk people to apply for jobs at companies with the best health and medical benefits. But knowledge of genetic risks is less a problem for insurance received as a condition of employment. Better paid employees are going to continue to get health insurance as a fringe benefit. Individually purchased health insurance will be more influenced by personal knowledge of genetically based health risks.

Health costs aside, I think there are a lot of legitimate reasons for employers to use genetic profiles in selecting employees and in designing work conditions. For example, people who are less able to break down some toxin due to their liver enzyme genes should avoid work places where exposure to such a toxin is a substantial risk. The toxin might be perfectly safe for people with other variations on liver enzymes.

Another example: night work and internal body clocks. I'm willing to bet that some people will have genetic profiles that allow them to work all night with less stress and wear and tear. Employers ought to select night shift workers based on genetic profiles for body clocks and stress response genes.

We are all potential victims of genetic discrimination? I'm more worried about what my genes will do to me than what insurers or employers might do.

“People know we all have bad genes, and we are all potential victims of genetic discrimination,” said Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York, who first proposed the legislation. The measure passed the House on Thursday by a 414-to-1 vote, and the Senate by 95-to-0 a week earlier.

Instead of totally keeping DNA sequencing info private what I expect this legislation will do in the long run is shift the focus from hiding information that harms one's interests toward revealing information that helps one's interests.

If it turns out you have genes that give you some workplace advantage then you might want to find ways to indicate this information to potential employers. Here's an idea: How about a company that will take a genetic sample from you and sequence it for a fee. As part of the deal you have the option to release part or all of your genetic profile on the web as part of a job seeker site.

Why do this? Well, suppose you have a genetic advantage that makes it easier for you to work in really cold conditions (e.g. on an Alaska North Slope oil rig), really hot conditions, at high altitudes, underwater or at night. Suppose some genes make someone a better pilot. Wouldn't you rather fly with such genetically advantaged pilots at the controls? Or suppose you have genes that give you lots of endurance or ability to handle lots of interruptions. You'd want some way for employers to see your genetic advantages. Governments are going to have a hard time knowing whether some managers checked that web site, perhaps using an internet cafe for anonymity.

By Randall Parker 2008 May 01 06:05 PM  Bioethics Privacy
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