2008 June 30 Monday
US Oil Consumption Falls Back To 2002 Level

For most of the post-WWII era US oil consumption went up year after year. One deviation from that came in the early 1980s. An even longer lasting and probably permanent deviation from that trend is developing. Americans have traveled back in a sort of time machine to 2002 levels of oil usage.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration revised downward U.S. April oil demand by 863,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 19.77 million bpd -- 3.9 percent below year-ago levels. The revision, which showed April demand was the lowest for the month since April 2002, came even before gasoline prices surged to new records in June.

But on a per capita basis the reduction in oil usage is even larger since the US population grows about 1% per year. So has US oil usage per capita gone down 10% since 2002? Can someone check me on this?

Back in 1959 the United States used about 6 million barrels of oil per day. The US had a population of about 150.5 million in 1950 versus about 304.4 million at the time of this writing. Okay, with 2 times more people we would use almost 12 million barrels a day if we used oil at the same rate as in 1950. But we use about 20 million barrels a day. So once prices go high enough to cut US demand by 8 million barrels a day we will have traveled back in time to 1950 in terms of oil usage.

A 1950 level of oil usage will be easier in the future than it was in 1950 because we have much more efficient cars and other higher efficiency equipment. Plus, we have nuclear power plants, wind turbines, and other sources of non-fossil fuels energy. As we hit each point of our future journey into our oil consumption past we will make other gains in technology for fossil fuel replacements. Now, I do not expect those advances to come fast enough to prevent a decline in total per capita energy usage. But those other energy sources will at least allow us to maintain an industrial society.

Update: In the comments Donkatsu explains how far off our peak per capita oil consumption we've already fallen:

The data tell the story, from 1998, oil use per capita in the US has risen steadily from 25.06 barrels per person to a recent peak of 25.9 bbl/capita in 2004. In 2005 per capita consumption fell by about 0.6%, falling further for the full years 2006 and 2007 to 97% of the 2004 peak. The 2008 levels, if maintained for the entire year, would put per capita oil consumption at about 91.6% of the 2004 peak.

If you find yourself driving less, driving a smaller car, flying less, and otherwise using less energy since 2004 it is not surprising.

Update II: Vehicle traffic is down on New York City bridges and tunnels.

In May, with gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, traffic at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bridges and tunnels dropped 4.7 percent compared with the same month the previous year.

Preliminary data for June shows a similar decrease in traffic, and officials say the change is largely because of higher prices at the pump.

But public transit ridership is up.

Weekday subway ridership was up 6.5 percent in April, compared with the same month a year ago. April ridership increased 5.5 percent on the Long Island Rail Road, 4.3 percent on the Metro-North Railroad and almost 9 percent on PATH trains between Manhattan and New Jersey. Use of the subways and rail lines also increased in May, compared with the previous year, but in most cases by smaller amounts. New Jersey Transit ridership, including bus, commuter rail and light rail, was up about 4.6 percent in April and May combined.

When gasoline hits $6 per gallon the trains and buses will be full.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 30 11:02 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 June 29 Sunday
Research On Ritalin Mechanism Of Action

Some people are tempted to use Ritalin (Methylphenidate) in order to boost their cognitive performance. But will it burn out your brain the way methamphetamine can? Ritalin does not appear to work as a stimulant.

MADISON - Stimulant medications such as Ritalin have been prescribed for decades to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and their popularity as "cognition enhancers" has recently surged among the healthy, as well.

What's now starting to catch up is knowledge of what these drugs actually do in the brain. In a paper publishing online this week in Biological Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology researchers David Devilbiss and Craig Berridge report that Ritalin fine-tunes the functioning of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) - a brain region involved in attention, decision-making and impulse control - while having few effects outside it.

Because of the potential for addiction and abuse, controversy has swirled for years around the use of stimulants to treat ADHD, especially in children. By helping pinpoint Ritalin's action in the brain, the study should give drug developers a better road map to follow as they search for safer alternatives.

At the same time, the results support the idea that today's ADHD drugs may be safer than people think, says Berridge. Mounting behavioral and neurochemical evidence suggests that clinically relevant doses of Ritalin primarily target the PFC, without affecting brain centers linked to over-arousal and addiction. In other words, Ritalin at low doses doesn't appear to act like a stimulant at all.

Emphasis on the "at low doses". At higher doses the picture is different.

Ritalin at lower doses appears to cause the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to be more sensitive to signals coming in from the hippocampus.

When they listened to individual PFC neurons, the scientists found that while cognition-enhancing doses of Ritalin had little effect on spontaneous activity, the neurons' sensitivity to signals coming from the hippocampus increased dramatically. Under higher, stimulatory doses, on the other hand, PFC neurons stopped responding to incoming information. "This suggests that the therapeutic effects of Ritalin likely stem from this fine-tuning of PFC sensitivity," says Berridge. "You're improving the ability of these neurons to respond to behaviorally relevant signals, and that translates into better cognition, attention and working memory." Higher doses associated with drug abuse and cognitive impairment, in contrast, impair functioning of the PFC.

Ritalin may work by reducing the number of things the mind pays attention to. This lets you more productively do mental processing on what actually gets the mind's focus.

More intriguing still were the results that came from tuning into the entire chorus of neurons at once. When groups of neurons were already "singing" together strongly, Ritalin reinforced this coordinated activity. At the same time, the drug weakened activity that wasn't well coordinated to begin with. All of this suggests that Ritalin strengthens dominant and important signals within the PFC, while lessening weaker signals that may act as distractors, says Berridge.

But be careful. Ritalin has side effects.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 29 11:02 PM  Brain Enhancement
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Many Commuters Shift To Motorcycles And Scooters

Some people who can't afford gasoline for commutes by car are shifting to motorcycles.

"As soon as [gas] hit about $3.50, it was no longer really affordable," said Watson, 27, who recently bought a 2002 Kawasaki KLR650 for $2,600, took a rider training course and started commuting via motorcycle two weeks ago. He gets to work in as little as 15 minutes, compared with the hour it could take in his 17-miles-per-gallon Jeep Liberty, thanks to the HOV lanes on Interstate 395. His bike gets about 50 mpg.

"I love it," Watson said.

Motorcycles cost less to buy and get higher fuel efficiency than almost all cars.

Motorcycles make simple economic sense, riders and advocates say. A new, stripped-down motorcycle cost an average of $8,290 in 2007, and motorcycles typically get 40 to 60 mpg, said Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Heyser Cycle, a dealer in Laurel Maryland, lists the scooters Yamaha Zuma at 123 mpg and the Yamaha Vino at 89 mpg. They list the motorcycles Honda CBR 600RR at 45 mpg and the Kawasaki Vulcan also at 45 mpg. These are disappointing numbers for the motorcycles.

The thought that strikes me about scooters and motorcycles: People who are driving longer distances are going to tend to do so on highways and will lean toward motorcycles for commuting. So the scooters probably get driven shorter distances and so their higher fuel efficiency has less impact since people who drive shorter distances do not use as much fuel anyway.

Why aren't motorcycle fuel efficiency numbers higher? Do their shapes generate more aerodynamic drag? Or are they mechanically less optimized than a car?

The Missouri Highway Patrol finds Harley ElectraGlides get about 34 mpg in the city. Not so impressive unless they are compared to a Ford Crown Vic.

The improved fuel economy of the bikes -- they get about 34 mpg in the city, compared to 16 mpg averaged in the patrol's Crown Victorias -- is a side benefit, he said. "That was not the initial reason (for the project) ... but it has turned out to be a fuel-saving venture for us."

Another article puts these Harleys at 50 mpg on the highway. Okay, but a Prius can get 45 mpg on the highway and the 2009 Prius might go 12% further per gallon by one measure. So that would put it at least equal to the Harley in fuel efficiency on the highway and far better in the city.

In our high gasoline price environment and rising unemployment sales are down for Harley.

Harley-Davidson, which sells only heavyweights (651-cc engines and larger), saw its U.S. sales fall 6.2 percent last year, its first decline since 1986. Industrywide, heavyweight bikes were off 5 percent in 2007.

Harley's U.S. sales were down nearly 13 percent in the first quarter of 2008, while industry sales fell 11 percent, to 173,922. For heavyweight bikes across the board, that decline is 14 percent. In response, Harley announced it would cut about 25,000 bikes, or 7-8 percent, from production plans and 730 employees, 10 percent of its North American workforce.

But with the economy down and people tight with their money sales are up for much cheaper and more fuel efficient scooters.

Scooter sales, on the other hand, are climbing. The industry council says motorscooters jumped 24 percent in the first quarter, though it doesn't release a number. Scooter sales have doubled since 2004 to 131,000 last year, accounting for 12 percent of industry sales.

Vespa's sales are up the most and Vespa owners I know assure me that the Vespa is the coolest scooter out there.

Kevin Foley of Yamaha's scooter division said that sales are up 65 percent over last year, while Vespa's sales shop up a record-setting 106 percent. The scooter industry as a whole climbed 25 percent in the last quarter. Honda scooters sales are up 30 percent over last year -- which were already up 20 percent from 2006.

A Yamaha scooter with an engine big enough for freeway speeds has fuel efficiency no better than a Prius.

Yamaha has released one new scooter for 2009. The Tmax has a 4 gallon tank that gets about 47 mpg. The nearly 500cc engine makes it the biggest scooter Yamaha makes.

Update: What I wonder: Will rising oil prices reduce road fatalities by reducing miles driven and by reducing the SUV threat to smaller cars? Or will so many people shift to more dangerous motorcycles and scooters that net fatalities actually go up? In any event, a mile not driven is a mile where you won't get in an accident.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 29 07:23 PM  Energy Transportation
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2008 June 28 Saturday
Submerged Trees Could Lower Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Some trees naturally stay submerged for thousands of years tying up carbon that would otherwise return to the atmosphere.

COLUMBIA, Mo. —The battle to reduce carbon emissions is at the heart of many eco-friendly efforts, and researchers from the University of Missouri have discovered that nature has been lending a hand. Researchers at the Missouri Tree Ring Laboratory in the Department of Forestry discovered that trees submerged in freshwater aquatic systems store carbon for thousands of years, a significantly longer period of time than trees that fall in a forest, thus keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.

“If a tree is submerged in water, its carbon will be stored for an average of 2,000 years,” said Richard Guyette, director of the MU Tree Ring Lab and research associate professor of forestry in the School of Natural Resources in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “If a tree falls in a forest, that number is reduced to an average of 20 years, and in firewood, the carbon is only stored for one year.”

We could store trees underwater in ways that could last tens of thousands of years if we wanted to put some thought in how to do it.

Submerged oak trees in Missouri are as old at 14,000 years.

The team studied trees in northern Missouri, a geographically unique area with a high level of riparian forests (forests that have natural water flowing through them). They discovered submerged oak trees that were as old as 14,000 years, potentially some of the oldest discovered in the world. This carbon storage process is not just ancient; it continues even today as additional trees become submerged, according to Guyette.

Suppose we systematically started sinking trees at the bottom of the Mississippi River with weights. One cool advantage of this idea: If (or rather when) we start to slip into another ice age we could bring those trees back up to the surface, let them dry out, and then burn them to release the CO2 and slow the cooling.

Alternatively, could we come up with a coating for trees that would last thousands of years? Or just use trees to fill in a massive coal mine dig with a bottom coating that would hold water and then cover over it with a material that would keep out air? Maybe a solid salt layer?

Update: Little Liberia illustrates the huge amount of CO2 tied up in trees.

Liberia's greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 250,000 times lower than those of the US, yet its remaining forests store approximately four billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to the amount emitted by 57 million cars over 10 years.


However, the amount of tropical forest our planet loses each year is one-and-a-half times the size of Liberia, releasing almost 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions - more than all the world's cars, trucks and planes combined.

If all the tropical forests torn down to make room for crops to make ecologically friendly (snicker) biomass energy were submerged then the initial tree destruction wouldn't cause a large CO2 level rise as it does now.

But trees only cool the planet if they are planted in the tropics since trees are darker and absorb more sunlight.

The further you move from the equator, though, these gains are eroded; and the team's modelling predicts that planting more trees in mid- and high-latitude locations could lead to a net warming of a few degrees by the year 2100.

"The darkening of the surface by new forest canopies in the high-latitude boreal regions allows absorption of more sunlight that helps to warm the surface," Dr Bala said.

But the long run effect of planting a series of tree crops and then submerging them would eventually outweigh the warming effect of the darker color of trees. Also, if existing forests get cut down, their trees submerged, and then new trees planted those new trees wouldn't be any darker than the trees they replaced.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 28 06:13 PM  Climate Engineering
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2008 June 27 Friday
Implanted Devices Tells Nerve Your Stomach Is Full

Need a vagal nerve blocking device to help you lose weight?

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- A new implantable medical device, developed in collaboration with Mayo Clinic researchers, shows promise as a reversible and less extreme alternative to existing bariatric surgeries, according to findings published in the current issue of the journal Surgery.

Laparoscopic surgery places electrodes into the abdomen. The control unit is under the skin. This treatment is much more reversible than gastric bypass. People who had the therapy done lost weight.

In a six-month open label trial involving three medical centers in Australia, Mexico and Norway, the 31 obese participants who received the vagal nerve blocking device, also called VBLOCTM vagal blocking therapy, lost an average of nearly 15 percent of their excess weight. A quarter of the participants lost more than 25 percent, and three patients lost more than 30 percent.

15% of one's excess weight doesn't sound like so much. But without knowing the absolute amount of weight loss it is hard to judge. Also, will the weight loss continue?

The interesting thing about this approach is that it amounts to playing games to fool one's nervous system.

Michael Camilleri, M.D., is a gastroenterologist who helped design the study and one of the Mayo Clinic researchers whose previous work and know-how contributed to development of the device in collaboration with EnteroMedics, Inc. Dr. Camilleri says the goal is to find a less drastic alternative to bariatric surgery that will still yield significant weight loss. Bariatric surgery techniques include "banding" -- placement of a band around the top part of the stomach to reduce its capacity -- or bypass procedures which reroute food and remove part of the stomach.

"For this study, we wanted to get an initial assessment of whether blocking the vagus nerve electrically could cause obese patients to feel full after a normal-sized meal," Dr. Camilleri explains. "Patients were not put on any restricted diets or given counseling that typically accompanies gastric banding or bypass. We wanted to determine how much weight loss could be attributed to the device alone."

Dr. Camilleri says VBLOC therapy is similar to a heart pacemaker, but instead of stimulating a normal, regular heartbeat, it uses high-frequency electricity to block the nerve impulses between the brain and the stomach and pancreas. A pacemaker continuously monitors the heart and regulates its beating. But the patient flips a switch to activate the VBLOC device when the system is worn during the daytime hours so that the blocking signal can influence how the stomach functions and food is digested following a meal.

With conventional stomach bypass some of the weight loss comes from a reduction in the level of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Does this VBLOC therapy reduce the amount of ghrelin in the bloodstream? If so, does it reduce ghrelin as much as bypass surgery does? A method short of surgery that reduced the amount of ghrelin in the bloodstream would offer a lot of advantages in terms of avoided sometimes deadly complications from surgery and also avoided costs of surgery and recovery.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 27 09:01 PM  Brain Appetite
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2008 June 26 Thursday
Nanomaterials Reduce Energy Needed To Boil Water

It is happening down at the nanoscale.

Troy, N.Y. — Whoever penned the old adage “a watched pot never boils” surely never tried to heat up water in a pot lined with copper nanorods.

A new study from researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute shows that by adding an invisible layer of the nanomaterials to the bottom of a metal vessel, an order of magnitude less energy is required to bring water to boil. This increase in efficiency could have a big impact on cooling computer chips, improving heat transfer systems, and reducing costs for industrial boiling applications.

This would be useful for camping equipment where cooking fuel can be in short supply.

The researchers weren't trying for this valuable result. So much for central planning.

“Like so many other nanotechnology and nanomaterials breakthroughs, our discovery was completely unexpected,” said Nikhil A. Koratkar, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer, who led the project. “The increased boiling efficiency seems to be the result of an interesting interplay between the nanoscale and microscale surfaces of the treated metal. The potential applications for this discovery are vast and exciting, and we’re eager to continue our investigations into this phenomenon.”

30 times more bubble action. Sounds like an advertisement for a bathroom cleaner.

Koratkar and his team found that by depositing a layer of copper nanorods on the surface of a copper vessel, the nanoscale pockets of air trapped within the forest of nanorods “feed” nanobubbles into the microscale cavities of the vessel surface and help to prevent them from getting flooded with water. This synergistic coupling effect promotes robust boiling and stable bubble nucleation, with large numbers of tiny, frequently occurring bubbles.

“By themselves, the nanoscale and microscale textures are not able to facilitate good boiling, as the nanoscale pockets are simply too small and the microscale cavities are quickly flooded by water and therefore single-use,” Koratkar said. “But working together, the multiscale effect allows for significantly improved boiling. We observed a 30-fold increase in active bubble nucleation site density — a fancy term for the number of bubbles created — on the surface treated with copper nanotubes, over the nontreated surface.”

Does this bubbling cause a pot to absorb external heat more rapidly? Would it reduce heat loss from convection of air? I would expect the bubbles would carry away heat more rapidly so that more heat would get captured from a cooking flame.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 26 10:37 PM  Nanotech Materials
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Big Genetic Influence Seen Over Political Activity

Just forget about free will. If you are politically active you are just following the dictates of your genes.

Washington, DC—A groundbreaking new study finds that genes significantly affect variation in voter turnout, shedding new light on the reasons why people vote and participate in the political system.

The research, conducted by political scientists James H. Fowler, Christopher T. Dawes (of UC San Diego) and psychologist Laura A. Baker (of University of Southern California), appears in the May issue of the American Political Science Review, a journal of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The article is available online at: www.apsanet.org/imgtest/APSRMay08Fowler_etal.pdf.

“Although we are not the first to suggest a link between genes and political participation,” note the authors, “this study is the first attempt to test the idea empirically.”  They do so by conducting three tests of the claim that part of the variation in political participation can be attributed to genetic factors.  The results suggest that individual genetic differences make up a large and significant portion of the variation in political participation, even after taking socialization and other environmental factors into account. They also suggest that, contrary to decades of conventional wisdom, family upbringing may have little or no effect on children’s future participatory behavior.

Relax, no need to teach the kids civic values. They either inherited the right genes or not.

Think you choose to vote? If so, your genes sure have you fooled.

In conducting their study, the authors examine the turnout patterns of identical and non-identical twins—including 396 twins in Los Angeles County and 806 twins in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.  Their findings suggest that 53% of the variation in turnout can be accounted for by genetic effects in the former, with similar outcomes in the latter.

Moreover, genetic-based differences extend to a broad class of acts of political participation, including donating to a campaign, contacting an official, running for office, and attending a rally.  According to Fowler, “we expected to find that genes played some role in political behavior, but we were quite surprised by the size of the effect and how widely it applies to all kinds of participation.”

Are people who have genes that cause them to vote reproducing faster or slower than people who do not carry these genes? Which group is winning the Darwinian struggle? Are people who vote more or less likely to make the babies?

By Randall Parker 2008 June 26 10:27 PM  Brain Society
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Test Tube Babies 1% Of American Births In 2005

In Vitro Fertilization accounts for at least 1% of births in the United States of America.

June 20, 2008 -- One in 100 U.S. babies was conceived in a test tube -- and half these babies were twins, triplets, or higher multiple births, the CDC reports.

The CDC's most recent data on in vitro fertilization or IVF covers the year 2005. The data come from 422 of the 475 U.S. medical centers that provide various forms of assisted reproduction technology to people with fertility problems.

The trend toward greater use of IVF is driven in part by women delaying attempts to make babies until they develop their careers and achieve more financial security. But the development of better reproductive technologies is also making IVF a more attractive option.

My expectation is that improvements in IVF techniques will combine with genetic testing to make IVF highly advantageous over sexual intercourse for starting pregnancies. First off, improvements in IVF will lower costs, lower risks, and increase odds of success. Second, genetic testing will allow IVF users to choose genetic characteristics for their offspring. Once we know a great deal about the functional significance of tens and hundreds of thousands of genetic variations many will elect to use IVF combined with pre-implantation genetic testing to choose embryos that contain combinations of genetic features that people want for their children.

I expect IVF popularity to skyrocket in the next 30 years as IVF gives people a big edge in making their babies, smarter, healthier, more attractive, better behaved, and otherwise having more of the attributes that parents want their kids to have.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 26 08:02 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2008 June 25 Wednesday
Exurbs Fall Out Of Favor Due To High Fuel Costs

People with longer commutes from outer suburbs get more heavily hit when gasoline prices rise. High oil prices impact housing prices of outer suburbs more than in towns near urban cores.

In Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis, homes beyond the urban core have been falling in value faster than those within, according to an analysis by Moody’s Economy.com.

In Denver, housing prices in the urban core rose steadily from 2003 until late last year compared with previous years, before dipping nearly 5 percent in the last three months of last year, according to Economy.com. But house prices in the suburbs began falling earlier, in the middle of 2006, and then accelerated, dropping by 7 percent during the last three months of the year from a year earlier.

Of course, if you have the ability to telecommute then wait a few more years for even better deals on big houses on the exurban fringe. Though if you live in an area with extremes in temperatures the telecommuting won't let you escape the cost of heating and cooling. Still, that too will drive down the prices of houses. Bone up on ground sink heat pumps, types of insulation, and other ways to cut heating and air conditioning costs and you might find aways to make that country mansion affordable.

People who do not have to commute by car have experienced less of a hit from higher oil prices. Suburbanites have less money to spend on everything else when gasoline prices rise. Everything else includes housing.

Basic household arithmetic appears to be furthering the trend: In 2003, the average suburban household spent $1,422 a year on gasoline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By April of this year — when gas prices were about $3.60 a gallon— the same household was spending $3,196 a year, more than doubling consumption in dollar terms in less than five years.

I know people whose gasoline costs have gone up by four to five thousand dollars per year in the last decade. That they can manage to drive 60 or 70 or more miles each way in their commutes just amazes me. Their options for cutting their gasoline bills in half are pretty limited. For someone who is already getting 20 mpg only a couple of hybrids (the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid) will at least double the mpg and cut their bills in half. Curiously, the Honda Civic CNG will cut costs more than the hybrids since natural gas is so cheap compared to gasoline. But a shorter range means very frequent fill-ups for high mileage drivers.

A lot fewer can move closer to work than want to do so. The high oil prices that spur people to move also reduce the value of their dwellings and so make it harder for them to buy something closer to work.

But moving isn't necessarily the right answer, especially now. The outlying communities where commuting costs are hitting hardest are also experiencing a larger decline in real estate values. Closer-in communities have fared better in the slump. For those looking to relocate, that would mean less money for the home they're selling and more money for the one they would buy.

Close-in communities also often have higher property taxes, and the act of moving is an enormous and expensive undertaking.

As a result, the adjustments in residence addresses will come slowly. Still, people do move. In the United States about 40 million people move per year according to the US Census Bureau. That's over 13% of the population.

Other options for reducing energy usage in order to cut costs can be done much more rapidly. People are cutting way back on discretionary travel and the tourist industry is going to take big hits as a result.

The chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Association says the airlines' moves are putting thousands of regional jobs and billions of dollars of investment at risk. Caribbean markets are especially susceptible to the cuts, he says, because struggling American Airlines handles a majority of traffic into the region. American recently announced that it's cutting its daily flights at its San Juan hub from 93 to 51 and will no longer serve Santo Domingo, Antigua, St Maarten, Aruba, or Samana from San Juan.

We can change how much we use cars faster than we can change the fuel efficiency of the cars in existence. We can drive less in many ways. We can move closer to work or choose a job closer to home. We can try go get permission to work from home at least part of the time or work longer hours fewer days of the week as a way to reduce distance driven to and from work. We can also car pool, ride in commuter vans, take mass transit such as buses or trains, or walk or bicycle or buy a scooter. We can also reduce optional driving and try to stop at more places on each errand run to reduce the number of errand trips we take.

What I wonder: Will employers do some of the adjusting for higher commuting costs by moving offices closer to the exurbs? Does it really make sense to move everyone closer to urban cores? Do all those jobs need to get concentrated in dense places? Or can businesses move at least some of their operations to office buildings closer to where people live?

What I also wonder: How fast will car fuel efficiency rise? If a Prius can get 45 mpg highway then why can't a subcompact hybrid get 55 or 60 mpg? Or why can't a 3 cylinder subcompact with direct injection on each cylinder get 45 to 50 mpg? Do safety standards preclude this in the United States due to weight needed to meet the safety standards? We used to have subcompact cars that fuel efficient back in the 80s and early 90s.

My advice: Get ahead of the changes driven by high fuel costs. Make decisions and make adjustments before you have to. Reduce your risks from high oil costs.

Update: The outer counties around Washington DC also saw a much larger decline in prices than the areas closer to DC.

The analysis found that the steepest declines in home sale prices, between April 2007 and April 2008, occurred in the outer suburban ring, defined as Loudoun, Prince William and Frederick counties. The average price there dropped by $110,900, or 25 percent. The inner ring, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's, had a decline of 3.2 percent. The core, defined as the District, Arlington County and Alexandria, experienced an increase of 3.4 percent.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 25 09:59 PM  Energy Lifestyle
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2008 June 24 Tuesday
Vitamin D Linked To Lower Mortality Risk

Older folks with more vitamin D in their blood die off at a slower rate.

Individuals with lower blood levels of vitamin D appear to have an increased risk of death overall and from cardiovascular causes, according to a report in the June 23 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

A recent consensus panel estimated that about 50 percent to 60 percent of older individuals in North America and the rest of the world do not have satisfactory vitamin D status, and the situation is similar for younger individuals, according to background information in the article. Blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D, a measure of blood vitamin D levels, lower than 20 to 30 nanograms per milliliter have been associated with falls, fractures, cancer, immune dysfunction, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. These effects are thought to be mediated by the compound 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D, which is produced by the body and also converted from 25-hydroxyvitamin D.

Harald Dobnig, M.D., of Medical University of Graz, Austria, and colleagues studied 25-hydroxyvitamin D and 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D levels in 3,258 consecutive patients (average age 62 years) who were scheduled for coronary angiography testing at a single medical center between 1997 and 2000.

During about 7.7 years of follow-up, 737 (22.6 percent) of participants died, including 463 (62.8 percent) who died of cardiovascular causes. Death rates from any cause and from cardiovascular causes were higher among individuals in the lower one-half of 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and the lowest one-fourth of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D levels. These associations remained when the researchers accounted for other factors, including coronary artery disease, physical activity level and co-occurring diseases.

Low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels also were correlated with markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein, as well as signs of oxidative (oxygen-related) damage to cells, the authors note.

"Apart from the proved effects that vitamin D has on bone metabolism and neuromuscular function, appropriate serum levels (that may also be higher than in the present investigation) are associated with a decrease in mortality," they conclude. "Although not proved, it seems possible that at least part of this effect may be due to lowering of a risk profile promoting atherosclerosis [narrowing of the arteries] and preventing cardiovascular end points."

"Based on the findings of this study, a serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 20 nanograms per milliliter or higher may be advised for maintaining general health."

Lower vitamin D is associated with a substantially higher risk of mortality.

While cross-sectional studies have linked vitamin D to cardiovascular disease, these findings are the first to show elevated mortality, they noted.

Notably, even vitamin D insufficiency increased mortality risk 33% to 54%, so Dr. Dobnig's group recommended a serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 20 ng/mL or higher for maintaining general health.

Most older folks in Europe have low vitamin D levels.

Dobnig et al say that these results show that a low 25-hydroxyvitamin-D level can be considered a strong risk indicator for all-cause mortality in women and in men.

They note that while the percentage of patients with low 25-hydroxyvitamin-D values in this study may seem unexpectedly high, with roughly two-thirds of those included having levels below 20 ng/mL, they point out that the mean value of 17.3 ng/mL compares well with values reported from other large trials performed in middle European countries such as France, Italy, and Germany.

This study by itself does not prove the direction of causality. For example, people who get more exercise outside will get more vitamin D from the sun shining on them. But they will also get more exercise. Also, people who eat fish will get more vitamin D in their diet. But they'll also get heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids. But this study fits with a larger pattern in studies of vitamin D and health and so I think it likely that vitamin D is providing some benefit. But if you get the vitamin D by exercising outside and eating salmon you won't have to worry which factor is delivering the benefit.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 24 09:20 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Facial Fat Compartments Better Mapped For Plastic Surgery

A study on cheek fat compartments helps in the development of therapies to restore their volume as we age.

DALLAS — June 24, 2008 — Rejuvenating newly identified fat compartments in the facial cheeks can help reduce the hollowed look of the face as it ages, according to new research by plastic surgeons at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Researchers used special dyes to identify and map four cheek-fat compartments hidden deep beneath the skin. When these compartments are restored using fat, tissue fillers or artificial implants, the result is a more youthful and less hollow look to the overall face, according to Dr. Joel Pessa, assistant professor of plastic surgery.

Restoring these compartments also improves volume loss under the eyes, helps eliminate lines around the nose and mouth and gives more curve to the upper lip, all of which restore a more youthful appearance to the face, Dr. Pessa said.

I continue to wonder why facial fat shrinks with age while fat in other parts of the body tends to grow in size. I also wonder where plastic surgeons take fat from in order to fill in the face. If they take the fat from the stomach is there a harm to health for the same reason that a fat stomach correlates with cardiovascular and other health risks more than fat on the hips?

Does Angelina Jolie still have a natural face? Or has she had facial fat implants?

“This research breaks new ground by identifying the boundaries of specific fat compartments that are key to facial rejuvenation involving the cheeks, and as a consequence, the overall look of the face,” said Dr. Pessa, a co-author of the study, which appears in the June issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. “Cheeks are vital to what we consider beautiful — from chubby-cheeked infants to Hollywood stars like Angelina Jolie.”

Lots of people get fat injections but far more get hyaluranoic acid injections (which last for a much shorter period of time).

Plastic surgeons performed nearly 8,000 cheek implants in 2007, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. In addition, nearly 47,000 fat injections and 1.1 million injections with hyaluronic acid fillers were performed last year.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 24 09:14 PM  Aging Appearances
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2008 June 23 Monday
GM Volt Pluggable Hybrid To Start At Low Production Volumes

The Detroit Free Press has gotten the word from GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz that the Chevy Volt pluggable hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that can go 40 miles on electric power will start up at low production volumes.

General Motors Corp. aims to manufacture 10,000 plug-in electric Chevrolet Volts in 2011, the vehicle's first full year of production, and 60,000 the following year, Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told the Free Press in an e-mail Thursday.

So thru the end of 2012 only 70,000 will be on the road. Do not expect these cars to save you from $200 per barrel gasoline if the price of oil goes that high in the next 5 years.

GM will not make a profit on Volt sales.

Lutz said the first-generation Volt will retail for about $40,000 and generate no profit for GM. The company hopes to make money as it rolls out later versions of the vehicle and other plug-in models.

Tougher environmental and fuel-economy regulations make electric vehicles "the only path to salvation," Lutz said. These government mandates could also help keep the momentum if oil prices fall, he said.

Assuming all that, Lutz said, by 2020 or 2025 between a quarter and half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. will be electric or hydrogen-powered.

That's a quarter of all new vehicles, not a quarter of all vehicles on the road. But it could happen quicker if battery prices fall fast enough. Wish I had insight on that one.

GM wants a $7k tax credit for buyers of the Volt.

General Motors is lobbying for a $7,000 tax credit for buyers of the $30,000 $40,000 2011 Chevy Volt — more than double that originally offered for Prius buyers.

GM argues that the battery in the Volt is at least twice the capacity of the one in the Prius (actually well more than double), saves that much more oil, and so deserves a bigger subsidy. Gotta say, a bigger tax credit for the Volt makes sense for another reason (and someone tell GM's lobbyists): The tax credit for a Prius buyer subsidizes Nickel Metal Hydride batteries that are a technological dead-end. Whereas GM will use some sort of lithium battery (maybe the A123Systems lithium nanophosphate batteries) which is the future of car batteries according to many experts. Better to subsidize the future than the past. GM is working on the future with this Volt.

My take on all this: People will have to reduce their oil demand by driving smaller cars and conventional hybrids and by reducing the number of miles driven. In the next 5 years few will be able to reduce their gasoline consumption by plugging their car into a wall socket.

My question: How high do gasoline prices have to go to deliver a large enough shock to cause a rapid decline in demand? I just did a post where I asked and most responders in the first day basically said they aren't changing very much. Basically, without explicitly saying so they are insisting on $5, $6 gasoline before they make substantial changes. Okay, so we are going to get $5, $6 gasoline. Your choice. So no complaints please.

Update: It is perhaps too early to judge how much consumption will drop due to current prices. SUV sales are tanking in the last 2 months. Also, As we head into the summer driving period gasoline consumption has actually dropped for 8 weeks in a row.

Record gasoline prices are causing consumers to cut back on fuel purchases. On June 17, MasterCard Inc. said U.S. gasoline demand fell 3.2 percent from a year ago, according to its weekly SpendingPulse report.

Consumers purchased an average 9.305 million barrels of gasoline a day in the week ended June 13, down from 9.614 million a year earlier.

Given that Gasoline consumption rose 3% per year from 1985 to 2004 American drivers have given back 2 years of that growth in the last year and most of that in the last few months. At least into April gasoline consumption hadn't fallen by much. But some sort of tipping point has been reached. At least in the United States I expect to see a continued decline in fuel consumption. But in China, India, and other developing countries demand will probably continue to rise as buying power increases.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 23 08:17 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2008 June 22 Sunday
How Are You Adapting To High Oil Prices?

In a post on The Oil Drum entitled Have we passed "Peak Travel"? a commenter named WNC Observer made note of a development in how big recreational vehicles are getting used.

RR & Airdale: I'll tell you where all the RVs have gone - they have been parked at RV campgrounds. People pay the campgrounds a small fee to park their RVs there year round, then they drive up in a more fuel efficient car to vacation there. The RV becomes inexpensive "home base" lodging, and they can tour the area during the day in their car.

That's an interesting observation. It leads me to a question for all of you: What adaptations to high energy prices do you see happening around you? I see some people getting Vespas. Even former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bought a Vespa LXV 150. I also see a few more people walking to work and more bicycling to work as well.

Watching autotrader.com I've seen big increases in the prices of compact cars and declines in the prices of SUVs. Obviously people are bidding up the prices of smaller and more fuel efficient cars.

So what changes do you see around you? What have you done to adapt to higher oil prices? What ideas have you seriously entertained and what do you plan to do in the future as a result of high oil and gasoline prices?

Update: About 20 hours after I wrote this post the comments I've gotten so far suggest that prices will have to go much higher to put a significant dent in gasoline consumption. I suspect my average reader is smarter and more affluent than the average American. So they are more able to pay the higher prices. But so far most people are doing little to adjust and planning little more to cut their liquid fuel consumption. Part of the decline in gasoline consumption is driven by the economic downturn decreasing income since lower income reduces gasoline consumption:

DOE economists estimate that a 1% decline in personal income results in a 0.5% drop in gasoline demand.
By Randall Parker 2008 June 22 08:33 PM  Energy Conservation
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Fewer Bone Breaks With Calcium Supplementation

Since most of us do not drink milk we should consider calcium supplements.

Boosting calcium intake by drinking milk could reduce healthy adults' chances of a debilitating bone break. In a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, healthy men and women supplemented with 1,200 mg of calcium per day - the amount in four glasses of milk - reduced their risk of bone fractures by 72 percent.

An international team of researchers from University Hospital Zurich and Dartmouth Medical School divided 930 healthy men and women ages 27 to 80 into two groups for a four-year intervention study. One group was given a placebo, while the other took a daily calcium supplement containing 1,200 mg of calcium daily - the calcium recommendation for adults over the age of 51.

The researchers found that those receiving an additional 1,200 mg of calcium were significantly less likely to have a bone fracture of any sort during the four-year period, including everyday activity fractures (bone breaks that occurred while walking or standing) and seemingly unavoidable accident-related fractures (bone breaks sustained during falls, running, sports injuries or car accidents). In fact, during the four-year intervention, not a single adult receiving calcium experienced a fracture tied to everyday activities - fractures that researchers call "potentially preventable" and more likely linked to bone health.

To sustain the benefits, researchers found that the adults needed to maintain their calcium intakes. After the four-year supplementation period ended, the bone benefits dissipated, underscoring the need to adopt lifelong habits, like drinking milk, to prevent bone loss.

Don't forget the vitamin D too.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 22 02:24 PM  Aging Diet Bone Studies
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Fatih Birol Sees Peak Oil Soon

Mainstream purveyors of conventional wisdom have for years dismissed or ignored the prospect of a world peak in oil production before the 2030s or later. But high oil prices are undermining the conventional wisdom and some mainstream figures are taking more pessimistic views about Peak Oil. Fatih Birol, chief economist for the International Energy Agency, says Middle Eastern countries will not extract oil at the maximum rate possible because they want future generations to be able to live off of oil as well.

FP: Why aren’t more new supplies coming online, given the current high prices?

FB: The bulk of the oil has in the past been produced by the international oil companies, so-called Big Oil. But their existing reserves are declining in what they have under ownership. They have no access to new reserves, the bulk of which are in Middle East countries. In most of these countries, only the national oil company can, by law, invest. So, even though the international oil companies may have the capital and the technology, they don’t have access to the reserves. Therefore, the bulk of the growth in the future needs to come from the national oil companies, and perhaps price will no longer be the main determinant when they make their [production] decisions, because for many countries, oil is their only natural endowment. And those countries legitimately value and want to leave their one and only natural endowment for future generations.

Since their holding back oil in a world with limited alternatives drives up the prices they can make more money by producing less. If you were in their shoes wouldn't you produce less and make more money? Though Matthew Simmons and some other Peak Oil theorists argue that the real reason they are not producing more in response to higher prices is that their fields are old (which they are) and heavily depleted (which, again, they are). But regardless of whether Matt Simmons or Fatih Birol is right about the motivations of the Middle Eastern producers we can not expect more oil from that quarter.

Birol thinks global peak oil is coming soon.

FP: Do you believe in peak oil?

FB: Of course, but the question is when? Global oil resources are limited. We have conventional oil; we have unconventional oil. We have oil in the North Sea, in the Gulf of Mexico. We have more oil in the OPEC countries. What I can tell you is that one day global conventional oil will peak. This will depend on many factors, including the role of technology, investment, and production policies. When we look at oil outside of the OPEC countries, when you put all of them together, I think it is going to peak very soon. But we have unconventional oil, and we have oil in the Middle East as well. How much will come to the market from unconventional oil?

We are in trouble before world oil production peaks. Net exports (the amount of oil exported by oil exporting nations) will peak before net production because oil demand is growing more rapidly in oil exporting nations than in the oil importing nations. So oil exports will decline much more rapidly than oil production. On this see my post Big Oil Producers Cut Exports In 2007. Also, see Jeffrey Brown's post Is a Net Oil Export Hurricane Hitting the US Gulf Coast?

The data show that combined net oil exports from Venezuela & Mexico to the US have dropped by 414,000 bpd from 10/07 to 3/08, an astounding annual decline rate of -32%/year. This decline was at least partially offset by increases in imports from the Persian Gulf.

Think biomass ethanol will come to the rescue? With corn over $7 per bushel some corn ethanol plants may close. We need algae biodiesel in order to make a biomass alternative scalable. But while lots of companies and academic research groups are chasing cheaper and scalable ways to grow algae for diesel fuel no clear success story has emerged yet.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 22 01:51 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 June 21 Saturday
Synapse Complexity Key To Higher Intelligence?

The gap area where nerve cells connect to each other is called the synapse. Our higher intelligence comes not just from more synapses connecting between more nerves. The structure of each synapse is far more complex in creatures with higher intelligence.

Current thinking suggests that the protein components of nerve connections - called synapses - are similar in most animals from humble worms to humans and that it is increase in the number of synapses in larger animals that allows more sophisticated thought.

"Our simple view that 'more nerves' is sufficient to explain 'more brain power' is simply not supported by our study," explained Professor Seth Grant, Head of the Genes to Cognition Programme at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and leader of the project. "Although many studies have looked at the number of neurons, none has looked at the molecular composition of neuron connections. We found dramatic differences in the numbers of proteins in the neuron connections between different species".

"We studied around 600 proteins that are found in mammalian synapses and were surprised to find that only 50 percent of these are also found in invertebrate synapses, and about 25 percent are in single-cell animals, which obviously don't have a brain."

It would be interesting to know for these 600 proteins whether there are differences in their genes between humans. The differences might account for some genetically caused differences in intelligence and personality.

Synapses used to be taught in neurobiology classes as pretty simple places where synaptic endings of axons release neurotransmitters that float across to bind to receptors on dendrites. Then that binding causes a wave of depolarization which propagates along a nerve. Well, the synapses probably function in much more complex ways.

Synapses are the junctions between nerves where electrical signals from one cell are transferred through a series of biochemical switches to the next. However, synapses are not simply soldered joints, but mini-processors that give the nervous systems the property of learning and memory.

Some day the ways in which memories get stored and information gets processed will be understood in enormous detail. Will that cause more people to abandon belief in a soul?

"The molecular evolution of the synapse is like the evolution of computer chips - the increasing complexity has given them more power and those animals with the most powerful chips can do the most," continues Professor Grant.

Simple invertebrate species have a set of simple forms of learning powered by molecularly simple synapses, and the complex mammalian species show a wider range of types of learning powered by molecularly very complex synapses.

"It is amazing how a process of Darwinian evolution by tinkering and improvement has generated, from a collection of sensory proteins in yeast, the complex synapse of mammals associated with learning and cognition," said Dr Richard Emes, Lecturer in Bioinformatics at Keele University, and joint first author on the paper.

What I want to know: Do other species have advances in their synaptic structure that humans do not have? In particular, some bird species are very smart for the size of their brains. Do they have very sophisticated synaptic structures that would allow them to be as smart or even smarter than us if only their brains were as large?

By Randall Parker 2008 June 21 08:43 PM  Brain Evolution
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Driving Cutbacks Continue In America

American motorists continue to cut back in the face of high gasoline prices. The decline in driving in April was even larger than the decline in March 2008.

WASHINGTON – At a time of record-high gas prices and a corresponding surge in transit ridership, Americans are driving less for the sixth month in a row, highlighting the need to find a more sustainable and effective way to fund highway construction and maintenance, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.

The Secretary said that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April 2008 than at the same time a year earlier and 400 million miles less than in March of this year. She added that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on all public roads for April 2008 fell 1.8 percent as compared with April 2007 travel. This marks a decline of nearly 20 billion miles traveled this year, and nearly 30 billion miles traveled since November.

While miles driven have fallen only for the last 6 months the shift in driving habits looks even bigger when compared to an over 20 years run of 3% increase in vehicle miles traveled per year.

While total vehicle miles Americans traveled grew by nearly 3 percent a year from 1984 to 2004, the rate of growth slowed suddenly in 2005 and 2006 and has declined since then.

Transportation fuel costs as a percentage of after-tax income are almost as high as 1981.

Americans spent about 4.5 percent of their after-tax income on transportation fuels in 1981, according to Global Insight, a forecasting firm. As gasoline prices dropped and family incomes rose, that percentage dropped to 1.9 percent in 1998. Today, it is back to 4 percent or more.

The national price for unleaded gasoline would need to average $4.23 a gallon “to create the same economic pain as in 1981,” the Cambridge Energy report said. “Once unthinkable, such a level is now within view.” On Wednesday, gasoline averaged nearly $4.08 a gallon.

Gasoline prices have hit a tipping point for big vehicle sales.

Midsize SUV sales nationwide were down 24 percent for the first five months of this year compared to 2007. The decline for May was an especially steep 38 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

The June drop in big vehicle sales may be even steeper.

Sales of pickups and SUVs, the most profitable vehicles, may fall nearly 40 percent in June, said Michaeli, who is also based in New York. GM and Ford may report sales declines of 28 percent and 27 percent, respectively, he said.

Will the US domestic auto makers survive?

The huge shift away from SUVs and big cars has car makers scrambling to make more small cars.

Ford Motor Company, for example is running its Wayne, Mich., assembly plant on overtime and Saturdays in an effort to meet demand for the Focus.

General Motors had planned to add a third shift in September to its small-car plant in Ohio, but recently moved the start date up to August.

A Toyota spokesman said the Japanese automaker was limited by production to selling 175,000 Priuses in the United States this year, no matter how hot the demand.

Honda Motor will open a new plant in Indiana late this year that will increase its output of Civics by 200,000 a year. The automaker has already increased production of the car at factories in Ohio and Canada.

Supplies of smaller cars have shrunk.

Mr. Pipas said that Ford currently has a 20-day supply of Focuses nationwide, well below the 60-day supply that is considered the industry norm.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally does not think high oil prices are temporary.

"We view the move to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles as permanent, and we are responding to customer demand," Mulally said. "In the near term, we are adjusting production to the actual demand - increasing small cars and crossovers and reducing large trucks and SUVs. For the long term, we are moving fast to introduce more small cars, crossovers and fuel-efficient powertrains -- including more hybrids -- and we will adjust our manufacturing facilities to match our updated product lineup."

$4 per gallon gasoline is serving as a powerful wake-up call for many Americans. The price shock will get even bigger at $5 per gallon. The vast majority would change their driving habits at $5 per gallon.

As the region's average price per gallon flirts with the $4 level, some Charlotte-area commuters like Gibson are discovering their tipping points – the price at which they say enough is enough – and are changing their driving behavior.

More drivers say they'll follow if the average price breaks through that psychological barrier, recent research shows. Nearly seven of eight said they would change at $5.

More car buyers are expected to buy diesel cars.

Automotive forecasting firm J.D. Power and Associates predicts clean diesel vehicles will comprise 3.5 percent of the U.S. light-vehicle market share this year, 4 percent in 2009 and 10 percent by 2015. It's also predicting the price gap with gasoline will shrink as refineries adapt refining processes to refine more diesel and less gasoline, increasing the supply of diesel and lowering the cost.

"It still makes sense to buy diesel instead of gasoline if all you're looking at is fuel economy," said Michael Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain for J.D. Power in Troy. "At really the break-even point, if gas is $4 per gallon, diesel would have to be above $5.20 per gallon for it to make sense to buy gas instead of diesel.

Commuter rail usage is up in southern California.

Commuter rail ridership broke an all-time record this week, and Caltrans reported a dip in freeway traffic as commuters across California struggled with record gasoline prices.

Metrolink recorded its highest number of riders in a single day Tuesday -- 50,232 -- a 15.6% increase over the volume on the Tuesday of the same week last year. Metro Rail ridership has also risen, shooting up 6% last month over May 2007, with the downtown L.A.-to-Pasadena Gold Line setting an all-time ridership record, said Dave Sotero, a Metro spokesman.

Although the region's rail lines have seen more commuters lately, bus ridership in Los Angeles is slightly down compared to last year, Sotero said. More than 1.2 million passengers boarded Metro buses on an average weekday in May, but compared with all of May 2007, ridership is down 5.37%.

Public transit usage is up nationally.

A report set for release today by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) shows trips on public transit January-March rose 3% over the same period last year to 2.6 billion rides. Light rails saw the biggest jump: 10% to 110 million trips.

Early figures for April show ridership going even higher as gas hovers near $4 a gallon, says APTA president William Millar.

In 2007, he says, "we had higher numbers than we've seen in 50 years, and the trend is continuing in 2008."

A survey shows drivers willing to make changes in how they get around as gasoline prices rise.

In a survey released last month by IBM's Institute for Electronic Government, a total of 31% of commuters who normally drive to work said they would change their transportation habits if gas were to cross $4 a gallon.

IBM also found that a total of 66% of drivers would seek other means of transportation if gas hits $5 a gallon.

Before you get excited at the prospects for mass transit options such as commuter rail and buses check out Europe's experience with substituting mass transit for cars. At the following link see Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003 where it compares many European countries for public transport use. In spite of gasoline prices more than double that of the United States at least 80% of passenger miles traveled on the ground in Europe are done by car (with Denmark, Austria, and Ireland as exceptions). Driving smaller hybrids and living closer to work will do more to cut fuel usage than will mass transit.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 21 12:45 AM  Energy Transportation
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2008 June 19 Thursday
Electronic Distractions Cutting Worker Productivity

These companies are just figuring this out? Slow learners anyone?

Some of the biggest technology firms, including Microsoft, Intel, Google and I.B.M., are banding together to fight information overload. Last week they formed a nonprofit group to study the problem, publicize it and devise ways to help workers — theirs and others — cope with the digital deluge.

Their effort comes as statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.

The big chip maker Intel found in an eight-month internal study that some employees who were encouraged to limit digital interruptions said they were more productive and creative as a result.

Intel and other companies are already experimenting with solutions. Small units at some companies are encouraging workers to check e-mail messages less frequently, to send group messages more judiciously and to avoid letting the drumbeat of digital missives constantly shake up and reorder to-do lists.

Tom DeMarco and Anthony Lister explained this problem back in the 1980s in their book Peopleware. Yes, interruptions are costly because it takes a while to get the mind refocused with all the mental chess pieces back where they were. Yes, people get addicted to their email. But partly that's because bosses will call meetings in email for meetings that are supposed to start in 45 minutes (and I hate that). How you going to know that unless you are checking your email every half hour?

By Randall Parker 2008 June 19 11:06 PM  Comm Tech Society
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Stress Boosts Ghrelin Which Increases Appetite

The hormone ghrelin increases hunger while also reducing stress.

DALLAS – June 15, 2008 – New research at UT Southwestern Medical Center may explain why some people who are stressed or depressed overeat.

While levels of the so-called "hunger hormone" ghrelin are known to increase when a person doesn't eat, findings by UT Southwestern scientists suggest that the hormone might also help defend against symptoms of stress-induced depression and anxiety.

"Our findings in mice suggest that chronic stress causes ghrelin levels to go up and that behaviors associated with depression and anxiety decrease when ghrelin levels rise. An unfortunate side effect, however, is increased food intake and body weight," said Dr. Jeffrey Zigman, assistant professor of internal medicine and psychiatry at UT Southwestern and senior author of a study appearing online today and in a future print edition of Nature Neuroscience.

Dr. Michael Lutter, instructor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern and lead author of the study, said, "Our findings support the idea that these hunger hormones don't do just one thing; rather, they coordinate an entire behavioral response to stress and probably affect mood, stress and energy levels."

What I wonder: If you are under stress and ghrelin goes up then do you get more stress-reduction benefit from ghrelin if you manage to refrain from eating more? Does weight gain cause a decrease in ghrelin and therefore less stress-reduction benefit from ghrelin?

Ghrelin reduces the stress reaction from getting bullied.

To test whether ghrelin could regulate depressive symptoms brought on by chronic stress, the researchers subjected mice to daily bouts of social stress, using a standard laboratory technique that induces stress by exposing normal mice to very aggressive "bully" mice. Such animals have been shown to be good models for studying depression in humans.

The researchers stressed both wild-type mice and altered mice that were unable to respond to ghrelin. They found that after experiencing stress, both types of mice had significantly elevated levels of ghrelin that persisted at least four weeks after their last defeat encounter. The altered mice, however, displayed significantly greater social avoidance than their wild-type counterparts, indicating an exacerbation of depression-like symptoms. They also ate less than the wild-type mice.

Avoid the alpha male bullies. Or beat them up. The health costs of being a beta male are very real.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 19 10:44 PM  Brain Appetite
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Weight Loss Surgery Cuts Cancer Risk

For those who are morbidly obese bariatric surgery causes a large cut in cancer risk.

Montreal, 19 June 2008 – Successful bariatric surgery allows morbidly obese patients to lose up to 70 percent of their excess weight and to maintain weight loss. The latest study by Dr. Nicolas Christou of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and McGill University shows that this surgery also decreases the risk of developing cancer by up to 80 percent. Dr. Christou presented his preliminary results yesterday at the 25th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery.

The researchers compared 1,035 morbidly obese patients who underwent bariatric surgery at the MUHC between 1986 and 2002 with 5,746 patients with the same weight profile who did not undergo the operation. The number of cancer diagnoses in first group was 85 percent lower for breast cancer and 70 percent lower for colon and pancreatic cancers, and was also distinctly lower for several other types of cancer.

"The relationship between obesity and many forms of cancer is well established," said Dr. Christou. "This is one of the first studies to suggest that bariatric surgery might prevent the risk of cancer for a significant percentage of morbidly obese people."

By Randall Parker 2008 June 19 10:36 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2008 June 18 Wednesday
Male Narcissistic Psychopaths Get More Sex

Why do psychopaths exist? The ladies help the psychopaths reproduce by going to bed with them. Men who are narcissistic, self-obsessed, liars, psychopaths, Machiavellian, and thrill-seekers get laid more.

Bad boys, it seems, really do get all the girls. Women might claim they want caring, thoughtful types but scientists have discovered what they really want – self-obsessed, lying psychopaths.

A study has found that men with the "dark triad" of traits – narcissism, thrill- seeking and deceitfulness – are likely to have a larger number of sexual affairs.

To be fair, not all ladies want these guys. But the genes that cause these personality characteristics wouldn't exist if men and women didn't get together to pass the genes along.

Are all these traits caused by the same genetic variations? Or are there different traits causing different subsets of these traits and each subset of traits has been separately selected for? The study was done on college students.

But being just slightly evil could have an upside: a prolific sex life, says Peter Jonason at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "We have some evidence that the three traits are really the same thing and may represent a successful evolutionary strategy."

Jonason and his colleagues subjected 200 college students to personality tests designed to rank them for each of the dark triad traits. They also asked about their attitudes to sexual relationships and about their sex lives, including how many partners they'd had and whether they were seeking brief affairs.

The study found that those who scored higher on the dark triad personality traits tended to have more partners and more desire for short-term relationships, Jonason reported at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this month. But the correlation only held in males.

Once the genetic causes of these behaviors are known will women choose to have offspring with these traits? Will the frequency of these traits rise or fall once it becomes possible to intentionally pass on or avoid passing on these traits?

Some women might reason that they want their kids to be Machiavellian, extremely charming, obsessed with looking out for number 1, and extroverted in order to better succeed.

To men who do not have and not like these traits: Fake them for the sake of the human race. If you can attract women by pretending to have these traits and then make babies you will displace the genes of psychopaths and narcissists from the human race. Roissy thinks a "beta" male can learn to act like an "alpha" and project traits that attract women. Use Roissy's techniques to outcompete those who have the James Bond personality.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 18 11:19 PM  Brain Sexuality
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Venture Capital Spending On Energy Surges

The flow of VC money into energy start-ups continues unabated.

Nationally, four of the 10 biggest VC deals in the first quarter of 2008 were in alternative energy, according to the National Venture Capital Association. About $625 million was invested in 44 deals, marking a 51 percent increase from the first quarter of 2007.

The big flow of VC money into alternative energy technologies shows that capitalists really aren't permanently wedded to oil. Investors will put their money into anything they see as having a reasonable chance of earning good returns on the money invested.

One VC firm alone just raised $450 million for clean tech investing. Most of that money probably hasn't been invested it. It takes time to find suitable prospects.

RockPort Capital Partners says it has closed its third venture capital fund, pulling in commitments of more than $450 million to be focused on clean technology investments.

A lot of ways to make solar, wind, batteries, biomass, and other potential energy sources are going to get tried with all this money.

Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla continues his pursuit of biomass energy investments.

Vinod Khosla is reportedly angling for $640 million from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). CalPERS would become Khosla Ventures’ only other limited partner if it puts up the money.

Khosla, famed Sun Microsystems co-founder and Khosla Ventures founder, , is fond of ethanol companies such as Range Fuels in Broomfield, Colo. and Mascoma in Boston. These are companies with capital-intensive projects, and that makes the $244 billion CalPERS a valuable partner for Khosla.

Still, while good greentech exits may be few and far between for now, some analysts and companies believe they are just around the corner (see Greentech Exits Ahead? and Funding Roundup: Solar, Biofuels Dominate Light Week).

I've previously posted about the trend in VC funding for energy in 2005, 2007, and again in 2007. Another big surge area for VC money is biotech.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 18 10:36 PM  Energy Policy
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Optical Illusions Caused By Brain Projecting Future

The brain has image processing circuitry that shows you a best guess image of the present based on info seen at least a tenth of a second ago.

When shown two images in quick succession, one of a dot on the left of a screen and one with the dot on the right, the brain sees motion from left to right, even though there was none. The visual system has apparently constructed the scenario after it has been perceived, reconciling the jagged images by imputing motion.

In an experiment originated by Dr. Nijhawan, people watch an object pass a flashbulb. The timing is exact: the bulb flashes precisely as the object passes. But people perceive that the object has moved past the bulb before it flashes. Scientists argue that the brain has evolved to see a split second into the future when it perceives motion. Because it takes the brain at least a tenth of a second to model visual information, it is working with old information. By modeling the future during movement, it is “seeing” the present.

Dr. Changizi and his colleagues hold that it is a general principle the brain applies to a wide variety of illusions that trick the brain into sensing motion.

Usually the brain's visual simulation of the future helps you to understand the past, present, and future. But your conscious mind is constantly getting fed a projection based on older sensory input.

Do you think this generation of illusion by the mind is limited to what you see? I seriously doubt it. There are plenty of signs from the research literature that human brains fool themselves in all sorts of ways. People in negative moods seem to form more accurate memories than those in positive moods. Whether depressed people see themselves more or less accurately than non-depressed people is debated. My guess is the answer is it depends on the depth of the depression and which aspect of self-evaluation is in question.

Non-depressed people create an illusion of being in control when they do well in circumstances where they really have no control.

Individual subjects were placed in front of a panel with a green light, a yellow light and a spring loaded button, and were instructed to make the green light flash as often as possible. In one segment, they would win money every time the green light went on. In another, they would lose money when it didn't. A screen in the room showed their score. Afterward, subjects were asked how much control they had. … Among the "normal," non-depressed subjects, it depended on whether they were losing or making money. When they were winning money, they thought they had considerable control. … When they were losing money, they thought they had virtually no control. In other words, these subjects took credit for good scores and dished off blame when scores were poor. … The depressed subjects saw things differently. Whether they were winning or losing money, they tended to believe they had no control. And they were correct: the "game" was a fiction.

This desire to feel in control is probably adaptive. Even if one is not in absolute control believing and behaving as if one has some control over one's circumstances probably boosts survival by motivating people to act and to try to manipulate reality.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 18 10:29 PM  Brain Performance
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2008 June 17 Tuesday
Supplemental Testosterone Helps Against Metabolic Syndrome

For men who are looking for a medical reason to justify becoming more masculine and less of a girly man:

In older men with low testosterone levels, testosterone replacement therapy improves their risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, according to two new studies. The results will be presented at The Endocrine Society's 90th Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Testosterone deficiency becomes more common with age, occurring in 18 percent of 70-year-olds, said a coauthor of both studies, Farid Saad, PhD, of Berlin-headquartered Bayer Schering Pharma. Low testosterone levels are linked to the metabolic syndrome—a cluster of metabolic risk factors that increase the chances of developing heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes—and other health problems, including loss of bone and muscle mass, depression, and decreased libido.

Yet the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy are unclear in older men, he said.

Saad's research showed that restoring testosterone to normal levels in hypogonadal, or testosterone-deficient, men led to major and progressive improvements in features of the metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, men older than 63 benefited as much as younger men, they found. Treatment lasted a year and used a slow-release, injectable form of the hormone (testosterone undecanoate) that is not yet available in the United States.

All the men in this study have the metabolic syndrome that is correlated with high risk of heart disease and other diseases related to problems with the cardiovascular system. So if you do not have the metabolic syndrome these results do not mean that testosterone replacement will help you. It might not help you even if you do have metabolic syndrome.

All 95 men in the studies (ages 34 to 69 years) had the metabolic syndrome. To receive this diagnosis, patients must have three of the following five risk factors: increased waist circumference (abdominal fat), low HDL ("good") cholesterol, high triglycerides (fats in the blood), high blood pressure, and high blood sugar.

The testosterone improved an assortment of markers.

The first study showed that testosterone treatment significantly reduced waist circumference, total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, triglycerides, and body mass index (a measure of body fat). Treatment also increased "good" cholesterol. Improvements were progressive over 12 months, indicating that benefits may continue past a year, Saad said.

In the second study, the researchers divided the patient population into three groups by age: less than 57 years, 57 to 63 years, and more than 63 years. They found that the oldest men had similar improvements in metabolic risk factors to the youngest men.

Additionally, the investigators looked at the degree of testosterone deficiency before treatment. This beginning level of testosterone deficiency did not predict the beneficial outcome, they found. Men whose subnormal testosterone levels were not as low as the others had similar improvements in metabolic risk factors to men with the lowest levels, according to Saad.

"We conclude that if elderly men have a deficiency of testosterone, it is worthwhile to treat them with testosterone," he said.

What I wonder: If testosterone replacement is so beneficial why is it necessary in the first place?

My worry is that testosterone might drop in order to reduce the risk of prostate cancer and perhaps other cancers and diseases. One of the reasons various aspects of metabolism get turned down as we get older is probably an evolutionarily selected for risk reduction against cancer. Cells that divide less often are less prone to becoming cancerous because each cell division runs the risk of a mutation that makes the cell divide out of control.

But it is possible that medical researchers will be able to identify subsets of the population which could see a net decrease in mortality risk from a hormone replacement therapy. A more precise and custom tuning of metabolic function based on a scientific method of assessing the sizes of various risks for each person might turn up people who can benefit from testosterone replacement or some other hormone replacement. Not saying this is possible now. But it might become possible later.

A German study finds that men with lower testosterone have a greater risk of dying. But note this study does not demonstrate the direction of cause and effect. Maybe illness and faster aging lower the testosterone levels and that faster aging might precede the lowering of testosterone.

Men may not live as long if they have low testosterone, regardless of their age, according to a new study. The results will be presented at The Endocrine Society's 90th Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

The new study, from Germany, adds to the scientific evidence linking deficiency of this sex hormone with increased death from all causes over time—so-called "all-cause mortality."

The results should serve as a warning for men with low testosterone to have a healthier lifestyle, including weight control, regular exercise and a healthy diet, said lead author Robin Haring, a PhD student from Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University of Greifswald, Institute for Community Medicine.

"It is very possible that lifestyle determines levels of testosterone," he said.

In the study, Haring and co-workers looked at death from any cause in nearly 2,000 men aged 20 to 79 years who were living in northeast Germany and who participated in the Study of Health in Pomerania (SHIP). Follow-up averaged 7 years. At the beginning of the study, 5 percent of these men had low blood testosterone levels, defined as the lower end of the normal range for young adult men. The men with low testosterone were older, more obese, and had a greater prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure, compared with men who had higher testosterone levels, Haring said.

Men with low testosterone levels had more than 2.5 times greater risk of dying during the next 10 years compared to men with higher testosterone, the study found. This difference was not explained by age, smoking, alcohol intake, level of physical activity, or increased waist circumference (a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease), Haring said.

In cause-specific death analyses, low testosterone predicted increased risk of death due to cardiovascular disease and cancer but not death of any other single cause.

The fact that low testosterone levels are linked not only to cardiovascular but also to cancer is very interesting. Does testosterone strengthen the immune system to beat down cancer at an early stage? What would explain this result?

By Randall Parker 2008 June 17 10:05 PM  Aging Treatment Studies
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American Public Support Oil Drilling In Off Limits Places

As I've said in the past: there's a price of oil and gasoline at which just about every limit on oil drilling will get lifted. People who argue for more drilling can save their breath. Market prices will persuade better than any argument - rational or otherwise. Most Americans want to lift some of the limits on drilling.

Now, voter anger over soaring gasoline prices is shoving this perennial dispute to the top of Washington's energy agenda. On the New York Mercantile Exchange, benchmark crude for July delivery fell $1.88 Friday to settle at $134.86, near its all-time high. Last Monday, the average retail price for a gallon of regular unleaded was $4.039, according to the Energy Information Administration.

A recent Gallup poll shows 57% of Americans support opening up new territories to drilling, while a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll conducted this month shows 59% of Americans saying Congress should take the lead on responding to high gas prices.

Currently little drilling is allowed off of US coasts outside of the Gulf of Mexico and even parts of the Gulf of Mexico near Florida are off limits. Plus, the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve and some park areas in the lower 48 states are off limits as well. All those limits will be lifted when world oil production starts falling.

The Republicans are flipping on this issue and the Democrats are only about $30 or $40 dollars a barrel away from flipping too.

WASHINGTON — President Bush, reversing a longstanding position, will call on Congress on Wednesday to end a federal ban on offshore oil drilling, according to White House officials who say Mr. Bush now wants to work with states to determine where drilling should occur.

The move underscores how $4-a-gallon gas has become a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, and it comes as a growing number of Republicans are lining up in opposition to the federal ban.

The party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, used a speech in Houston on Tuesday to say he now favors offshore drilling, an announcement that infuriated environmentalists who have long viewed him as an ally. Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist, a Republican, immediately joined Mr. McCain, saying he, too, now wants an end to the ban.

The NIMBY environmentalists have done us a great service and we should thank them. They've managed to preserve some billions of barrels of oil for the coming years when we will need them far more than we did in the past. Granted, the amount of oil they saved is not enough to prevent the coming decline in world oil production. But that preserved oil will help make the adjustment to a post-oil economy less painful.

Update: Threats of a destroyed tourist economy from an oil spill miss the point that tourism runs on oil. How many flights to Florida are getting canceled as airliners cut back on flights and go bankrupt?

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) decried McCain's stance. "He ought to know he'd ruin Florida's $65-billion tourism economy by allowing oil rigs off the coast."

Nelson ought to argue for a tax on offshore oil that will pay for a high speed electric rail line to Florida.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 17 10:03 PM  Energy Policy
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2011 Think Ox At Least 125 Miles Per Electric Charge

In a few years an electric car for the masses will let you go at least 125 miles between charges.

An electrified people's car for the 21st century, the Ox is a preview of Think's next-generation production vehicle, due out in 2011. Roughly the size of a Toyota (TM) Prius, the Ox can travel between 125 and 155 miles before needing a recharge, and zips from zero to 60 miles per hour in about 8.5 seconds. Its lithium-ion batteries can be charged to 80% capacity in less than an hour, and slender solar panels integrated into the roof power the onboard electronics. Inside, the hatchback includes a bevy of high-tech gizmos such as GPS navigation, a mobile Internet connection, and a key fob that lets drivers customize the car's all-digital dashboard. Pricing has yet to be announced, but the company's current vehicles cost less than $25,000.

I wonder how it will do on crash safety tests. Also, its cost will depend heavily on the price of lithium batteries in 2011.

An affordable 125 mile range electric car would go far toward ameliorating the most damaging effects of declining world oil production.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 17 08:49 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2008 June 16 Monday
Honda Hydrogen Car Goes Into Very Low Production

Only 200 FCX Clarity hydrogen cars will get built in the next 3 years.

Honda says its FCX Clarity can be filled easily at a pump, can drive 280 miles on a tank, almost as far as a gasoline car. It also gets higher fuel efficiency than a gasoline car or hybrid, the equivalent of 74 miles a gallon of gas, according to the company.

But the technology has faced many hurdles, not the least of which has been the prohibitive cost of the fuel cells themselves. Honda says it has found ways to mass produce them, which promises to drive down costs through economies of scale. On Monday, it showed reporters its fuel-cell production line, which resembled a semiconductor factory more than an auto plant with its humming automated machinery and white smocked workers in dust-free rooms.

The production cost is going to plummet in less than a decade from several thousand dollars to below $100k. Whoever said hydrogen cars are impractical? Any hundred millionaire can afford one.

Mr. Fukui said the cars cost several hundred thousand dollars each to produce, though he said that should drop below $100,000 in less than a decade as production volumes increase.

We are going to be well past Peak Oil before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become practical. Improved lithium batteries and synthetic and biologically derived hydrocarbons will each do more to keep cars moving in the next 10 years. Since hydrogen gets made from natural gas you could get a natural gas powered Honda and use the natural gas more efficiently for a much lower cost.

The FCX will go 72 miles per kg of hydrogen.

The car can get a combined (city and highway driving) fuel efficiency of about 72 miles per kg of H2 which, according to Honda's own estimates, is the equivalent of getting about 74 mpg on a gas-powered car. The car can be driven for about 280 miles before needing to be refueled.

For a point of comparison, a Lawrence Livermore Laboratory team modified a Prius to use hydrogen and claimed an equivalent fuel efficiency of 65 mpg. The standard Prius of course already gets fourty some miles per gallon of gasoline.

The Prius, which has a combination electric motor and small internal combustion engine, traveled 653 miles on a tank containing almost 40 gallons of liquid hydrogen. The overall fuel economy for the driving conditions used by the Livermore team was about 105 kilometers per kilogram of hydrogen, which is equivalent to about 65 miles per gallon of gasoline. Coincidently, 1 kilogram of hydrogen has about the same energy content as 1 gallon of gasoline.

Hydrogen is just a storage medium. If hydrogen gets made from electricity generated by solar photovoltaic cells or nuclear power then it could help us move beyond oil.

Honda has made some strides with the latest design.

The Japanese company has been able to achieve this milestone in fuel-cell car production thanks to significant advances in the specialized technologies involved. With curb weight down to that of a current V6 Accord but sitting on a unique platform, the FCX Clarity is a hydrogen-powered technological tour de force. Engineers have increased driving range by 30 percent up to 280 miles, added 25 percent to the fuel economy reaching 74 mpg, have significantly downsized the fuel-cell stack but raised its power output by 50 percent, and have even recalibrated the electric motor — over the FCX prototype — to generate 8 percent more power, now delivering 134 hp. That propels the car from zero to 60 mph in around 8.5 seconds on the way to a top speed of 100 mph.

BMW's experimental 7 series hydrogen vehicle stores its hydrogen as a cooled liquid. If the car just sits parked the hydrogen gradually warms up and boils off. So some of the hydrogen gets used to generate electricity to cool the remaining hydrogen to keep it cold and liquid. But that means in a few weeks all the hydrogen gets used up doing the cooling. But the Honda FCX sounds like it uses compressed hydrogen gas and therefore should store much longer.

Four kilograms of hydrogen (the equivalent of about 4 gallons of gas) are stored in a 45-gallon tank compressed to 5,000 psi.

I am expecting the cost of solar cells to plummet in the next 10 years. Given cheap batteries (and when will that happen?) we will be able to recharge our pluggable hybrid cars with power from the sun. But the expense of batteries limits vehicle range. If hydrogen vehicle costs ever come down then hydrogen vehicles might make sense some day for longer range travel. But hydrogen as a fuel will need to compete with far more convenient and highloy energy dense liquid hydrocarbon fuels made from genetically engineered algae and from purely synthetic processes.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 16 10:33 PM  Energy Transportation
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Bioengineered Stem Cells Rejuvenate Muscles In Mice

Think that if only we could create youthful stem cells and then inject them into various parts of the our aging bodies the youthful stem cells would repair us? I've previously reported on work by Thomas Rando's group at Stanford that found something in old blood suppresses stem cells and prevents them from creating new cells for repair. That's a huge obstacle in the of way of use of stem cells for rejuvenation and repair. But a new report from Berkeley (from a team that not coincidentally includes a person who used to work with Rando at Stanford) attempts to genetically engineer stem cells to basically ignore the signals that old bodies use to tell stem cells not to do repairs.

Berkeley - Old muscle got a shot of youthful vigor in a stem cell experiment by bioengineers at the University of California, Berkeley, setting the path for research on new treatments for age-related degenerative conditions such as muscle atrophy or Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

In a new study to be published June 15 in an advanced online issue of the journal Nature, researchers identified two key regulatory pathways that control how well adult stem cells repair and replace damaged tissue. They then tweaked how those stem cells reacted to those biochemical signals to revive the ability of muscle tissue in old mice to repair itself nearly as well as the muscle in the mice's much younger counterparts.

Irina Conboy, an assistant professor of bioengineering and an investigator at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center and at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), led the research team conducting this study.

There's a big problem with ignoring those signals that suppress cell division: When cells totally ignore signals that inhibit growth those cells are called cancer cells. We need growth regulation. But not too much or too little or at the wrong time.

The Berkeley researchers are trying to deal with the problem of old blood suppressing repair by younger cells. But that old blood contains cell division suppressor molecules

"We don't realize it, but as we grow our bodies are constantly being remodeled," said Conboy. "We are constantly falling apart, but we don't notice it much when we're young because we're always being restored. As we age, our stem cells are prevented, through chemical signals, from doing their jobs."

The good news, the researchers said, is that the stem cells in old tissue are still ready and able to perform their regenerative function if they receive the appropriate chemical signals. Studies have shown that when old tissue is placed in an environment of young blood, the stem cells behave as if they are young again.

"Conversely, we have found in a study published last year that even young stem cells rapidly age when placed among blood and tissue from old mice," said Carlson, who will stay on at UC Berkeley to expand his work on stem cell engineering either as a QB3 fellow or a postdoctoral researcher. He will be supervised by Conboy; Tom Alber, professor of biochemistry; and David Schaffer, associate director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center and professor of chemical engineering.

Thomas Rando at Stanford and Irina Conboy (who was at Stanford working with Rando) have been working on the problem of what causes stem cells to stop doing repairs in old body. Rando is looking at a molecule called Wnt as a suppressor of old stem cells. This latest report from Conboy builds in years of work trying to puzzle out why our repair capabilities decline with age.

In this latest round of work the researchers blocked a pathway of cellular growth inhibition. As we age the concentration of a growth-promoting molecule called notch declines while a growth inhibiting molecule called TGF-beta goes up in concentration. So they lowered concentration of the molecule pSmad3 which TGF-beta promotes. By lowering pSmad3 they got excellent muscle tissue repair in the mice.

But what would happen if researchers blocked the adult stem cells in old tissues from reacting to those TGF-beta signals? The researchers put that question to the test in a living organism by comparing the muscle regeneration capacity of old, 2-year-old mice, comparable in age to a 75- to 80-year-old human, with that of 2-month-old mice, similar in age to a 20- to 25-year-old human.

For a group of the old mice, the researchers disabled the "aging pathway" that tells stem cells to stop dividing by using an established method of RNA interference that reduced levels of pSmad3. The researchers then examined the muscle of the different groups of mice one to five days after injury to compare how well the tissue repaired itself.

As expected, the researchers found that muscle tissue in the young mice easily replaced damaged cells with new, healthy cells. In contrast, the areas of damaged muscle in the control group of old mice were characterized by fibroblasts and scar tissue.

However, muscles in the old mice whose stem cell "aging pathway" had been dampened showed levels of cellular regeneration that were comparable to their much younger peers, and that were 3 to 4 times greater than those of the group of "untreated" old mice.

The researchers cautioned that shutting down the TGF-beta/pSmad3 pathway altogether by turning off the gene that controls it could lead to many health problems. The ability to suppress cell division is critical in controlling the development of tumors, for instance.

This report does not outline a solution to the problem of growth inhibition of stem cells in aging bodies. Blocking the suppressor molecules will enhance growth of stem cells needed for repair. But the effect will be too widespread. Cells that ought not divide will get activated. Some of those activated cells might be cancerous.

These researchers are working on a hard problem. The pathways for cellular growth control are complex. The bloodstream in older bodies carries growth inhibiting compounds that deliver a net benefit by reducing cancer risk. If we had great cures for cancer then we might be able to block those inhibiting compounds. But absent those great cures for cancer we need ways to selectively inhibit old stem cells but not younger stem cells.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 16 12:39 AM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2008 June 15 Sunday
Soap Operas Lower Fertility Rate In Brazil?

Preeti Aroon reports on a Foreign Policy blog that soap operas seem to cut down the fertility rate.

Many factors account for the drop in Brazilian fertility, but one recent study identified a factor most people probably wouldn't consider: soap operas (novelas).


During the past few decades, the vast majority of the population, of all social classes, has regularly tuned into the evening showings. The study, conducted by Eliana La Ferrara of Italy's Bocconi University and Alberto Chong and Suzanne Duryea of the Inter-American Development Bank, analyzed novelas aired from 1965 to 1999 in the top two time slots and found that they depict families that are much smaller than those in the real Brazil. Seventy-two percent of leading female characters age 50 or below had no children at all, and 21 percent had just one child. Hence, the authors hypothesized that the soap operas could be acting as a kind of birth control.

Using census data from 1970 to 1991 and data on the entry of Rede Globo into different markets, the researchers found that women living in areas that received Globo's broadcast signal had significantly lower fertility.

The researchers controlled for many factors that might have biased the results.

Think about this. Extremely poor countries in Africa have very high fertility rates and they are stuck in a Malthusian trap. How to fix this problem? Subsidize access to TV and movies for the poorest people in Africa.

Nonetheless, with total fertility rates of 7.38 in Mali and 7.37 in Niger (as of mid-2007), the resultant growth in these countries' populations is expected to be phenomenal over the next few years, unless growth rates and total fertility rates drop. For example, Mali's 2007 population is approximately 12 million. With its high total fertility rate per woman, Mali is expected to grow to more than 15 million (a 3 million or 25% increase) by 2015! Mali's 2007 growth rate of 2.7 means a doubling time of just 26 years. Other countries with high total fertility rates include Afghanistan at 6.64, Yemen at 6.49, and Samoa at 4.21.

Check out this list of high fertility rate countries that need soap operas.

Western aid agencies should be funded to put up satellite TV over Africa. The TVs can be delivered with solar panels to villages all over Africa. This will increase demand for solar power and therefore accelerate the development of photovoltaics technology. So we'll get a two-fer out of this deal. But if the villagers watch soaps during the daylight hours will this be effective? Probably so if the soaps work by changing attitudes.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 15 06:21 PM  Trends Demographic
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Nanoglassblowing For Biological Nanodevices

To develop treatments that will turn back the aging clock and make our bodies young again we need more powerful tools. Given the right tools aging is a curable disease. The development of nanotechnology is the most powerful trend underway that will bring aging reversal within our reach. With that thought in mind a new development in "nanoglassblowing" provides a new way to create more powerful devices for manipulating cells and biological molecules.

While the results may not rival the artistry of glassblowers in Europe and Latin America, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Cornell University have found beauty in a new fabrication technique called "nanoglassblowing" that creates nanoscale (billionth of a meter) fluidic devices used to isolate and study single molecules in solution—including individual DNA strands. The novel method is described in a paper posted online next week in the journal Nanotechnology.*

Traditionally, glass micro- and nanofluidic devices are fabricated by etching tiny channels into a glass wafer with the same lithographic procedures used to manufacture circuit patterns on semiconductor computer chips. The planar (flat-edged) rectangular canals are topped with a glass cover that is annealed (heated until it bonds permanently) into place. About a year ago, the authors of the Nanotechnology paper observed that in some cases, the heat of the annealing furnace caused air trapped in the channel to expand the glass cover into a curved shape, much like glassblowers use heated air to add roundness to their work. The researchers looked for ways to exploit this phenomenon and learned that they could easily control the amount of "blowing out" that occurred over several orders of magnitude.

Nanodevices might seem boring. Research on them does not produce immediately usable dietary advice, medical treatments, or even investment advice. But nanotechnology is going to become the great enabler for the development of medical treatments and methods of human enhancement. Nanotechnology for biology is following the same pattern that we've seen in the development of computer chips which keep getting smaller, cheaper, and more powerful.

To manipulate biological molecules with precision and control the devices that manipulate them must operate at the small scale of individual biological molecules. The size of these nanochannels comes close to the size of DNA.

As a result, the researchers were able to create devices with "funnels" many micrometers wide and about a micrometer deep that tapered down to nanochannels with depths as shallow as 7 nanometers—approximately 1,000 times smaller in diameter than a red blood cell. The nanoglassblown chambers soon showed distinct advantages over their planar predecessors.

To put that 7 nanometers in perspective, the DNA double helix is about 2.4 nanometers across. So a 7 nanometer channel is almost 3 times bigger than the DNA that would need to pass thru if this technology gets used to create DNA testing devices.

This technology makes it easier to create funnels that can guide DNA and other biological molecules into the small channels.

"In the past, for example, it was difficult to get single strands of DNA into a nanofluidic device for study because DNA in solution balls up and tends to bounce off the sharp edges of planar channels with depths smaller than the ball," says Cornell's Elizabeth Strychalski. "The gradually dwindling size of the funnel-shaped entrance to our channel stretches the DNA out as it flows in with less resistance, making it easier to assess the properties of the DNA," adds NIST's Samuel Stavis.

The technology can be used to manipulate whole cells or individual molecules.

Future nanoglassblown devices, the researchers say, could be fabricated to help sort DNA strands of different sizes or as part of a device to identify the base-pair components of single strands. Other potential applications of the technique include the manufacture of optofluidic elements—lenses or waveguides that could change how light is moved around a microchip—and rounded chambers in which single cells could be confined and held for culturing.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 15 12:42 PM  Nanotech for Biotech
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2008 June 14 Saturday
China Top Carbon Dioxide Emitter

China might have become the top carbon dioxide emitter in 2006. But the CO2 emissions in China became so large in 2007 that there's no longer room for debate on which country emits the most CO2.

China has now clearly overtaken the United States as the world's leading emitter of climate-warming gases, a new study has found. The increasing emissions from China - up 8 percent in the past year - accounted for two-thirds of the growth in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, the study found.

The report, released Friday by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, is an annual study. Last year, for the first time, the researchers found that China had edged ahead of the United States as the world's leading emitter.

But the results were not so clear-cut as those released Friday, and many experts were skeptical of last year's finding.

Keep in mind that if China's emissions go up 8% again this year that will be a larger increase in absolute terms. Dito next year and the year after that and so on. As China gets bigger its percentage growth rates can stay the same or decline while still experiencing increasing absolute growth rates. I harp on this because China's growth is one of the biggest macro trends of the 21st century.

The Chinese aren't going to cut their carbon dioxide emissions until either they start running out of coal or newer energy sources fall so far in cost that they become cheaper than coal. The chances of running out of coal are higher than the conventional wisdom holds. But the Chinese still have a couple of decades of enormous coal burning in their future.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 14 12:07 AM  Pollution Trends
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2008 June 12 Thursday
Instant Cities And Gated Communities Of Asia

Think the creation of multi-million populations takes centuries? Not any more. Cities get created very fast in China.

In both China and the Persian Gulf, cities comparable in size to New York have sprouted up almost overnight. Only 30 years ago, Shenzhen was a small fishing village of a few thousand people, and Dubai had merely a quarter million people. Today Shenzhen has a population of eight million, and Dubai’s glittering towers, rising out of the desert in disorderly rows, have become playgrounds for wealthy expatriates from Riyadh and Moscow. Long-established cities like Beijing and Guangzhou have more than doubled in size in a few decades, their original outlines swallowed by rings of new development. Built at phenomenal speeds, these generic or instant cities, as they have been called, have no recognizable center, no single identity.

Rapid economic expansion creates a condition where lots of people who didn't use to be able to afford much housing suddenly can. Plus, the Chinese government and people look upon economic growth the way a much poorer American people used to see it: as a great thing.

Whereas many Americans want to protect old houses of supposed historical value in China massive new buildings are all the rage.

“In America, I could never do work like I do here,” Steven Holl, a New York architect with several large projects in China, recently told me, referring to his latest complex in Beijing. “We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new. This is their moment in time. They want to make the 21st century their century. For some reason, our society wants to make everything old. I think we somehow lost our nerve.”

Holl has reason to be exhilarated. His Beijing project, “Linked Hybrid,” is one of the most innovative housing complexes anywhere in the world: eight asymmetrical towers joined by a network of enclosed bridges that create a pedestrian zone in the sky. Yet this exhilaration also comes at a price: only the wealthiest of Beijing’s residents can afford to live here.

I think part of the nostalgia for old buildings in the United States comes from a desire for permanence as a source of security. But if you really want security in a form that most matters then how about supporting bigger efforts to create rejuvenation therapies. Then instead of watching your face and body gradually crumble they will look youthful for decades and therefore far more permanent.

Affluent people in areas with lots of really poor people want protection. I flash on the Todos Santos gated arcology community in Jerry Pournelle's science fiction book Oath Of Fealty. The newly affluent in India live in new gated high rise communities.

GURGAON, India — When the scorch of summer hit this north Indian boomtown, and the municipal water supply worked only a few hours each day, inside a high-rise tower called Hamilton Court, Jaya Chand could turn on her kitchen tap around the clock, and water would gush out.

The same was true when the electricity went out in the city, which it did on average for 12 hours a day, something that once prompted residents elsewhere in Gurgaon to storm the local power office. All the while, the Chands’ flat screen television glowed, the air-conditioners hummed, and the elevators cruised up and down Hamilton Court’s 25 floors.

Hamilton Court — complete with a private school within its gates, groomed lawns and security guards — is just one of the exclusive gated communities that have blossomed across India in recent years. At least for the newly moneyed upper middle class, they offer at high prices what the government cannot, at least not to the liking of their residents.

I expect an acceleration in the reshaping of communities. While we face a shortage of liquid fuels energy in the next 5 to 10 years eventually technological advances will make energy cheap again. Plus, robotics and nanotechnologies will lower the costs of fabrication and construction. My worry is that much of the planet's surface will eventually become constructed and fabricated.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 12 10:08 PM  Trends Housing
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2008 June 11 Wednesday
Toyota Pluggable Hybrid Coming In 2010

Toyota doesn't want to get beat to market by GM's Volt.

Toyota, rightly or wrongly, is widely considered the greenest automaker, and the company hopes to solidify its hold on the title and move beyond oil through a sweeping plan to produce cleaner, more efficient cars -- beginning with a plug-in hybrid it will produce by 2010.

It's no secret Toyota's been working on a plug-in hybrid to compete against the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt, but Wednesday's announcement sets a firm deadline and makes it clear Toyota has no plans of ceding the green mantle to General Motors. It also underscores how quickly the race to build a viable mass-market electric car is heating up.

The initial pluggable in 2010 will be aimed at fleet customers. I take that to mean that you and I won't be able to buy it. Does this mean they can't afford to sell a large number of them for a loss (due to expensive batteries) and therefore plan to restrict sales?

Toyota is just now starting up an internal battery research department for this hybrid. That seems like a big risk in their plan.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 11 11:17 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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Life Expectancy At Birth Rises

Ijn the United States from 2005 to 2006 the CDC's life expectancy at birth rose .3 years.

Age-adjusted death rates in the United States dropped significantly between 2005 and 2006 and life expectancy hit another record high, according to preliminary death statistics released today by CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The 2006 age-adjusted death rate fell to 776.4 deaths per 100,000 population from 799 deaths per 100,000 in 2005, the CDC report said. In addition, death rates for eight of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States all dropped significantly in 2006, it said. These included a very sharp drop in mortality from influenza and pneumonia.

The preliminary infant mortality rate for 2006 was 6.7 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, a 2.3 percent decline from the 2005 rate of 6.9.

The drop in death from influenza and pneumonia might just represent a weak set of flu strains in 2006. I doubt it comes as a result of a big improvement in methods of treatment.

This CDC estimate of life expectancy at birth is going to turn out to be grossly in error as advances in biotechnology start to make themselves felt in terms of better treatments. Someone born today will turn 78 in 2086. Does the CDC think that in 2086 we won't have replacement organs, cures for cancer, cures for Alzheimer's Disease, and stem cell therapies? 78 is an extremely conservative estimate for life expectancy of someone born today.

  • Life expectancy at birth hit a record high in 2006 of 78.1 years, a 0.3 increase from 2005. Record high life expectancy was recorded for both white males and black males (76 years and 70 years respectively) as well as for white females and black females (81 years and 76.9 years).
  • The preliminary number of deaths in the United States in 2006 was 2,425,900, a 22,117 decrease from 2005.
  • Between 2005 and 2006, the largest decline in age-adjusted death rates occurred for influenza/pneumonia (12.8 percent). Other declines were observed for chronic lower respiratory diseases (6.5 percent), stroke (6.4 percent), heart disease (5.5 percent), diabetes (5.3 percent), hypertension (5 percent), chronic liver disease/cirrhosis (3.3 percent), suicide (2.8 percent), septicemia, also known as blood poisoning (2.7 percent), cancer (1.6 percent) and accidents (1.5 percent).
  • There were 12,045 deaths from HIV/AIDS in 2006, and age-adjusted death rates from the disease declined 4.8 percent from 2005.
  • Alzheimer’s disease overtook diabetes as the 6th leading cause of death in the United States in 2006. Preliminary data indicate 72,914 Americans died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2006.

The full report (PDF) has lots more details. Here are the top 15 causes of death. Number 1 caused 629,191 deaths followed by 2 at 560,102 and 3 at 137,265. Those top 3 killers account for 54.6% of all deaths. The top 15 causes account for 81.2% of all death. The only one of the top 15 causes that did not drop in incidence was number 9, kidney-related diseases.

1.Diseases of heart
2.Malignant neoplasms
3.Cerebrovascular diseases
4.Chronic lower respiratory diseases
5.Accidents (unintentional injuries)
6.Alzheimer’s disease
7.Diabetes mellitus
8.Influenza and pneumonia
9.Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis
11.Intentional self-harm (suicide)
12.Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis
13.Essential hypertension and hypertensive renal disease
14.Parkinson’s disease
15.Assault (homicide)

We need cures for cancer. We also need stem cell therapies for the vascular system. Plus, we need stem cell therapies for heart muscle. All those combined would stop the first 3 killers (excepting heart problems which have a neural component). Such treatments would also reduce the incidence of brain diseases by improving brain circulation.

While the list above shows what kills us. It understates the problems with brain decay. A lot of people die of cancer and heart disease while gradually sinking into dementia.

Want to have rational worries about the future? Worry that too many obstacles are slowing up the rate of progress for the development of rejuvenation therapies. Support measures to remove some of those obstacles.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 11 10:33 PM  Aging Trends
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2008 June 10 Tuesday
Delay In Next Solar Cycle Continues

Our sun is being a slacker.

BOZEMAN -- The sun has been laying low for the past couple of years, producing no sunspots and giving a break to satellites.

That's good news for people who scramble when space weather interferes with their technology, but it became a point of discussion for the scientists who attended an international solar conference at Montana State University. Approximately 100 scientists from Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and North America gathered June 1-6 to talk about "Solar Variability, Earth's Climate and the Space Environment."

The scientists said periods of inactivity are normal for the sun, but this period has gone on longer than usual.

The climate always changes. Natural forces will cause big climate changes even if humans do not interfere.

The 11 year sun spot cycle reminds me of women who fear pregnancy and wait for their late menstrual cycle. We are late on the warming part of the solar cycle. Have you started to worry yet?

The last cycle reached its peak in 2001 and is believed to be just ending now, Longcope said. The next cycle is just beginning and is expected to reach its peak sometime around 2012. Today's sun, however, is as inactive as it was two years ago, and scientists aren't sure why.

"It's a dead face," Tsuneta said of the sun's appearance.

Tsuneta said solar physicists aren't like weather forecasters; They can't predict the future. They do have the ability to observe, however, and they have observed a longer-than-normal period of solar inactivity. In the past, they observed that the sun once went 50 years without producing sunspots. That period coincided with a little ice age on Earth that lasted from 1650 to 1700.

Cold weather would shorten growing seasons and therefore reduce crop yields. Cold weather would also raise heating costs and other costs associated with winter such as plowing. All this would happen while the world oil production declines.

But I'm not talking about the late start of the next sun cycle to alarm you. Oh no. Why get alarmed about something that would make for an exciting science fiction adventure movie?

The bleak truth is that, under normal conditions, most of North America and Europe are buried under about 1.5km of ice. This bitterly frigid climate is interrupted occasionally by brief warm interglacials, typically lasting less than 10,000 years.

The interglacial we have enjoyed throughout recorded human history, called the Holocene, began 11,000 years ago, so the ice is overdue. We also know that glaciation can occur quickly: the required decline in global temperature is about 12C and it can happen in 20 years.

The next descent into an ice age is inevitable but may not happen for another 1,000 years. On the other hand, it must be noted that the cooling in 2007 was even faster than in typical glacial transitions. If it continued for 20 years, the temperature would be 14C cooler in 2027.

By then, most of the advanced nations would have ceased to exist, vanishing under the ice, and the rest of the world would be faced with a catastrophe beyond imagining.

Suppose another ice age started. Think about all the massive desperate large scale engineering efforts that would be undertaken in order to prevent the enormous disaster that would befall us.

But how to heat the planet? Cooling it is a lot easier. How to prevent a new ice age? Anyone come across some good proposals on this? A massive release of methane into the atmosphere perhaps?

What, me worry? Anthony Watts summarizes the latest data on planetary cooling.

Confirming what many of us have already noted from the anecdotal evidence coming in of a much cooler than normal May, such as late spring snows as far south as Arizona, extended skiing in Colorado, and delays in snow cover melting, (here and here), the University of Alabama, Huntsville (UAH) published their satellite derived Advanced Microwave Sounder Unit data set of the Lower Troposphere for May 2008.

It is significantly colder globally, colder even than the significant drop to -0.046°C seen in January 2008.

The global ∆T from April to May 2008 was -.195°C

2008 1 -0.046
2008 2 0.020
2008 3 0.094
2008 4 0.015
2008 5 -0.180

Compared to the May 2007 value of 0.199°C we find a 12 month ∆T is -.379°C.

I like being able to walk to work in June without working up a major sweat. So far it doesn't seem like a problem to me.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 10 10:44 PM  Climate Trends
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2008 June 09 Monday
Omega 3 Fatty Acids Seen Cutting Macular Degeneration Risk

Eat fish to save your eyes from the wear and tear of aging.

Eating fish and other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids is associated with reduced risk of the eye disease age-related macular degeneration (AMD), according to a meta-analysis of nine previously published studies in the June issue of Archives of Ophthalmology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals. However, the accumulated evidence includes few clinical trials and is insufficient to support the routine consumption of such foods for AMD prevention, the authors note.

"Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of severe vision loss among elderly people," they write as background information in the article. New treatments for AMD are potentially risky and treat only certain forms of the disease. "Thus, primary prevention of AMD by modifying risk factors (e.g., cigarette smoking) remains an important public health strategy."

Elaine W-T. Chong, M.B.B.S., of the University of Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues conducted a systematic review of studies published before May 2007 evaluating the fish consumption and overall omega-3 fatty acid intake for the prevention of AMD. A total of nine studies were identified with 88,974 participants, including 3,203 individuals with AMD.

When results from all nine studies were combined, a high dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids was associated with a 38 percent reduction in the risk of late (more advanced) AMD, while eating fish twice a week was associated with a reduced risk of both early and late AMD.

The DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in fish oil is a component of the retina. It also gets used in brain membranes.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 09 10:56 PM  Aging Diet Eye Studies
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Low Vitamin D Associated With More Heart Attacks

The stream of research reports on the health benefits of vitamin D just keeps coming. Today we learn that vitamin D probably cuts our risk of heart attacks.

Low levels of vitamin D appear to be associated with higher risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) in men, according to a report in the June 9 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Studies have shown that the rates of cardiovascular disease-related deaths are increased at higher latitudes and during the winter months and are lower at high altitudes, according to background information in the article. "This pattern is consistent with an adverse effect of hypovitaminosis D [vitamin D deficiency], which is more prevalent at higher latitudes, during the winter and at lower altitudes," the authors write. While other explanations are possible, vitamin D has been shown to affect the body in ways that may influence the risk of heart attack or heart disease.

Edward Giovannucci, M.D., Sc.D., of Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, and colleagues reviewed medical records and blood samples of 454 men (age 40 to 75) who had non-fatal heart attack or fatal heart disease from the date of blood collection (between January 1993 and December 1995) until January 2004. They then compared the data from these men with records and blood samples of 900 living men who did not have a history of cardiovascular disease. The men's diet and lifestyle factors, recorded by self-administered questionnaires were also noted.

Men with a vitamin D deficiency (having 15 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less) had an increased risk for heart attack compared with those with a sufficient amount (having 30 nanograms per milliliter of blood or more) of vitamin D. "After additional adjustment for family history of myocardial infarction, body mass index, alcohol consumption, physical activity, history of diabetes mellitus and hypertension, ethnicity, region, marine omega 3 intake, low- and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels, this relationship remained significant," the authors write. Men with intermediate levels of vitamin D had a higher risk of heart attack than those with sufficient vitamin D levels.

How's your dietary vitamin D? Do you get much sun?

Also, vitamin D deficiency is common among children.

Many healthy infants and toddlers may have low levels of vitamin D, and about one-third of those appear to have some evidence of reduced bone mineral content on X-rays, according to a report in the June issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Reports of a resurgence of vitamin D deficiency and rickets, the resulting bone-weakening disease, have emerged in several states, according to background information in the article. Vitamin D deficiency also appears to be high in other countries, including Greece, China, Canada and England.

We spend a lot more time indoors than our distant ancestors did. We do not live in our natural environments. This creates problems such as not enough sunlight hitting our skin to synthesize vitamin D.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 09 10:41 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Hyperactivity Gene Helps Nomadic Tribesmen?

Why do kids have problems with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity? I've long believed that surely these behaviors must have had evolutionary value or else they wouldn't exist. In other words, use of Ritalin and similar drugs to tame kids amounts to trying to put a damper on the genetic nature of hyperactive humans. Our problem is that we now live in technologically created environments which we did not encounter in our evolutionary past. Therefore in many cases we are not adaptive to our new environments. Well, finally some really detailed evidence to support my hunch: Kenyan nomads do better with an ADHD gene whereas those who have converted to settled living do worse with this same version of the DRD4 gene.

A propensity for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might be beneficial to a group of Kenyan nomads, according to new research published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. Scientists have shown that an ADHD-associated version of the gene DRD4 is associated with better health in nomadic tribesmen, and yet may cause malnourishment in their settled cousins.

Different versions of a receptor for the neurotransmitter dopamine make people more or less hyperactive.

A study led by Dan Eisenberg, an anthropology graduate student from Northwestern University in the US, analyzed the correlates of body mass index (BMI) and height with two genetic polymorphisms in dopamine receptor genes, in particular the 48 base pair (bp) repeat polymorphism in the dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) gene.

The DRD4 gene codes for a receptor for dopamine, one of the chemical messengers used in the brain. According to Eisenberg "this gene is likely to be involved in impulsivity, reward anticipation and addiction". One version of the DRD4 gene, the '7R allele', is believed to be associated with food craving as well as ADHD. By studying adult men of the Ariaal of Kenya, some of whom still live as nomads while others have recently settled, the research team investigated whether this association would have the same implications in different environments.

While those with the DRD4/7R allele were better nourished in the nomadic population, they were less well-nourished in the settled population. Although the effects of different versions of dopamine genes have already been studied in industrialized countries, very little research has been carried out in non-industrial, subsistence environments like the areas where the Ariaal live, despite the fact that such environments may be more similar to the environments where much of human genetic evolution took place.

Eisenberg explains, "The DRD4/7R allele has been linked to greater food and drug cravings, novelty-seeking, and ADHD symptoms. It is possible that in the nomadic setting, a boy with this allele might be able to more effectively defend livestock against raiders or locate food and water sources, but that the same tendencies might not be as beneficial in settled pursuits such as focusing in school, farming or selling goods".

These findings suggest that behavior differences previously associated with the DRD4 gene, such as ADHD, are more or less effective depending on the environment. Research into how this might occur in Ariaal children is planned in the near future.

Think about a nomad guarding his herd. If he can focus in on one thing he might not notice predators or raiders approaching. If he can't sit still he is more likely to spend his time looking around and will notice more of his environment. If he's more distractable by movement he sees out of the corner of his eye he's more likely to notice livestock wandering off or a threat.

Or look at geeky guys who are smart at math and physics but not strong. The development of computers and other complex technologies have made them far more adaptive than they used to be. Highly coordinated muscular guys have become relatively less valuable in the job market as robots and hydraulic heavy duty equipment do increasing portions of the heavy lifting and manipulation. Women can do a larger fraction of all jobs because hard manual labor has dwindled as a portion of all work.

The continued rapid decline in costs for DNA sequencing and DNA testing will lead to a torrent of studies such as the one reported above. We will learn the identities of many more genetic variations that affect behavior, intellectual abilities, and physical abilities along with the distribution of these genetic variations around the world. Our picture of humanity is on the verge of radical change. These discoveries will finally demonstrate how evolution is the most powerful force shaping humanity.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 09 08:49 PM  Brain Evolution
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2008 June 08 Sunday
Trial Of Offshore Floating Wind Turbine In Norway

A Norwegian fossil fuels company is going to try to use technology developed for offshore drilling to put up a floating offshore wind turbine.

The notion of floating wind turbines far offshore may have come a nautical mile closer to reality late last month, with the announcement of a collaboration between Norwegian oil and gas producer StatoilHydro and Germany's Siemens, a major wind-turbine producer. The new partners plan to install what could be the world's first commercial-scale wind turbine located offshore in deep water. StatoilHydro has allocated 400 million NOK ($78 million) to floating a Siemens turbine in more than 200 meters of water--10 times the depth that conventional offshore wind-turbine foundations can handle--atop a conventional oil and gas platform.

They will use a standard Siemens 2.3-megawatt wind turbine and a spar buoy very similar to what floating oil drilling platforms use. Initially they expect the electric power to be as expensive as solar power (i.e. very expensive). But they think they can get the costs way down.

What I wonder: How much of the higher cost is due to the cable that brings the electricity to shore? That part of the cost doesn't seem very amenable to cost reduction in the short to medium term.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 08 03:14 PM  Energy Wind
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GM Volt Battery $16000?

The price of oil hit $138.54 on June 6, 2008. Our need for electric cars becomes more urgent with every surge in oil and gasoline prices. But the battery for the General Motors Chevy Volt pluggable hybrid looks too expensive for the mass market.

How much you'll pay for one remains an open question, and one answered by the price of the lithium ion batteries. "They're over $1,000 a kilowatt hour," Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC-Davis, told Wired.com. "The Volt battery is 16 kilowatt hours. That's $16,000 just for the battery."

GM originally claimed the Volt would go on sale for $30,000. But GM has indicated $40k to $48k might be more likely. According to Wired GM will probably restrict initial 2010 model production of the Volt to 30,000 units.

The 16 kwh battery for a car that goes 40 miles on battery power means it uses 400 watt-hours per mile. That seems a high rate of electric usage per mile for a car designed for very high efficiency. Anyone have expertise to offer on this?

A few readers complain I'm not sufficiently optimistic about the potential for technological advances to solve our energy problems. Well, look at the facts. The world oil production plateau might not last beyond 2008 or 2009. We are going to enter the early stages of world oil production decline without the technologies needed to shift to electric cars. Car companies have limited capacities to produce even conventional hybrids. Just go try to buy a hybrid Ford Escape which has a production limit of 25,000 per year. We are not ready. Our living standards are going to decline.

The technological advances will eventually come. But we'll have much lower living standards by the time those advances arrive and the incorporation of those advances into capital and consumer products will take years and lots of money. The 2010s will be tough.

Update: Limits on battery production capacity prevent a big ramp-up of hybrid car manufacturing.

But another problem in keeping up with demand is an acute shortage of the nickel-metal-hydride batteries required for hybrid vehicles. GM's launch of its new hybrid-SUVs has been delayed for nearly three months by a labor dispute at a key supplier of the batteries. And Toyota's chances of getting more hybrids into showrooms is foundering on the battery shortage. "We can't produce enough batteries right now," Carter says. A new plant for the nickel-metal-hydride batteries won't come on line until 2010.

2010 is 2 years. Toyota can't ramp up hybrid construction for 2 years? Bad news. The article also reports a Ford spokesman saying that Ford can only get 24,000 NiMH batteries per year that they need for their Escape Hybrid.

Our ability to technologically respond to declining oil production is still pretty poor. Choose job and residence address to minimize your commuting. In the US do not buy a car that gets less than 30 mpg highway. Do not count on technological advances to save us in the short run.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 08 12:02 AM  Energy Batteries
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2008 June 07 Saturday
Resveratrol Alters Gene Expression Similar To Calorie Restriction

A report in Plos One finds that in mice resveratrol causes a change in gene expression patterns very similar to that seen with calorie restriction diets. Resveratrol might extend life just as calorie restriction does without the need to feel constant hunger or to look gaunt.

Resveratrol in high doses has been shown to extend lifespan in some studies in invertebrates and to prevent early mortality in mice fed a high-fat diet. We fed mice from middle age (14-months) to old age (30-months) either a control diet, a low dose of resveratrol (4.9 mg kg−1 day−1), or a calorie restricted (CR) diet and examined genome-wide transcriptional profiles. We report a striking transcriptional overlap of CR and resveratrol in heart, skeletal muscle and brain. Both dietary interventions inhibit gene expression profiles associated with cardiac and skeletal muscle aging, and prevent age-related cardiac dysfunction. Dietary resveratrol also mimics the effects of CR in insulin mediated glucose uptake in muscle. Gene expression profiling suggests that both CR and resveratrol may retard some aspects of aging through alterations in chromatin structure and transcription. Resveratrol, at doses that can be readily achieved in humans, fulfills the definition of a dietary compound that mimics some aspects of CR.

Biogerontology theorist Aubrey de Grey does not expect calorie restriction (CR) or drugs that mimic calorie restriction to boost human longevity by the same percentage amount that they do in mice. Aubrey expects maybe a year or two extra life from a human as a result of CR. If Aubrey is correct then resveratrol might extend life but not by a decade. However, we still do not know whether resveratrol will lower all cause mortality in humans.

Some of the researchers involved in this effort think this result is important because the dose of resveratrol used is low and makes human use of resveratrol more practical.

"This brings down the dose of resveratrol toward the consumption reality mode," says senior author Richard Weindruch, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of medicine and a researcher at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital. "At the same time, it plugs into the biology of caloric restriction."

Previous research has shown that resveratrol in high doses extends lifespan in invertebrates and prevents early mortality in mice given a high-fat diet. The new study, conducted by researchers from academia and industry, extends those findings, showing that resveratrol in low doses and beginning in middle age can elicit many of the same benefits as a reduced-calorie diet.

"Resveratrol is active in much lower doses than previously thought and mimics a significant fraction of the profile of caloric restriction at the gene expression level," says Tomas Prolla, a UW-Madison professor of genetics and a senior author of the new report.

That 4.9 mg per kg means 4.9 mg per 2.2 pounds. So a 180 pound person would take 400 mg of resveratrol per day. Or a 150 lb person would take 334 mg per day. You can easily find resveratrol capsules in the range of 100 to 500 mg per capsule. Though one has to consider the possibility that some of these advertised potencies overstate the quality of the products.

Big money is getting invested to develop patentable drugs that show the same effects as resveratrol.

The report is part of a new wave of interest in drugs that may enhance longevity. On Monday, Sirtris, a startup founded in 2004 to develop drugs with the same effects as resveratrol, completed its sale to GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million.

Such drugs will take years to come to market. The clinical trials for these drugs will provide us a clearer picture of whether this effect will provide real health benefits.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 07 11:32 PM  Aging Diet Resveratrol
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Compounds Inhibit And Stimulate Neural Stem Cell Growth

Some brain stem cell researchers have identified molecules that keep stem cells in a basically sleeping deactivated state and they think this points toward how to activate stem cells to do brain repairs.

Boston, MA-Scientists at Schepens Eye Research Institute have identified specific molecules in the brain that are responsible for awakening and putting to sleep brain stem cells, which, when activated, can transform into neurons (nerve cells) and repair damaged brain tissue. Their findings are published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

A previous paper by the same group found stem cells in many more parts of the brain than stem cells were previously know to exist. This suggests more parts of the brain are repairable via mechanisms already there if we can only find ways to get control of those mechanisms.

An earlier paper (published in the May issue of Stem Cells) by the same scientists laid the foundation for the PNAS study findings by demonstrating that neural stem cells exist in every part of the brain, but are mostly kept silent by chemical signals from support cells known as astrocytes.

"The findings from both papers should have a far-reaching impact," says principal investigator, Dr. Dong Feng Chen, who is an associate scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute and an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. Chen believes that tapping the brain¹s dormant, but intrinsic, ability to regenerate itself is the best hope for people suffering from brain-ravaging diseases such as Parkinson¹s or Alzheimer¹s disease or traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries.

Until these studies, which were conducted in the adult brains of mice, scientists assumed that only two parts of the brain contained neural stem cells and could turn them on to regenerate brain tissue-- the subgranular zone (SGZ) of the hippocampus and the subventricular zone (SVZ). The hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory, while the SVZ is a brain structure situated throughout the walls of lateral ventricles (part of the ventricular system in the brain) and is responsible for generating neurons reponsible for smell. So scientists believed that when neurons died in other areas of the brain, they were lost forever along with their functions.

Molecules named ephrin-A2 and ephrin-A3 inhibit neural stem cell growth. So inhibitors of those molecules might help to activate stem cells for brain repair. Sonic hedgehog (which the press release below misspells as sonic hedghoc) stimulates neural stem cell growth. Inhibit the ephrins and stimulate sonic hedgehog and the result would be much more neural stem cell growth.

In the second (PNAS) study, the team went on to discover the exact nature of those different chemical signals. They learned that in the areas where stem cells were sleeping, astrocytes were producing high levels of two related molecules--ephrin-A2 and ephrin-A3. They also found that removing these molecules (with a genetic tool) activated the sleeping stem cells.

The team also found that astrocytes in the hippocampus produce not only much lower levels of ephrin-A2 and ephrin-A3, but also release a protein named sonic hedghoc that, when added in culture or injected into the brain, stimulates neural stem cells to divide and become new neurons.

What I'd like to know: As the brain ages do the astrocyte support cells excrete more ephrin-A2 and ephrin-A3 and less sonic hedgehog? Maybe the aging brain becomes less able to do repair because evolutionary natural selection selected for stem cell inhibition as an anti-cancer strategy. Therapies to activate brain stem cells might increase risk of brain tumors. Of course, if you have Parkinson's Disease your trade-off might weigh to taking that risk as likely to deliver the best net benefit.

The eventual development of techniques to create youthful neural stem cells will provide stem cells that can be safely stimulate to grow without running a cancer risk. But How to replace the old stem cells with young ones? It is not enough to add the newer younger stem cells to the brain (and just getting the new stem cells into all the spots in the brain they need to go is a challenge). We need to get rid of the old stem cells so that a drug that boosts stem cell growth will only stimulate the new stem cells and not the old stem cells too.

I wrote a post back in November 2004 about the ability of sonic hedgehog to triple brain stem cell growth. The use of sonic hedgehog for this purpose is well known among the researchers in this area.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 07 10:28 PM  Brain Stem Cells
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2008 June 05 Thursday
Low Serotonin Increases Desire To Punish Unfairness

University of Cambridge researchers have found that reducing brain serotonin increased the willingness of people to engage in altruistic punishment behaviors.

The researchers were able reduce brain serotonin levels in healthy volunteers for a short time by manipulating their diet. They used a situation known as the 'Ultimatum Game' to investigate how individuals with low serotonin react to what they perceive as unfair behaviour. In this game one player proposes a way to split a sum of money with a partner. If the partner accepts, both players are paid accordingly. But if he rejects the offer, neither player is paid.

Normally, people tend to reject about half of all offers less than 20-30% of the total stake, despite the fact that this means they receive nothing - but rejection rates increased to more than 80% after serotonin reductions. Other measures showed that the volunteers with serotonin depletion were not simply depressed or hypersensitive to lost rewards.

PhD student Molly Crockett, a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, said: "Our results suggest that serotonin plays a critical role in social decision-making by normally keeping aggressive social responses in check. Changes in diet and stress cause our serotonin levels to fluctuate naturally, so it's important to understand how this might affect our everyday decision-making."

The innate desire to punish those who are unfair is an essential instinct for maintaining a society. Rules for cooperation and fairness must be enforced or a society will decay. Our brains must feel internal rewarded for punishing others because the delivery of that punishment often delivers no external rewards.

See my previous posts Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind and Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 05 10:51 PM  Brain Altruism
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Car Computers Networked To Foil Thieves

You just know where this is going.

The security system relies on networks of cars constantly gossiping with their neighbours using concealed wireless transmitters. The cars raise the alarm when a thief tries to make a getaway with any of their number.

"Multiple sensors hidden within the car would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a car thief to disable the system in a short period of time," says Hui Song from Frostburg State University, Maryland, US, who designed the system – called SVATS (Sensor-network-based Vehicle Anti-theft System) – with colleagues at Pennsylvania State University.

You just know where this is heading? Do I even have to tell you? What nightmare future world do we wake up to some day?

As computers in cars get more and more powerful and smarter these networks will some day achieve sentience. They'll already be talking to each other and suddenly they'll become the Borg car network. Picture Steven King's >Maximum Overdrive movie where cosmic rays from a passing comet turn trucks into sentient killers.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 05 10:40 PM 
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Vitamin D Might Cut Type I Diabetes Risk

Vitamin D appears to play an important role in the immune system. In a recent post about rheumatoid arthritis risk factors I mentioned that vitamin D appears to cut the risk of getting that terrible auto-immune disorder. Well, now comes a report from vitamin D researcher Cedric Garland of USCD about how type I auto-immune diabetes occurs at the highest rates where people get less sunshine and therefore get less vitamin D synthesized in their skin.

Sun exposure and vitamin D levels may play a strong role in risk of type 1 diabetes in children, according to new findings by researchers at the Moores Cancer Center at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. This association comes on the heels of similar research findings by this same group regarding vitamin D levels and several major cancers.

In this new study, the researchers found that populations living at or near the equator, where there is abundant sunshine (and ultraviolet B irradiance) have low incidence rates of type 1 diabetes. Conversely, populations at higher latitudes, where available sunlight is scarcer, have higher incidence rates. These findings add new support to the concept of a role of vitamin D in reducing risk of this disease.

Ultraviolet B (UVB) exposure triggers photosynthesis of vitamin D3 in the skin. This form of vitamin D also is available through diet and supplements.

"This is the first study, to our knowledge, to show that higher serum levels of vitamin D are associated with reduced incidence rates of type 1 diabetes worldwide," said Cedric F. Garland, Dr. P.H., professor of Family and Preventive Medicine in the UCSD School of Medicine, and member of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center.

The study is published June 5 in the online version of the scientific journal Diabetologia.

Do I even need to mention that vitamin D seems to also cut the risk of the killer auto-immune disorder Multiple Sclerosis? Want to avoid auto-immune disorders, cut your risk of cancer, and probably reduce your incidence of infectious diseases? Vitamin D delivers many benefits.

My Australian and Kiwi readers (and Chileans and Argentineans) are coming up on their shortest day of the year and they ought to be thinking about vitamin D supplementation. Northern hemisphere denizens who stay indoors the vast bulk of the time ought to consider vitamin D supplementation during the summer as well.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 05 08:55 PM  Nutrition Immune Disorders
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2008 June 04 Wednesday
New Train Designs Boost Rail Freight In Europe

A Fortune article highlights the problems that long distance freight rail faces in Europe with incompatible national systems. New train designs can operate over more national borders.

Engineers at Bombardier's facilities all over Europe set out to invent a new train that could traverse Europe's patchwork of voltage levels, signal systems and other local quirks - while keeping this feature-rich locomotive affordable.

Why am I doing a post about this? If this article is correct then an amazingly small percentage of freight in Europe gets moved by rail.

Bombardier and its chief competitor Siemens (SI), the German engineering giant, see a huge opportunity. In the United States, half of all freight is shipped by rail. In Europe, only 10% is carted by train. Meanwhile, European highways are clogged, and truckers now pay fees to help offset pollution.

Would you have expected this? Europe has a higher percentage of passenger movement done by rail than America. Yet Europe's use of rail for freight is lower.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 04 10:44 PM  Energy Transportation
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Alcohol Cuts Rheumatoid Arthritis Risk?

Why would alcohol consumption cut the risk of an auto-immune disease? Does alcohol act like an anti-inflammatory and dampen the immune response to inflammation of joints?

Alcohol cuts the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis by up to 50%, reveals research published ahead of print in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

The Scandinavian researchers base their findings on more than 2750 people taking part in two separate studies, which assessed environmental and genetic risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis.

Over half the participants (1650) had the disease and had been matched for age, sex, and residential locality with randomly selected members of the general public.

All participants were quizzed about their lifestyle, including how much they smoked and drank. And blood samples were taken to check for genetic risk factors.

The results showed that drinking alcohol was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. And the more alcohol was consumed, the lower the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

Among those who drank regularly, the quarter with the highest consumption were up to 50% less likely to develop the disease compared with the half who drank the least.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is definitely a disease you want to avoid. Not only does it cause lots of pain. But this auto-immune disease appears to do wider damage. RA sufferers have a much greater risk of heart disease.

The researchers found that while 85 percent of the RA patients between the ages of 50 and 59 had an intermediate or high risk for developing heart disease within 10 years of diagnosis, just 27 percent of comparable non-RA patients did. Among patients between the ages of 60 and 69 at the start of the study, 100 percent of the RA patients had an intermediate or high risk for heart disease, compared with 79 percent of non-RA patients.

When looking at just "high risk" among the 60 to 69 age group, the difference was even more dramatic: 85 percent for RA patients, compared to just 40 percent for non-RA patients.

The researchers concluded that more than half of RA patients 50 to 59, and all RA patients over the age of 60, had a 10 percent or greater risk of developing heart disease within 10 years of an RA diagnosis.

An earlier report found a doubling to tripling of heart disease risk from rheumatoid arthritis.

Aside from drinking alcohol what else can you do to cut your RA risks? Turns out that vitamin D consumption is strongly inversely correlated with rheumatoid arthritis risk.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 04 10:44 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2008 June 03 Tuesday
Billboard Cameras Analyzer Passers-By

Next time you look at a sign or billboard be aware it might be looking back at you.

Now, some entrepreneurs have introduced technology to solve that problem. They are equipping billboards with tiny cameras that gather details about passers-by — their gender, approximate age and how long they looked at the billboard. These details are transmitted to a central database.

Behind the technology are small start-ups that say they are not storing actual images of the passers-by, so privacy should not be a concern. The cameras, they say, use software to determine that a person is standing in front of a billboard, then analyze facial features (like cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin) to judge the person’s gender and age. So far the companies are not using race as a parameter, but they say that they can and will soon.

The goal, these companies say, is to tailor a digital display to the person standing in front of it — to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman, for example, and a different one to a teenage Asian boy.

This is a step in the direction of websites like Amazon where they show you products based on which products you've previously purchased or viewed. The image processing computers behind the cameras do not identify you personally today. But they probably will in the future.

What will you be able to do about it? Get onto a web site that provides genetic engineering services and come up with some instructions to feed into your home bioreactor to modify your stem cells to give them orders to reshape your face. Then the cameras won't recognize you.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 03 11:15 PM  Surveillance Society
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Evidence On Inflammation Cancer Link

More evidence that chronic inflammation kills:

Chronic inflammation of the intestine or stomach can damage DNA, increasing the risk of cancer, MIT scientists have confirmed.

The researchers published evidence of the long-suspected link in the June 2 online issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI).

In two studies, the researchers found that chronic inflammation accelerated tumor formation in mice lacking the ability to repair DNA damage.

"It's something that was expected but it was never formally proven," said Lisiane Meira, research scientist in MIT's Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS) and lead author of the paper.

The results of this work suggest that people with decreased ability to repair DNA damage might be more susceptible to developing cancer associated with chronic inflammation such as ulcerative colitis, Meira said.

Inflammation caused by infectious agents such as Helicobacter pylori and Hepatitis C is known to increase the risk of stomach and liver cancers, respectively. Researchers have long known that inflammation produces cytokines (immune response chemicals that encourage cell proliferation and suppress cell death), which can lead to cancer.

In addition, it was suspected that another effect of the inflammation pathway could also induce cancer. During the inflammatory response to infection, immune cells such as macrophages and neutrophils release reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that can damage DNA.

The known cancer risk from Helicobacter pylori suggests that screening for Helicobacter pylori infection followed by treatment could cut the rate of stomach cancer. Helicobacter pylori is a quite curable infection. Some people find they have it when diagnosed with an ulcer. But others live without without knowing its presence in the stomach is upping their risk of stomach cancer. I've actually thought of getting tested for Helicobacter pylori but have never got off my butt to go ask a doctor for the test.

You can cut your risk of chronic inflammation by getting plenty of omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, a Mediterranean diet, and plenty of exercise. Of course do not smoke or otherwise expose yourself to toxins.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 03 11:04 PM  Biotech Cancer
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2008 June 02 Monday
Rapid Destruction Of Papua New Guinea Rainforests

A new study finds that the rain forests of Papua New Guinea are getting destroyed much faster than the Amazon.

Their study found that PNG's forests were being cleared or degraded at a rate of 1.4% per year in 2002, increasing to 1.7% per year in 2007. If clearing and degradation continues unchecked, over half of the forest that existed when PNG became independent from Australia in 1975 will have been destroyed by 2021, according to the report. The Brazilian Amazon is losing forest at the rate of 0.9% per year.

Asian industrialization is raising the demand for timber. So the rate of destruction will probably accelerate.

PNG has a lot of unique species.

Logging and road building are already leading to erosion and fragmentation of ecosystems harboring some of the world’s most varied, and least-studied, wildlife, said Phil Shearman, the lead author and director of the Remote Sensing Center of the University of Papua New Guinea. The study is available online at gis.mortonblacketer.com.au/upngis/.

PNG has a disproportionate fraction of all the planet's species.

Although it only accounts for less than 0.5% of the Earth's land cover, the heavily forested island nation is home to an estimated 6-7% of the planet's species.

Birth control would help.

Papua New Guinea's tropical rainforest - the world's third largest - is not only being logged by timber firms but also cleared for subsistence farming, in a country of 6m people with one of the highest population growth rates in the world.

So far I do not see technological advances slowing the rate of habitat destruction. The opposite seems to be the case.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 02 11:14 PM  Trends Habitat Loss
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Expanding Silicon Crystal Production To Lower Photovoltaics Costs?

Here's yet another prognosticator saying finally solar photovoltaics prices might go down after a few years of plateauing prices.

Worldwide production capacity for silicon and thin film panels will jump from 3.14 gigawatts in 2007 to 12.36 gigawatts in 2010, Travis Bradford, president of the Prometheus Institute, said at a Greentech Media conference this week.

Suppose all that capacity got used because, say, oil available for export starts to seriously decline as the Export Land Model predicts (and really go read that). People desperate for energy start trying to shift lots of uses of oil toward electric powered devices. Well, solar panel demand might skyrocket.

But Mr. Bradford foresees a big cut in PV prices.

Prices for traditional silicon-based solar panels will fall from $3.66 per watt in 2007 to $2.14 per watt in 2010, he forecasted, while the average price of thin-film panels is expected to drop from $2.96 per watt in 2007 to $1.81 per watt in 2010.

Part of the reason for the anticipated drop is that Bradford expects the amount of silicon for the solar industry to quadruple from 30,070 tons in 2007 to 125,302 tons in 2012.

Hawaii will benefit in a big way. Almost all of its electricity comes from burning oil. In the comments of a a previous post I did on the expected decline in photovoltaics prices a fellow named Scott says he's paying 36.6 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh). That's over 3 times the US national average rate for electricity which in 2007 was 10.64 cents per kwh.

I see a curious effect of cheap solar: It will make air conditioning relatively cheaper than heating. During the summer we have lots of sunlight to drive solar cells to make electricity to run air conditioners. During the winter we lack the sunlight to make things warm. So rising oil prices combined with declining PV costs will cause migrations toward the equator.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 02 11:09 PM  Energy Solar
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2008 June 01 Sunday
Therapies Restore Aging Skin Collagen Production

Some people apply topical retinoic acid in order to look good. But think of retinoic acid as a rejuvenation therapy that at least partially restores collagen needed to avoid bruises and tears. No need to think you are doing the therapy for vanity. No, no. Think "reinforce structural integrity". (can you hear a Star Trek character saying that?)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Fine wrinkles, deeper creases, saggy areas around the mouth and neck – the sights in the mirror that make baby boomers wince – are not inevitable. They result from a structural breakdown inside the skin that some existing treatments effectively counteract by stimulating the growth of new, youthful collagen, University of Michigan scientists say.

The researchers report an emerging picture of collagen collapse and possible renewal, based on more than a decade of studies, in the May issue of Archives of Dermatology.

The article draws on dozens of studies since the early 1990s, conducted primarily by U-M dermatologists, to explain why three types of available skin treatments are effective: topical retinoic acid, carbon dioxide laser resurfacing and injections of cross-linked hyaluronic acid.

These treatments all improve the skin’s appearance – and its ability to resist bruises and tears – by stimulating new collagen.

I wonder whether long term use of retinoic acid slows the rate of skin aging. Or does it cause the collagen producing cells to wear out more quickly?

You do not want your skin to dissolve. Aging is destruction. All this sounds bad.

As skin ages, reactive oxygen species, associated with many aspects of aging, lead to increased production of the enzyme collagenase, which breaks down collagen. Then fibroblasts, the critical players in firm, healthy skin, lose their normal stretched state. They collapse, and then more breakdown enzymes are produced. People in their 80s have four times more broken collagen than people in their 20s.

“What it’s doing is dissolving your skin,” Voorhees says. “What you’ve got is a vicious cycle. You have to interrupt it, or aging skin is just going downhill.”

In the elderly, in whom the dermis has lost two-thirds or more of its youthful thickness through collagen loss, skin tears and bruises easily. Collagen-building interventions thus have potential for reducing basic health problems such as bed sores, in addition to improving appearance.

We really need stem cell therapies and gene therapies that would fix the damage that causes the reactive oxygen species generation. Stop the problem at its root.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 01 10:47 PM  Rejuvenation Skin
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Early Drinking Tied To Greater Alcoholism Risk

Teens probably ought to avoid alcohol in order to lower risk of alcoholism.

Drinking at an early age can lead to later alcohol dependence

  • An early age at onset of drinking (AOD) is a strong predictor of subsequent alcohol dependence (AD).
  • New findings indicate that an early AOD among women born after 1944 may account for their increased rates of lifetime AD.
  • An earlier AOD may be connected to decreased minimum legal drinking age laws.
An early age at onset of drinking (AOD) is a strong predictor of subsequent alcohol dependence (AD). Following through on previous research that found substantial increases in drinking and AD among women born between 1944 - 1983, compared to women born between 1934 - 1943, this study examined the influence of AOD. Results showed that women born after 1944 also began drinking earlier than their predecessors, which might help to explain their higher rates of AD.

Results will be published in the August issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at OnlineEarly.

“Previous work had found that about one in three individuals who reported having started drinking at ages 17 or younger also reported having been alcohol dependent, either currently or previously,” explained Richard A. Grucza, an epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine and the study’s corresponding author. “For people who reported that they started drinking at age 21 or older, that number is one in ten. In other words, individuals who begin drinking at 17 or younger are more than three times more likely to develop AD than those who begin at age 21 or older.”

“This manuscript has elegantly demonstrated that the reduction in AOD seen in women born after 1944 was associated with an increase in AD,” said Wilson M. Compton, director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research, at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “By analyzing information from two large studies [conducted 10 years apart], the researchers have disentangled when in history there was a change in AOD in comparison with rates of AD.”

The two large, national surveys used were the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES), conducted in 1991 and 1992; and the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), conducted in 2001 and 2002. Grucza and his colleagues looked at changes in AOD as well as the lifetime prevalence of AD, while simultaneously controlling for age-related factors.

I've come across similar research with addictive drugs used with animals. The developing brain is more susceptible to the effects of drugs and alcohol. Adult brains are less malleable and therefore less at risk from drug and alcohol exposure.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 01 10:40 PM  Brain Addiction
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Immune System Genetic Role In Depression

This seems an important observation:

Major depressive disorder is a common and complex condition that impacts about 15% of the population of the United States, yet very little is known about the mechanisms behind the psychiatric disorder. What is known is that there are clinical parallels between depressive symptoms and the symptoms of certain inflammatory disorders.

In findings published electronically in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers from University of Miami found polymorphisms in inflammation-related genes that are associated with susceptibility to major depression and antidepressant response. Two genes critical for T-cell function in the immune system have been associated with susceptibility for major depressive disorder and antidepressant treatment response: PSMB4 (proteasome beta 4 subunit) and TBX21 (T-bet).

The study population was made up of 284 depressed Mexican-Americans from Los Angeles who were already enrolled in a pharmacogenetic study of antidepressant treatment response. The control group was made up of 331 individuals from the same community.

Does the immune system attack the brain to cause depression? Or perhaps T cells are involved in signalling systems that cause neural stem cells to replicate and form new neurons.

The point about depressive symptoms and inflammatory disorders is important as well. Possibly vitamin D and/or omega 3 fatty acids might dampen inflammation and thereby help to treat depression.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 01 10:37 PM  Brain Depression
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Airlines Expected To Shrink As Peak Oil Bites

High oil prices have begun cutting down the size of the airline industry in the US and Europe with bankruptcies and route cancellations. What we've seen so far is only the beginning. The big airlines are losing money on every passenger and a combined market cap of just $17 billion.

To fully appreciate the impact that soaring oil prices have had on the nation's beleaguered airline industry, consider that U.S. carriers will likely spend $60 billion on jet fuel this year—nearly four times what they paid in 2000. Because of the spike in fuel costs, airlines now lose roughly $60 on every round-trip passenger, a slow bleed that puts the industry on pace to lose $7.2 billion this year, the largest yearly loss ever.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street has become so dour about the industry's prospects—can you say federal bailout?—that the combined market capitalization for the six major legacy carriers and Southwest Airlines has fallen to just over $17 billion.

Southwest is crowing that they locked in most of their 2008 fuel costs at the beginning of 2008 with big options buys. But in 2009 Southwest will be in the same boat as the rest of them.

Some experts expect a big cut in capacity up to 25%. But their estimates are on the low side of what is actually going to happen as oil production declines.

This consolidation will come with a cost: Experts believe that for the U.S. industry to shrink to a size that would allow the surviving carriers to earn a profit will require hefty fare hikes and a 20%-to-25% cut in capacity. That means fewer routes, fewer flights, and even more crowded planes.

Here's a twist I didn't expect. To reduce the amount of fuel that airplanes must carry long range aircraft will land partway through trips to refuel just as aircraft on long trips used to do decades ago.

Coast-to-coast flights will change, too. With roughly 30% of the weight of any transcontinental flight consisting of the fuel alone, meaning airlines are burning fuel just to carry fuel, carriers can be expected to replace many of those longer nonstops with one-stop flights, intended largely for refueling.

You might be thinking politically correct thoughts about the virtues of fuel efficient rail transport. Not so fast. Here are credible numbers from David Lawyer for passenger rail in the United States (historical and recent) getting 40-55 passenger miles per gallon. Well, two people in a Prius or a VW diesel will beat that easily.

The question still remains: Why aren't passenger trains more energy efficient if their rolling resistance is so low? There are a number of reasons, the major one being that trains are usually much heavier than autos (on a per passenger basis). Previously, the units used were rolling resistance per unit weight. If one takes into account the weight of the train per passenger, and then examines the rolling resistance per passenger, the advantage of rail over the auto drastically drops. For a very heavy passenger train, it will even favor the auto.

Just how heavy are passenger trains? There are various types of trains, some pulled by heavy locomotives and some that are driven by electric motors under each car. The ones pulled by locomotives tend to be very heavy and estimates made from US government data for 1963 (the government ceased collecting such data after that date) indicate about 3.7 tons/passenger. Automobiles are roughly one ton/passenger with an average of 1.6 persons/auto in an auto weighing 3,200 pounds. Thus rail was (in 1963) about 3.5 times heavier per passenger.

If one compares a lightweight auto with a lightweight train car, the train car weighs about twice as much per seat. A lightweight auto will weigh about 2,000 pounds with 5 seats (0.2 tons/seat). The (mostly aluminum) BART car (for the San Francisco rail transit) weighed 30 tons with 72 seats (0.42 tons/seat). The percentage of seats occupied by passengers on trains, is often not much different than for automobiles.

The Acela electric trainsets introduced by Amtrak in the early 21st century, are 2.1 tons/seat. This is ten times higher than that of a lightweight auto.

The heavy weight of trains not only increases rolling resistance, it also increases the energy used for climbing up a grade or accelerating from a stop. If the weight triples, so does such energy use.

Still, trains have a potential big advantage: The ability to be powered by electricity on electrified lines. We face more of a liquid fuel shortage than an general energy shortage. The cost of electricity is not going to rise as fast as the cost of oil.

For a continental trip trains have important advantages over cars including much greater safety and 24 hour per day operation. No need to stop to sleep. But the sleeper cars lower the ratio of passengers to train weight and therefore reduce energy efficiency and increase costs.

Jeff Radtke has done a very thorough comparison of fuel efficiency of different means of transportation. Go down past the graph and look at the table. In particular, see the person-MPG column. Note that the high numbers for freight-carrying vehicles (freight trains, oil tankers, etc) show how much more efficiently mass is moved when the mass in question is not humans. He has several numbers for trains from different sources. Some of his numbers are more like David Lawyer's referred to above. Those numbers make me think that rail advocates overestimate the fuel efficiency of rail for moving humans around. He shows a 747-8 with a full passenger load as more fuel efficient than some passenger trains. Still, rail powered by electricity could be powered by nukes, wind, and solar.

Note that Jeff has a 1936 era airship in his table with 224.96 passenger-miles per gallon. That surpasses passenger trains and passenger airplanes. So will peak oil lead to a revival of floating massive airships?

By Randall Parker 2008 June 01 12:57 PM  Energy Transportation
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AI Researchers Find Body Knows How To Move Itself

Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers are finding the brain is less responsible for optimizing motion than previously thought.

“The traditional robotics model has the body following the brain, but in nature the brain follows the body,” Fumiya Iida, of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, explains. Decisions flow from the properties of the materials our bodies are made of and their interactions with the environment. When we pick up an object, we are able to hold it not primarily because of what our brain says but because our soft hands mold themselves around the object automatically, increasing surface contact and therefore frictional adhesion. When a cockroach encounters an irregular surface, it does not appeal to its brain to tell it what to do next; instead, its musculoskeletal system is designed so that local impacts drive its legs to the right position to take the next step.

Proponents of embodiment theory think a lot more of the control algorithms for movement are in the body rather than in the brain. Regardless of the extent to which that is true for humans taking this approach for the design of artificial devices turns out to be useful for producing machines that can move as well as biological creatures.

The biologist who discovered this last fact, Joseph Spagna, currently at the University of Illinois, teamed up with engineers at the University of California at Berkeley to build a robot inspired by nature. The result, named RHex (for its six legs), is a robot that can traverse varied terrain without any central processing at all. At first it had a lot of trouble moving across wire mesh with large, gaping holes. Spagna’s team made some simple, biologically inspired changes to the legs of the robot. Without altering the control algorithms, they simply added some spines and changed the orientation of the robot’s feet, both of which increased physical contact between the robot and the mesh. That was all it took to generate the intelligence required for the device to move ahead. In a related project, Iida and his MIT group are now building legs that operate with as few controlled joints and motors as possible, an engineering technique they call underactuation.

The theory that much of what we call intelligence is generated from the bottom up—that is, by the body—is now winning converts everywhere. (The unofficial motto of Iida’s group is “From Locomotion to Cognition.”) Some extreme adherents to this point of view, called embodiment theory, speculate that even the highest cognitive functions, including thought, do no more than regulate streams of intelligence rising from the body, much as the sound coming from a radio is modulated by turning the knobs. Embodiment theory suggests that much wisdom is indeed “wisdom of the body,” just as those irritating New Age gurus say.

This distributed approach makes problems easier to solve by making the problems smaller. I think we will achieve AI by solving lots of smaller problems on subsystems. Image processing algorithms, voice-to-text algorithms, and other algorithms will add up to many parts of what our brains do for us.

By Randall Parker 2008 June 01 12:24 AM  AI Locomotion
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