2009 May 30 Saturday
Text Messaging Excesses A Growing Problem

75 text messages a day is not healthy.

Spurred by the unlimited texting plans offered by carriers like AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the Nielsen Company — almost 80 messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier.

Humans weren't designed to handle the electronic environment we've created.

Even worse, putting others in danger while you text message in your car. Do any of my readers do this? Why?

In a survey released last week by Vlingo Corp., a Cambridge, Mass., company that develops speech-recognition technology for mobile phones (and so, of course with a vested interest in the survey’s outcome, so keep that in mind), more than 26 percent of some 4,800 cellphone users surveyed across the United States admitted they had sent text messages while driving. The worst state was Tennessee, where 42 percent of those surveyed said they had done DWT. But here is the kicker: While more than 26 percent of those surveyed said they texted while driving, 83 percent said the practice should be illegal. (Currently seven states and the District of Columbia outlaw it.) So if my math is correct, this means that at least 9 percent of those surveyed text even though they think it’s a bad thing.

I saw a lady just yesterday pulling up to a stop light in an SUV while messing with her cell phone. I was tempted to shout at her. She was looking the phone more than she was looking ahead.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 30 07:03 PM  Comm Tech Society
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New Theory On Vitamin D Cancer Protection Mechanism

UCSD epidemiologist Cedric Garland theorizes vitamin D prevents cells in the early stage of cancer from breaking off healthy communications with neighboring cells. Don't let those wayward cells withdraw from cellular society, become alienated, and sociopathic. Keep them involved with good neighbors that'll talk sense to them.

In studying the preventive effects of vitamin D, researchers at the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego, have proposed a new model of cancer development that hinges on a loss of cancer cells' ability to stick together. The model, dubbed DINOMIT, differs substantially from the current model of cancer development, which suggests genetic mutations as the earliest driving forces behind cancer.

"The first event in cancer is loss of communication among cells due to, among other things, low vitamin D and calcium levels," said epidemiologist Cedric Garland, DrPH, professor of family and preventive medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, who led the work. "In this new model, we propose that this loss may play a key role in cancer by disrupting the communication between cells that is essential to healthy cell turnover, allowing more aggressive cancer cells to take over."

Reporting online May 22, 2009 in the Annals of Epidemiology, Garland suggests that such cellular disruption could account for the earliest stages of many cancers. He said that previous theories linking vitamin D to certain cancers have been tested and confirmed in more than 200 epidemiological studies, and understanding of its physiological basis stems from more than 2,500 laboratory studies.

"Competition and natural selection among disjoined cells within a tissue compartment, such as might occur in the breast's terminal ductal lobular unit, for example, are the engine of cancer," Garland said. "The DINOMIT model provides new avenues for preventing and improving the success of cancer treatment."

Garland went on to explain that each letter in DINOMIT stands for a different phase of cancer development. "D" stands for disjunction, or loss of intercellular communication; "I," for initiation, where genetic mutations begin to play a role; "N" for natural selection of the fastest-reproducing cancer cells; "O" for overgrowth of cells; "M" for metastasis, when cancer cells migrate to other tissues, where cancer can kill; "I" refers to involution, and "T" for transition, both dormant states that may occur in cancer and potentially be driven by replacing vitamin D.

My interpretation is that if this theory is correct then vitamin D intervenes at a fairly early stage of cancer development. The competition helps growth-promoting mutations to get selected for. That competition must be prevented at the earliest stage possible to reduce or delay the accumulation of growth-promoting mutations.

While there is not yet definitive scientific proof, Garland suggests that much of the evolutionary process in cancer could be arrested at the outset by maintaining vitamin D adequacy. "Vitamin D may halt the first stage of the cancer process by re-establishing intercellular junctions in malignancies having an intact vitamin D receptor," he said.

According to Garland, other scientists have found that the cells adhere to one another in tissue with adequate vitamin D, acting as mature epithelial cells. Without enough vitamin D, they may lose this stickiness along with their identity as differentiated cells, and revert to a stem cell-like state.

Garland suggests 2000 IU/day of vitamin D supplementation.

Garland said that diet and supplements can restore appropriate vitamin D levels, and perhaps help in preventing cancer development. "Vitamin D levels can be increased by modest supplementation with vitamin D3 in the range of 2000 IU/day," he noted.

That'll probably cut the risks of Alzheimer's and other diseases too.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 30 03:02 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2009 May 29 Friday
Relationships, Women, Rating Male Attractiveness

Women in relationships rate male attractiveness the same as women not in relationships. But the latter look longer. Whereas men in and out of relationships look the same amount.

A study by Indiana University neuroscientist Heather Rupp found that a woman's partner status influenced her interest in the opposite sex. In the study, women both with and without sexual partners showed little difference in their subjective ratings of photos of men when considering such measures as masculinity and attractiveness. However, the women who did not have sexual partners spent more time evaluating photos of men, demonstrating a greater interest in the photos. No such difference was found between men who had sexual partners and those who did not. "These findings may reflect sex differences in reproductive strategies that may act early in the cognitive processing of potential partners and contribute to sex differences in sexual attraction and behavior," said Rupp, assistant scientist at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. The study was published in the March issue of Human Nature.

What I'd like to see as a follow-up study: Measure time married women spend looking at photos of men and then follow them for several years to see if the divorce rate is higher for women who look longer.

Similarly, is marital infidelity higher in women who look longer? Also, is testosterone higher in women in relationships who look longer?

Also, about the men: have any longitudinal studies been done on male testosterone levels and relationships? Married men have lower testosterone. Do men who become more dissatisfied with their marriages experience testosterone increases in a run-up to a divorce?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 29 04:03 PM  Brain Sexuality
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Wind Drives Wholesale Electricity Prices Negative In West Texas

If this analysis is correct a market for buying transmission line access in West Texas sometimes drives electric power prices negative when the wind is blowing and local demand is lower than wind generation capacity.

A surfeit of wind energy is pushing down the price of all electricity. The real time price of electricity in West Texas, where almost all generation is wind, was negative for 23% of April 2009. The negative prices spilled over to the rest of Texas for about 1% of the month. This may be the future of the electric industry, with negative prices for a substantial amount of time each month.

I suspect the wind power generators have an incentive to drive power prices negative due to a production tax credit on wind power generation. The wind generators can not earn the tax credit unless they sell what they generate. So they pay to use the transmission lines so they can sell their electric power to more distant customers.

What I want to know about wind power and electric transmission costs: Will industries with high electric power needs migrate to where the wind blows strongest? Or will transmission line build-out enable the wind farms of West Texas to eventually sell their electric power over much greater distances? Does anyone understand the economics of electric power transmission lines? How much power gets lost per hundred miles and how much do the lines cost as compared to what the electric power costs?

Recall my recent post where I argued that electricity demand will dip when world oil production starts declining. I do not see electric power as supply constrained. The world does not face a general energy shortage so much as a liquid fuels shortage.

Troubles getting nuclear power plants built mean that wind power does not face much non-fossil fuels competition right now. At the same time, the economics of solar power continue to improve. For silicon-based photovoltaics the cost improvement is most dramatic. When the price for polysilicon crystal collapsed $450 to $100 per kg some analysts said that a further drop to $50 per kg would make silicon PV cost competitive with First Solar's thin films. Now polysilicon has dropped even further to $65 per kg and silicon PV is looking very competitive with thin films.

Checks also suggest six inch solar wafer prices (in the spot market) have declined to US$3.50/piece, implying that finished solar wafers are now < US$1/watt. Assuming US$0.80/watt for turning wafers into modules, we estimate $65/kg poly to yield modules at a cost of US$1.60-US$1.80/watt. And even a rather aggressive GM of 20% implies si-based manufacturers could sell modules at US$2.10 (or EUR‚¬1.62, assuming 1.3 F/X) and compete head-to-head with FSLR.

This is all still much more expensive than wind power. But in areas where the sun shines the brightest solar becomes competitive much sooner.

What I want to know about polysilicon prices: At $65 per kg can polysilicon producers expand production profitably? Or are they selling at a loss now once capital costs are considered? Anyone know?

Update: Also see Gail Tverberg's post on The Oil Drum: Some Cautionary Thoughts about Wind.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 29 02:06 PM  Energy Wind
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Evidence For Vitamin D As Alzheimer's Risk Reducer

A scientist argues for prospective studies in the ability of vitamin D to cut the risk of Alzheimer's Disease.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, May 26, 2009 – There are several risk factors for the development of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Based on an increasing number of studies linking these risk factors with Vitamin D deficiency, an article in the current issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (May 2009) by William B. Grant, PhD of the Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center (SUNARC) suggests that further investigation of possible direct or indirect linkages between Vitamin D and these dementias is needed.

Low serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D] have been associated with increased risk for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus, depression, dental caries, osteoporosis, and periodontal disease, all of which are either considered risk factors for dementia or have preceded incidence of dementia. In 2008, a number of studies reported that those with higher serum 25(OH)D levels had greatly reduced risk of incidence or death from cardiovascular diseases.

Several studies have correlated tooth loss with development of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia. There are two primary ways that people lose teeth: dental caries and periodontal disease. Both conditions are linked to low vitamin D levels, with induction of human cathelicidin by 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D being the mechanism.

There is also laboratory evidence for the role of vitamin D in neuroprotection and reducing inflammation, and ample biological evidence to suggest an important role for vitamin D in brain development and function.

This could be done with either blood tests of vitamin D levels or vitamin D supplementation.

Given these supportive lines of evidence, Dr. Grant suggests that studies of incidence of dementia with respect to prediagnostic serum 25(OH)D or vitamin D supplementation are warranted.

The advantage of vitamin D supplementation over blood tests is that high blood vitamin D might be a marker for other things that reduce risk of Alzheimer's. For example, a person with a more slowly aging brain might get outside more often, get more sunlight on their skin, and therefore have more vitamin D in their blood. Or diseases could lower blood vitamin D and also increase risk of Alzheimer's at the same time.

The problem with prospective studies is that they cost a lot and take a long time. You really do not want to find out 10 or 15 or 20 years from now that vitamin D is protective since damage that leads up to an Alzheimer's diagnosis probably begins many years earlier. People in middle age and later need to cut their disease risks starting now. Since I do not want to wait for the evidence to become definitive I'm already taking vitamin D.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 29 11:41 AM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2009 May 28 Thursday
Assisted Reproductive Technology Usage Up 25% In 2 Years

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and other biotechnologies for starting pregnancies are growing at over 25% per year.

Assisted reproductive technology (ART) is responsible for an estimated 219,000 to 246,000 babies born each year worldwide according to an international study. The study also finds that the number of ART procedures is growing steadily: in just two years (from 2000 to 2002) ART activity increased by more than 25%.

The study, which is published online today (Thursday 28 May) in Europe's leading reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction [1], gives figures and estimates for the year 2002, the most recent year for which world figures are available. A total of 1563 clinics in 53 countries provided data for the report, but data were missing from several other countries, mostly in Asia, Africa, Oceania and the West Indies. The authors estimated that these missing countries probably performed between 10-20% of ART procedures, and they took this into account when they calculated the total number of ART babies born worldwide.

So far the use of ART is mainly used by people who can't otherwise start a pregnancy. However, advances in genetic testing tech will eventually make ART far more mainstream. When it becomes possible to use genetic testing to choose features for offspring I predict that egg fertilization in laboratories will become the preferred way for upper classes to start pregnancies. The ability to choose embryos based on criteria like intelligence, personality, health and physical attractiveness will make old fashion sex obsolete for making babies.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 28 12:07 AM  Biotech Reproduction
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2009 May 27 Wednesday
Cut Carbos For Longer Prostate Cancer Survival?

Got prostate cancer? A change of diet might help.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Restricting carbohydrates, regardless of weight loss, appears to slow the growth of prostate tumors, according to an animal study being published this week by researchers in the Duke Prostate Center.

"Previous work here and elsewhere has shown that a diet light in carbohydrates could slow tumor growth, but the animals in those studies also lost weight, and because we know that weight loss can restrict the amount of energy feeding tumors, we weren't able to tell just how big an impact the pure carbohydrate restriction was having, until now," said Stephen Freedland, M.D., a urologist in the Duke Prostate Center and lead investigator on this study.

The researchers believe that insulin and insulin-like growth factor contribute to the growth and proliferation of prostate cancer, and that a diet devoid of carbohydrates lowers serum insulin levels in the bodies of the mice, thereby slowing tumor growth, Freedland said.

In miche the no-carbo diet made a big difference in survival times.

"The mice that were fed a no-carbohydrate diet experienced a 40 to 50 percent prolonged survival over the other mice," Freedland said.

This brings up an obvious question: Will a low-carbo diet cut the risks of developing prostate cancer in the first place? Also, will such a diet lower the risks of developing other types of cancer?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 27 12:29 AM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Healthy Lifestyles On Decline In United States

In recent decades scientists have developed much greater understanding of which lifestyle choices promote health. Yet in the face of this growing body of knowledge and efforts to publicize key findings the public at large increasingly adopts less healthy practices.

New York, NY, May 27, 2009 – Despite the well-known benefits of having a lifestyle that includes physical activity, eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, moderate alcohol use and not smoking, only a small proportion of adults follow this healthy lifestyle pattern, and in fact, the numbers are declining, according to an article published in the June 2009 issue of The American Journal of Medicine. Lifestyle choices are associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as diabetes.

Investigators from the Department of Family Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston compared the results of two large-scale studies of the US population in 1988-1994 and in 2001-2006. In the intervening 18 years, the percentage of adults aged 40-74 years with a body mass index greater than 30 has increased from 28% to 36%; physical activity 12 times a month or more has decreased from 53% to 43%; smoking rates have not changed (26.9% to 26.1%); eating 5 or more fruits and vegetables a day has decreased from 42% to 26%; and moderate alcohol use has increased from 40% to 51%. The number of people adhering to all 5 healthy habits has decreased from 15% to 8%.

So much for the power of expert advice. If you follow all the best practices you are part of a dwindling minority.

In the last 5 years have you gotten better or worse at exercising, eating fruits, eating vegetables, getting enough sleep, and other health-promoting practices?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 27 12:10 AM  Aging Lifestyle Studies
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2009 May 24 Sunday
On The Dependability Of Wind Energy During Peak Demand

Naturally on the Sunday before Memorial Day holiday I'm sitting at home reading the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) 2009 Summer Reliability Assessment for the North American electric power grid. I'm sure I'm not the only one doing this. Well, on page 52 of the PDF file I espy mention how in the US Midwest in one one grid region at peak demand time (hot summer afternoon) the worst case they've seen with wind generation was only 2% of nameplate capacity. That's pretty bad.

The variable resources for the MRO-U.S. (wind generation) expected to be available at peak times is 1,130 MW, based on 20 percent of nameplate capacity of 5,924 MW. For wind generation, nameplate capability is assumed as maximum capability, although simultaneous output of geographically disperse wind farms at 100 percent nameplate capability is highly unlikely. 20 percent of nameplate capacity is used by the Midwest ISO when determining capacity of variable generation. 20 percent is also assumed available at peak load by the MRO Model Building Subcommittee when building peak models. Historically, the Midwest ISO has recorded a maximum output of about 65 percent of wind nameplate capacity operating simultaneously throughout the Region during peak demand. The Midwest ISO has also recorded approximately 2 percent of wind nameplate capacity operating simultaneously throughout the Region during peak demand. Saskatchewan, which has about 172 MW of nameplate wind, and Manitoba Hydro, which has about 100 MW of nameplate wind, do not count wind resources for reliability/capacity purposes.

I wonder what year that was. The more recent it was the worse it looks for wind power reliability since in more recent years the number of wind farms and their geographical dispersion has increased.

I would like to know whether new wind farms get better and worse deals from electric power buyers if the new wind farms are respectively further away from and closer to other wind farms. The idea here is that the more geographically dispersed the wind farms the lower the chance that the wind will not be blowing at all of them at the same time.

I would also like to know what sort of biomass is burned to generate 331 MW of biomass electricity. Wood?

The biomass portion of resources for the MRO expected to be available at peak times is 331 MW.

Update: In a comment post Greg F points to Ontario wind farm output data and he created a graphical view of Ontario wind power output from May 1 to May 15. You can see that the wind power output is highly variable swinging from 0 to over 750 MW over the course of a few days with a very fast ramp-up where wind soared. Any back-up for wind has to swing up and down very quickly. I fail to see from this data how wind can get counted as baseline power for Ontario.

What we need: graphs like Greg's that are for different wind markets aggregated at different levels. When Ontario has no wind how far do you have to go to get to an area with heavy wind blowing? Is Alberta far enough? Kansas?

Update II: A key study in the debate over the reliability of win for baseload power was published by Stanford researchers Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson in December 2007. They argued that with long distance transmission lines connecting very geographically dispersed wind farms that wind would become highly reliable.

Wind power, long considered to be as fickle as wind itself, can be groomed to become a steady, dependable source of electricity and delivered at a lower cost than at present, according to scientists at Stanford University.

The key is connecting wind farms throughout a given geographic area with transmission lines, thus combining the electric outputs of the farms into one powerful energy source. The findings are published in the November issue of the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology.

Wind is the world's fastest growing electric energy source, according to the study's authors, Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson, who will present their findings Dec. 13 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Their talk is titled "Supplying Reliable Electricity and Reducing Transmission Requirements by Interconnecting Wind Farms."

Then 33% percent of average wind farm output could be used as baseload power. Note that is not 33% of max output (aka nameplate output). That is 33% of actual average output.

The researchers used hourly wind data, collected and quality-controlled by the National Weather Service, for the entire year of 2000 from the 19 sites. They found that an average of 33 percent and a maximum of 47 percent of yearly-averaged wind power from interconnected farms can be used as reliable baseload electric power. These percentages would hold true for any array of 10 or more wind farms, provided it met the minimum wind speed and turbine height criteria used in the study.

My understanding of this (and someone correct me if I'm wrong) is that then a group of wind farms that average 30% of nameplate output could then have 10% of their nameplate output go into providing baseload. That's not a lot. How much does a 2.5 MW turbine cost fully installed? That'd provide 250 KW of baseload. 400 of them would provide 1 GW. With a price for that 400 plus the cost of long distance transmission lines we could start doing comparisons with nuclear power plants.

The Stanford research about the need for geographical dispersion for dependable wind power strikes me as less optimistic than it seems at first blush. One big problem: High quality wind is not equally dispersed geographically. Not all high quality wind farm sites in the high plains of the US will have sufficiently distant matching sites to back up each other. Balancing new wind sites in core wind areas with other more distant sites becomes a problem if use of wind for baseload power is the goal.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 24 05:54 PM  Energy Wind
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Super Memory Club: No Dementia By Age 90

Groucho Marx famously opined "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member"". Well, here's one club I would like to join: the super memory club of people who do not lose their memory marbles as they grow old.

In recent years scientists have become intensely interested in what could be called a super memory club — the fewer than one in 200 of us who, like Ms. Scott and Ms. Cummins, have lived past 90 without a trace of dementia. It is a group that, for the first time, is large enough to provide a glimpse into the lucid brain at the furthest reach of human life, and to help researchers tease apart what, exactly, is essential in preserving mental sharpness to the end.

The scientists studying sharp elderly people suspect bridge playing and other mentally stimulating activity might be protective. But they are still trying to tease out the direction of causation. According to the researchers interviewed in the article diet and exercise seem to deliver little benefit. Your ability to slow your brain aging is limited. Though I expect anything that is good for cardiovascular health will help because if you can't get blood through your vascular system to the brain cells they'll wither and die.

Not surprisingly evidence points to genetic factors.

In studies of the very old, researchers in California, New York, Boston and elsewhere have found clues to that good fortune. For instance, Dr. Kawas’s group has found that some people who are lucid until the end of a very long life have brains that appear riddled with Alzheimer’s disease. In a study released last month, the researchers report that many of them carry a gene variant called APOE2, which may help them maintain mental sharpness.

Dr. Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has found that lucid Ashkenazi Jewish centenarians are three times more likely to carry a gene called CETP, which appears to increase the size and amount of so-called good cholesterol particles, than peers who succumbed to dementia.

I expect the knowledge about CETP and cholesterol particles will lead to useful brain preserving treatments because it will be possible to do gene therapy and cell therapy to the liver to adjust its metabolism of cholesterol, lipids, and lipoproteins. Ditto APOE2 which is synthesized by the liver. I expect reengineering the liver to prevent artery clogging and to lower oxidative stress will slow the rate of brain aging. The liver seems like a great target for therapies aimed at slowing the aging process.

Slowed aging via liver bioengineering could provide us with more time to develop therapies that reverse the aging process.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 24 03:13 PM  Brain Aging
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Peak Oil And Demand For Substitutes

If those who project a rather imminently starting long term decline in world oil production are correct then I also expect to see a decline in demand for electric power in the short to medium term. Previously I believed that Peak Oil means bigger demand for substitutes - and that's probably still true for liquid fuels substitutes if any can be made viable in time. But patterns in changes in energy demand in this recession have caused me to rethink my views about electric power demand. The recession has lowered the prices of oil, natural gas, coal, and even photovoltaic panels. Why? Lower economic activity lowers demand for a very wide range of goods and services.

Coal demand might go down overall post-peak as well. Coal demand for electricity generation, for steel plants, and for other industrial processes has plummeted in this recession. An oil supply decline will probably cause a long recession that will depress demand for steel and industrial products as well. So coal doesn't look like a big winner post-peak either. Am I wrong about this?

A post oil peak environment will differ from today in one important respect. The prices of oil will be much higher than today and therefore demand for substitutes will be greater at the same level of economic activity. So a 3% decline in the economy in the current recession leads to less demand for substitutes than is the case when the price of oil is higher and the economy shrinks the same 3%. But our current level of economic activity even in a recession strikes me as higher than what we'll see when oil production declines 3-4-5% per year for year after year. The economy can't develop substitutes fast enough to allow economic growth or even economic stability during a period of declining oil supplies.

A post peak environment will eventually differ from today in another important respect: people will eventually know we've past Peak Oil. Longer term decisions about substitutes will factor in the expected yearly decline in oil availability. So, for example, oil burning heater sales will plummet much more than the economy shrinks. Why buy capital that is of declining usefulness. This will lead to greater demand for ground sink heat pumps and therefore more electric demand to operate those ground sink heat pumps. But I do not expect that new source of demand to make up for declines in demand coming from overall lower economic activity.

You can get an idea of how much electric power demand drops in a recession by looking at a new report by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). NERC is the regulatory body for the combined electric power grid of the United States and Canada. NERC expects summer 2009 electric power demand in the US and Canada to be down 1.8%.

Decreased economic activity across North America is primarily responsible for a significant drop in peak-demand forecasts for the 2009 summer season (Figure 1). Compared to last year’s demand forecast, a North American-wide reduction of nearly 15 GW (1.8 percent) is projected. In addition, summer energy use is projected to decline by over 30 Terawatt hours (TWh), trending towards 2006 summer levels. While year-over-year reduction in electricity use is not uncommon — industrial use of electricity has declined in 10 of the past 60 years4, for example — it is critical that infrastructure development continues despite this decline. Based on the information provided as part of this assessment, most Regions have not yet experienced adverse impacts on infrastructure projects. However, WECC has indicated that some generation and transmission projects have been deferred or cancelled, in part due to overall economic factors.

My main point: I do not see supplies of electricity as the rate limiting factor for moving away from use of oil in a post-peak economic environment. I could be wrong on this point and I'm writing this post because I'd like to hear from you dear readers. I realize some of you do not think we are anywhere near the peak in world oil production. But can we just put that debate to the side for the sake of this discussion and consider a hypothetical? Here's the hypothetical: world oil production starts an irrevocable decline some time in the next 5 years. What happens to electric power demand?

The reason I say the next 5 years is that electricity becomes more substituteable for oil the further into the future we go. Technological advances will lower the costs for nuclear, solar, and wind electricity while other technological advances (e.g. better batteries, better heat pumps for heating, even ways to use electricity to generate liquid fuels) enable electricity to get used in more places where oil gets used today. But in the short term substituting is more costly and takes longer to do.

Next question: If what I'm saying about electric power demand in a post-peak economy is true then what are the policy implications? I can see one big one: incentives for cleaner electric power sources are less important than incentives for shifting demand from oil to electricity. So tax credits or loan guarantees for wind, nuclear, and solar do less good than, say, tax credits for electrifying rail or putting in ground sink heat pumps or tax credits for shifting more quickly to pluggable hybrids.

Update: Global electric power consumption appears to be declining more than global economic activity.

In a report to be presented at a meeting in Rome, the International Energy Agency (IEA) will forecast a 3.5 per cent contraction in global power consumption this year, according to its chief economist, Dr Fatih Birol.

“This shows how deep a recession we are in,” Dr Birol said yesterday. “Oil demand has declined in the past due to oil price shocks and financial crisis, but electricity consumption has never decreased. If you want to measure the health of an economy, you look at the electricity consumption.”

I've read estimates for global economic decline of about 1.5% in 2009. So electric power consumption is declining more than economic activity? Why?

Update II The US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration does not expect total energy usage per capita to grow over the next 20 years due to regulations that require higher efficiency energy usage.

Growth in energy use is linked to population growth through increases in housing, commercial floorspace, transportation, manufacturing, and services. Since 1980, U.S. energy use per capita has remained relatively stable, between 310 and 360 million Btu per person. In periods of high energy prices (particularly, oil prices) energy consumption per capita has tended to be at the low end of the range, and in periods of low energy prices it has tended to move toward the high end. With the expectation that oil prices will remain high throughout the projection period, coupled with recent legislation enacted to increase energy efficiency, energy use per capita in the reference case drops below 310 million Btu in 2020 and continues a slow decline through 2030 (Figure 35).

Transportation is the hardest sector to shift away from oil usage since liquid fuels work so much better than competing energy sources in cars and trucks. Will rising transportation costs pull down the whole economy or will people rapidly shift to living closer to work and will rail expand quickly to substitute for trucks?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 24 10:30 AM  Energy Policy
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2009 May 23 Saturday
Lithium Sulfur Batteries To Make Electric Cars Viable?

Technology Review reports on technological advances that might make viable lithium sulfur batteries with 3 to 10 times the storage capacity of existing lithium ion batteries.

Lithium-sulfur batteries, which can potentially store several times more energy than lithium-ion batteries, have historically been too costly, unsafe, and unreliable to make commercially. But they're getting a fresh look now, due to some recent advances. Improvements to the design of these batteries have led the chemical giant BASF of Ludwigshafen, Germany, to team up with Sion Power, a company in Tucson, AZ, that has already developed prototype lithium-sulfur battery cells.

Read the full articles for the many details. They haven't solved all the problems yet. For example, the existing lithium sulfur design is good for only 50 recharges. At 300 miles range per recharge that only gets you 15,000 miles before you need to buy a new battery.

On the bright side, the sulfur is incredibly cheap, close to free in fact. Lots of sulfur gets removed from tar sands and other fossil fuels and there's no shortage of the stuff.

With the coming of Peak Oil we face a liquid fuels shortage. Viable batteries that can power cars for hundreds of miles would go far to ease our transition away from oil. We are in a race between oil field depletion and the technological advances we need to migrate to electric power sources. We have enough natural gas, coal, uranium, wind, and sunlight to generate the electricity we need. The future is electric.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 23 12:49 PM  Energy Batteries
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2009 May 21 Thursday
Pregnancy In 66 Year Old British Woman Starts Debate

66 year old British woman Elizabeth Adeney is pregnant with the help of assisted reproduction technologies (ART). This news come a few months after Octomom Nadya Suleman was roundly criticized for having 8 babies in a single pregnancy after already having 6 other babies (and I fully agree with that criticism). Now Elizabeth Adeney is coming under a similar round of criticism with commentator after commentator criticizing Adeney for her selfish disregard for the consequences of her choice to make a baby at age 66.

A woman who has everything but a baby and who decides, out of kilter with natural timing, that a baby is the one thing she must have, is certainly not thinking of the baby. Still less is she thinking of the school child, of the teenager, of the young person starting out in life in their twenties who has a parent in their late eighties to care for. I wonder if she sees herself at her child's wedding. I wonder if she has realised that her bargain does not include being a grandparent or supporting her child in having his or her own children.

Due to the age of the mother that baby is at far greater risk of birth defects and developmental problems that are life long in their effects.

I think we are seeing the beginning of a greater willingness of people to criticize the reproductive choices of others. Given the huge external costs (i.e. costs born by others) that come from poor reproductive choices I see this criticism as constructive and necessary. Some babies bring huge external costs to the rest of society. To the extent that we can reasonably know in advance when reproductive choices will create costs for the rest of us the criticism seems fully justified.

Technological advance increase the ease to start and keep high risk pregnancies going. We are going to also get far better means to test embryos and women to assess pregnancy risks. More powerful tools increase risks. We need a counterbalancing cultural pressure against abuse of these capabilities.

My question to you dear readers: Do you think there's a right to reproduce? Is there a right to reproduce even if one can know before the pregnancy begins that the choice of embryo or state of the prospective mother's womb will result in stunted and abnormal fetal development?

Suppose we reach a point where we know that certain genetic variations cause people to act more crimnally. Would it be an immoral violation of rights to prevent people from passing on such genetic variants?

Update: In the comments a few commenters question my assertion that older women using donated eggs are putting fetuses at greater risk of birth defects and developmental problems. Here's what happens over the age of 40 with pregnancies.

"First-time mothers who deliver at age 40 and beyond are twice as likely to have a Caesarean section than first-time mothers aged 20-29," says Gilbert. "The increase in C-sections is largely due to the increase in complications of labor and pregnancy."

For example, older first-time mothers had a tenfold increase in placenta previa, fourfold increase in gestational diabetes, 80 percent increase in pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy), 70 percent increase in malpresentation of the fetus (i.e., breech birth), 50 percent increase in fetal disproportion, 48 percent increase in abnormal forces of labor (i.e., inadequate contractions), and a 30 percent increase in prolonged labor. In addition, these older women were five times more likely to have chronic high blood pressure and three times as likely to have diabetes as an underlying health condition before pregnancy than their younger counterparts.

Older multiparous women showed similarly higher rates of complications as compared to younger multiparous women, including fetal disproportion (a 60 percent increase), prolonged labor (a 50 percent increase) and malpresentation of the fetus (a 40 percent increase). These older women also had a threefold increase in pre-eclampsia and in placenta previa. This population of women was also nine times more likely to have chronic high blood pressure and 6.4 times more likely to be diabetic than their younger counterparts.

There aren't enough data points for women over 60. But very likely the risks are far higher.

The incidence of Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM) soars for women over the age of 40 reaching 31.9%. One can only guess how high it goes for women over the age of 50 and over the age of 60.

There was a significant difference and positive correlation in the prevalence of GDM, increasing from 1.3, 2.5, 6.2, 10.3, 21.7, and 31.9%, respectively, from the youngest to the oldest cohort (P < 0.001).

Diabetes causes many defects in fetal development including neural tube defects

By Randall Parker 2009 May 21 11:30 PM  Bioethics Reproduction
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2009 May 20 Wednesday
Super-Recognizers Great At Facial Recognition

These people should be paid to scan crowds for criminals.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 19, 2009 – Some people say they never forget a face, a claim now bolstered by psychologists at Harvard University who've discovered a group they call "super-recognizers": those who can easily recognize someone they met in passing, even many years later.

The new study suggests that skill in facial recognition might vary widely among humans. Previous research has identified as much as 2 percent of the population as having "face-blindness," or prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by great difficulty in recognizing faces. For the first time, this new research shows that others excel in face recognition, indicating that the trait could be on a spectrum, with prosopagnosics on the low end and super-recognizers at the high end.

The research is published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and was led by Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, with co-authors Ken Nakayama, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Brad Duchaine of the University College London.

The research involved administering standardized face recognition tests. The super-recognizers scored far above average on these tests—higher than any of the normal control subjects.

Imagine employing super-recognizers to watch for criminals in train stations, airports, and other places where large numbers of people pass. These are the people we should want to look at most wanted lists of criminals.

If you could choose among cognitive traits to give to offspring would you place super-recognizer capability high or low in a list of priorities?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 20 11:26 PM  Brain Innate
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Vitamin D Improves Brain Function In Old Folks?

Vitamin D for the aging brain.

Eating fish – long considered ‘brain food’ – may really be good for the old grey matter, as is a healthy dose of sunshine, new research suggests.

University of Manchester scientists in collaboration with colleagues from other European centres have shown that higher levels of vitamin D – primarily synthesised in the skin following sun exposure but also found in certain foods such as oily fish – are associated with improved cognitive function in middle-aged and older men.

The study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, compared the cognitive performance of more than 3,000 men aged 40 to 79 years at eight test centres across Europe.

The researchers found that men with higher levels of vitamin D performed consistently better in a simple and sensitive neuropsychological test that assesses an individual’s attention and speed of information processing.

This isn'r proof of cause and effect. But you already have compelling reasons to get enough vitamin D and these results suggest you might get an additional benefit if you ensure you get enough vitamin D.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 20 11:22 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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IVF Twins At Greater Risk Than Natural Twins

Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ART) - generally in vitro fertilization and associated technologies - produce higher rates of medical complications for babies born as twins.

Michèle Hansen, a researcher and PhD student at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Western Australia, said: "We found that twins conceived following ART treatment had a greater risk of adverse perinatal outcome, including preterm birth, low birthweight and death, compared with spontaneously conceived twins of unlike sex. ART twins had more than double the risk of perinatal death compared to ULS SC twins, although the risk was similar to that of all SC twins, including identical twins.

"ART twins stayed longer in hospital than ULS SC twins at the time of their birth: an average of 12 days compared with eight days. ART twins were four times more likely to be admitted to neo-natal intensive care than ULS SC twins, and were more likely to be admitted to hospital during the first three years of their life. After adjusting for confounding factors such as year of birth, maternal age, parity and so on, ART twins still had a nearly two-thirds higher risk of being admitted to neo-natal intensive care, and a higher risk of being admitted to hospital in their first three years of life, although this was only statistically significant in their second year, when their risk was nearly two-thirds higher."

Ms Hansen continued: "Couples undergoing fertility treatment should be aware that, in addition to the known increased perinatal risks associated with a twin birth, ART twins are more likely than spontaneously conceived twins to be admitted to neonatal intensive care and to be hospitalised in their first three years of life.

These results are an argument against implanting multiple embryos when doing in vitro fertilization (IVF). But many women opt for multiple embryo implants because they want to increase their chances of starting even a single pregnancy. Women in their mid 30s and later already hear a lot clock ticking and realize that time is not on their side. So rather than undergo a series of single embryo implantations they get more than one embryo implanted at once.

Development of better ways to test embryos to identify better embryos for implantation increase IVF success rates. These methods that boost success rates decrease the need for multiple embryo implantation. Also, better testing (genetic and otherwise) will identify embryos that have much lower odds of producing birth defects. So in time IVF combined with pre-implantation testing could become safer than pregnancies started the natural way

By Randall Parker 2009 May 20 11:16 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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Brain Scans Can Detect People Persons?

People who like to engage more with other humans have more tissue in certain parts of their brains.

Cambridge University researchers have discovered that whether someone is a 'people-person' may depend on the structure of their brain: the greater the concentration of brain tissue in certain parts of the brain, the more likely they are to be a warm, sentimental person.

Why is it that some of us really enjoy the company of others while some people are detached and independent? In an effort to explore these questions, Maël Lebreton and colleagues from the Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, in collaboration with Oulu University, Finland, examined the relationship between personality and brain structure in 41 male volunteers.

The volunteers underwent a brain scan using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). They also completed a questionnaire that asked them to rate themselves on items such as 'I make a warm personal connection with most people', or 'I like to please other people as much as I can'. The answers to the questionnaire provide an overall measure of emotional warmth and sociability called social reward dependence.

The researchers then analysed the relationship between social reward dependence and the concentration of grey matter (brain-cell containing tissue) in different brain regions. They found that the greater the concentration of tissue in the orbitofrontal cortex (the outer strip of the brain just above the eyes), and in the ventral striatum (a deep structure in the centre of the brain), the higher they tended to score on the social reward dependence measure. The research is published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.

Ten or twenty years from now this research will lead to the identification of genetic variants for personality types and then the ability to choose these genetic variants for their children.

Once people gain the ability to choose brain genes for their future children will they choose genes that make their kids more personable and socially adept?

On a similar note some small fraction of people excel at face recognition.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 19, 2009 – Some people say they never forget a face, a claim now bolstered by psychologists at Harvard University who've discovered a group they call "super-recognizers": those who can easily recognize someone they met in passing, even many years later.

The new study suggests that skill in facial recognition might vary widely among humans. Previous research has identified as much as 2 percent of the population as having "face-blindness," or prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by great difficulty in recognizing faces. For the first time, this new research shows that others excel in face recognition, indicating that the trait could be on a spectrum, with prosopagnosics on the low end and super-recognizers at the high end.

The research is published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and was led by Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, with co-authors Ken Nakayama, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Brad Duchaine of the University College London.

The research involved administering standardized face recognition tests. The super-recognizers scored far above average on these tests—higher than any of the normal control subjects.

So will people choose to give their offspring great skills at recognizing faces? Will future humans become more able to perform at face recognition?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 20 12:19 AM  Brain Society
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Micro-Inverter Cuts Solar Power Cost

Yet another way to cut the cost of solar power:

Startup Enphase Energy of Petaluma, CA, is now making the first micro-inverters. These smaller inverters can be bolted to the racking under each solar panel, to convert DC power into AC for each panel individually. The company claims that the devices will increase a PV system's efficiency by 5 to 25 percent and decrease the cost of solar power.

The company also claims this inverter lowers costs of components. So lower costs and higher efficiency.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 20 12:10 AM  Energy Solar
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2009 May 18 Monday
US Auto Fuel Efficiency To Rise Even Faster

Back in January 2007 the Bush Administration and Congress agreed to raise standards for auto fuel efficiency. Now the Obama Administration has decided to raise those standards even faster. The Obama Administration has decided to accelerate the rate at which car fuel economy must rise.

By 2016, passenger cars must average 39 miles per gallon and light trucks 30 mpg. A senior administration official said the proposal will boost the price of the average price of a vehicle by $1,300 -- or $600 more than the per vehicle increase predicted under a Bush administration fuel efficiency proposal.

The proposal will force automakers to meet a fleetwide average of 35.5 mpg by 2016 -- four years ahead of what Congress required in 2007, when it mandated 35 mpg by 2020. The higher costs could add $13 billion to $20 billion annually in total new car costs.

My take: this regulation will help prepare the auto makers for Peak Oil. Granted, the politicians in Washington DC seem oblivious to that approaching disaster. But by accident the US government is causing auto makers to take some steps to prepare for Peak Oil.

The effect on CO2 emissions won't be that large because cars account for less than a fifth of US CO2 emissions.

Cars and light trucks account for 17% of total U.S. greenhouse gases, according to EPA data.

By contrast in 2006 35% of US CO2 emissions came from electric power generation To cut CO2 emissions in a big way requires cutting coal electric power plant emissions in a big way. But doing that will increase electric bills in lots of states. So you do not hear the Obama Administration touting a similar scale agreement that cuts CO2 emissions from the electric power industry.

Internationally burning coal is the biggest single source of CO2 emissions.

Coal’s share of world carbon dioxide emissions grew from 39 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2005 and is projected to increase to 44 percent in 2030. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, and it is the fastest-growing energy source in the IEO2008 reference case projection, reflecting its important role in the energy mix of non-OECD countries—especially China and India. In 1990, China and India together accounted for 13 percent of world carbon dioxide emissions; in 2005 their combined share had risen to 23 percent, largely because of strong economic growth and increasing use of coal to provide energy for that growth. In 2030, carbon dioxide emissions from China and India combined are projected to account for 34 percent of total world emissions, with China alone responsible for 28 percent of the world total.

Flat and eventually declining oil production will increase the demand for coal and natural gas. But I expect one net effect of Peak Oil will be a lowering of CO2 emissions. Already the big run-up in oil prices that peaked in the summer of 2008 caused changes in consumer behavior that cut oil demand and the high oil prices contributed to the recession that cut oil demand even further.

What remains unclear to me: how fast will battery technology improve? Higher fuel efficiency standards and declining oil production will be a lot easier to handle with better batteries for longer range electric cars.

Update: Some argue against higher fuel efficiency standards based on safety concerns. However, while that's probably true overall there are some cases where it is not true. SUVs are safer for passengers than small cars - as long as you are in the SUVs hitting the small cars. But small cars are safer the fewer SUVs are on the road. Higher mass in a car makes that car more dangerous to other cars it runs into.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 18 11:47 PM  Climate Policy
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New RNA Interference Technique Against Cancer

Our genome is coded as DNA. But it gets translated into RNA which serves a variety of roles including as regulatory molecules. Naturally occurring silencing RNAs (siRNAs) are short RNA genetic sequences that bind to other RNAs to suppress genes. Cancer researchers are looking at using siRNAs to try to regulate cancer cells to tell them to stop growing and even to commit cell suicide (apoptosis). Some UCSD researchers are making progress on an siRNA anti-cancer drug delivery mechanism.

In technology that promises to one day allow drug delivery to be tailored to an individual patient and a particular cancer tumor, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, have developed an efficient system for delivering siRNA into primary cells. The work will be published in the May 17 in the advance on-line edition of Nature Biotechnology.

"RNAi has an unbelievable potential to manage cancer and treat it," said Steven Dowdy, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and professor of cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. "While there's still a long way to go, we have successfully developed a technology that allows for siRNA drug delivery into the entire population of cells, both primary and tumor-causing, without being toxic to the cells."

RNA interference amounts to attacking cancers at the level of cellular regulation with the siRNAs almost like software patches. Since regulatory mechanisms gone awry cause cancer in the first place the siRNA approach attacks cancer on the level where things go wrong and cells become cancerous. The siRNAs are smaller than DNA delivered as gene therapy. But they are still quite powerful.

Cancers mutate at a fast rate and therefore develop resistance to anti-cancer drugs. The cells in a tumor are not all genetically identical. So natural selection operates on cancer cells in the presence of chemotherapy drugs. Some survive and develop mutations that reduce their vulnerability to chemo and other anti-cancer therapies. But this RNAi approach can be very rapidly adjusted to deal with cancer mutations.

These RNAi methods can be continually tweaked to combat new mutations – a way to overcome a major problem associated with current cancer therapies. "Such therapies can't be used a second time if a cancer tumor returns, because the tumor has mutated the target gene to avoid the drug binding," said Dowdy. "But since the synthetic siRNA is designed to bind to a single mutation and only that mutation on the genome, it can be easily and rapidly changed while maintaining the delivery system – the PTD-DRBD fusion protein."

We need fast and cheap DNA sequencing and testing to allow rapid retargeting of siRNAs against cancer. This approach turns the war against cancer into an information war. At that level we can win.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 18 10:52 PM  Biotech Cancer
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2009 May 17 Sunday
Short Sleepers Weigh More

Another report that suggests getting enough sleep reduces your risks of obesity.

Could sleep be a critical component to maintaining a healthy body weight? According to new research to be presented on Sunday, May 17, at the American Thoracic Society’s 105th International Conference in San Diego, body mass index (BMI) is linked to length and quality of sleep in a surprisingly consistent fashion.

As part of the Integrative Cardiac Health Project at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, researchers analyzed the sleep, activity and energy expenditures of 14 nurses who had volunteered for a heart-health program at the Walter Reed, where the nurses were employed. The program included nutritional counseling, exercise training, stress management and sleep improvement.

Each participant wore an actigraphy armband that measured total activity, body temperature, body position and other indices of activity and rest.

“When we analyzed our data by splitting our subjects into ‘short sleepers’ and ‘long sleepers,’ we found that short sleepers tended to have a higher BMI, 28.3 kg/m2, compared to long sleepers, who had an average BMI of 24.5. Short sleepers also had lower sleep efficiency, experienced as greater difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep,” said lead investigator Arn Eliasson, M.D.

Are we too busy to get enough sleep and hence we weigh more?

In this study overweight people burn more calories but still weigh more.

Surprisingly, overweight individuals tended to be more active than their normal weight counterparts, taking significantly more steps than normal weight individuals: 14,000 compared to 11,300, a nearly 25 percent difference, and expending nearly 1,000 more calories a day—3,064 versus 2,080.

However, those additional energy expenditures did not manifest in reduced weight.

Both new moms and children who get less sleep put on more pounds.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 17 11:40 PM  Brain Appetite
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2009 May 15 Friday
Virtual Medical Visits Work As Well As Real Ones?

Why take the trouble of going to a doctor's office when a virtual visit will work as well?

BOSTON – Travelers book plane tickets online, bank customers can check their accounts at any computer, and busy families can grocery shop online. Someday, even doctor visits could be among the conveniences offered via the Internet. Researchers considering the feasibility and effectiveness of virtual doctors visits report that , according a study published in the May issue of the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare.

Of course this won't work for everything. Blood samples and other tests will still need to be done in some visits. But the sample taking could be decoupled from the time of the consultation in some cases. Go to a store front that has a nurse who takes blood, urine, tissue, and other samples. Perhaps stand in front of a machine that takes very high resolution pictures of your retinas, mouth, and other parts. Then video consult with your specialist hundreds or thousands of miles away when the test results come in.

"There is growing evidence that the use of videoconferencing in the medical environment is useful for a variety of acute and chronic issues," says Ronald F. Dixon, MD, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the study's senior author. "Videoconferencing between a provider and patients allows for the evaluation of many issues that may not require an office visit and can be achieved in a shorter time."

We desperately need ways to cut costs. Also, old folks can find it hard to even get to a doctor's office once they become too old to drive. Plus, people in rural areas can find it very hard to find a general practitioner or specialist in driving distance.

The healthcare delivery model in the United States is under scrutiny. Reduced access to providers, rapidly increasing costs and an aging population represent major challenges for the healthcare system. Telemedicine projects, including virtual visits (a patient-physician real-time encounters using videoconferencing technology) are being examined to evaluate their capacity to improve patient access to care and lower healthcare costs.

This study, the largest trial of virtual visits versus face-to-face visits done to date, randomized patients to one of two arms. In the first arm, the patients completed a visit (virtual or face-to-face) with a physician; they then completed a second visit via the other modality with another physician. In the second arm of the study, subjects had both visits face-to-face with two different physicians. All physicians and patients completed evaluation questionnaires after each visit.

Patients found virtual visits similar to face-to-face visits on most measures, including time spent with the physician, ease of interaction and personal aspects of the interaction. Physicians scored virtual visits similar to face-to-face visits on measures including history taking and medication dispensing. Though they were less satisfied on measures of clinical skill and overall satisfaction, those ratings were still in the good to excellent range.

The diagnostic agreement between physicians was 84 percent between face-to-face and virtual visits; it was 80 percent between the two face-to-face visits.

We also need web-based diagnostic expert systems that you can interact with and that can access your full medical history. Get an even better diagnosis than the average doctor can provide.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 15 07:28 AM  Virtual Society Medical
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2009 May 14 Thursday
Genes Determine Crime Victim Risks In Adolescents?

We live in the age of genes.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Genes trump environment as the primary reason that some adolescents are more likely than others to be victimized by crime, according to groundbreaking research led by distinguished criminologist Kevin M. Beaver of The Florida State University.

The study is believed to be the first to probe the genetic basis of victimization.

The idea of a genetic basis for victimization is highly plausible. Some muscular, tall, with fast reflexes, the ability to run fast, with an alpha dominant personality is a lot less likely to get messed with. Lots of personality traits which partial genetic bases influence one's willingness to put one at risk.

"Victimization can appear to be a purely environmental phenomenon, in which people are randomly victimized for reasons that have nothing to do with their genes," said Beaver, an assistant professor in FSU's nationally top-10-ranked College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. "However, because we know that genetically influenced traits such as low self control affect delinquent behavior, and delinquents, particularly violent ones, tend to associate with antisocial peers, I had reasons to suspect that genetic factors could influence the odds of someone becoming a victim of crime, and these formed the basis of our study."

Beaver analyzed a sample of identical and same-sex fraternal twins drawn from a large, nationally representative sample of male and female adolescents interviewed in 1994 and 1995 for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. "Add Health" interviewers had gathered data on participants that included details on family life, social life, romantic relationships, extracurricular activities, drug and alcohol use, and personal victimization.

The data convinced Beaver that genetic factors explained a surprisingly significant 40 to 45 percent of the variance in adolescent victimization among the twins, while non-shared environments (those environments that are not the same between siblings) explained the remaining variance. But among adolescents who were victimized repeatedly, the effect of genetic factors accounted for a whopping 64 percent of the variance.

Kids at genetic risk of victimization are at much greater risk if they live in higher crime areas. Parents ought to consider the personalities and physiques of their kids when deciding where to live.

It is not all down to genes. But genes play a big role.

"However, we're not suggesting that victimization occurs because a gene is saying 'Okay, go get victimized,' or solely because of genetic factors," Beaver said. "All traits and behaviors result from a combination of genes and both shared and non-shared environmental factors."

When offspring genetic engineering becomes possible and the alleles for lowering crime victimization risks become known some parents eager to give their children every edge will choose genes that cut risks that their children will become victims.

Update: Here's a study that complements the one above: first graders with depression are more likely to get beat on.

Children entering first grade with signs of depression and anxiety or excessive aggression are at risk of being chronically victimized by their classmates by third grade. That's the finding of a new longitudinal study that appears in the May/June 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Victoria, looked at more than 400 Canadian children beginning in the autumn of first grade. The children were asked about their experiences being bullied (such as being hit, pushed, and shoved, or being teased and excluded from play). Their teachers were asked to report on the children's symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as on their displays of physical aggression. The researchers returned at the end of first, second, and third grades, at which time they asked the children and their teachers to report on the same issues.

Most children (73 percent) showed few symptoms of depression and anxiety over the three years. But 7 percent of the children showed continuously high levels. The remaining 20 percent showed moderate symptoms at first, but these increased over time. Victimization by depressed and anxious children wasn't evident until third grade.

So then Prozac might reduce bullying.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 14 11:20 PM  Society Genes Crime
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Half Sigma Argues Owning Cars Saves Money

Think mass transit saves you money?

It has been argued by some that not owning a car saves you money, but my argument is that the opposite is true. Manhattan, the only place I’ve ever lived where it’s reasonable for people to make do without a car, is ridiculously expensive compared to everywhere else. It’s a lot less expensive to live somewhere else and own a car, than it is to be carless in Manhattan. A one bedroom apartment costs $3000/month. A $700/month apartment someplace else would free up $27,600/year to cover the cost of car ownership. On top of that, the local income tax rate is around 10%, higher than any other place in the nation.

Looking at the average cost of owning a car is a deceptive statistic, because most people choose to buy a much more expensive car than they need, and you are averaging in overpriced luxury vehicles with basic transportation. You can buy a brand new car such as the Nissan Versa for less than $11,000, and I’m sure it’s a reliable enough vehicle to get you to work or to the supermarket. Most people choose to spend more on a car in order to display their higher status to other drivers, but that’s a choice they don’t have to make. It’s hard to see why insurance, maintenance, gasoline, and depreciation on a Nissan Versa should cost you more than $5000 per year. This is a lot less expensive than living in San Francisco or New York City.

You can certainly find counter-examples. I do not live in a densely populated city and yet I still manage to walk to work most days. At the same time, I still own a car (and used it to evacuate with lots of possessions recently for a few days when a massive fire threatened to burn down Santa Barbara) since cars are very useful. So his argument sounds broadly correct to me. To live in the same number of square feet of housing space in a city costs far more than in a suburb. That housing savings outweighs the car cost if you choose your car based on cost effectiveness. You can even step up a level or two above a Versa and still save money by commuting.

The trade-offs between city and suburb vary by region. But keep in mind that even though NYC is a cost outlier so are its suburbs. Indianapolis has cheaper housing than NYC or SF. But the suburbs of Indianapolis cost much less than northern New Jersey and Long Island.

You can also save money by living in a much smaller place. But most people do not want to do that. People with kids especially do not want to live in a shoe box. Even if the parents can stand it I think it unkind to kids to deprive them of yards to play in and safe neighborhoods. Then there's the time wasted with mass transit waiting for buses, leaving and coming home based on when the transit runs, and time getting too and from transit stations.

A lot of mass transportation advocates point to Europe as a sort of "shining city on a hill" example of what can be accomplished with mass transit. But I suspect these advocates do not understand just how little mass transit accomplishes in Europe. Check out table 3 at this link which shows percentages of distances traveled in Europe by car, rail, tram & metro, and bus & coach. What you'll see is that cars account for over 80% of distance traveled in 11 western European countries and only gets below 80% in Denmark, Austria, and Ireland. In those countries cars still accounts for about three quarters of distance traveled. These are all countries with fuel prices, population densities regulatory regimes, and mass transit subsidies far higher than what we find in the United States. Yet Europeans still choose to use to cars for over three quarters of miles traveled.

I expect the coming of Peak Oil will change the trade-offs between suburban and city living to some extent. But a lot of people will shift to electric cars and scooters rather than living in denser surroundings or ride buses. Personal transportation is incredibly convenient as compared to mass transit. $200 per barrel oil won't change that.

Update: If you are going to take public transportation at least stay out of NYC subways where the sound is so loud it causes hearing damage. Or at minimum wear ear plugs.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 14 07:05 AM  Energy Policy
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2009 May 13 Wednesday
Vitamins C, E Reduce Exercise Benefits

Quenching too many free radicals with antioxidant vitamins can increase risk of insulin-resistant diabetes.

A study published today in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" (PNAS) suggests that vitamin C and E supplements may actually be harmful, at least in regards to diabetes risk and glucose metabolism. According to this study, the health-promoting effects of exercise require the formation of oxidative stress during sports and if this is blocked, some of these effects do not occur. In the particular study, the intake of antioxidants during a four-week exercise training class abolished the effects of exercise to improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism which would help prevent diabetes, while those individuals not taking the antioxidants had major benefits in terms of metabolism from exercise.

Dr. Michael Ristow, lead-author of the study which was published by a team of researchers from Leipzig and Jena Universities (both Germany) and Harvard Medical School, points out: "Exercise causes repeated boosts of free radicals, which - according to our results - induce a health-promoting adaptive response in humans. Subsequently, our body activates molecular defense systems against stress, and metabolizes carbohydrates more efficiently, both of which prevents diabetes, and possibly other diseases. Blocking these boosts of free radicals by antioxidants accordingly blocks the health promoting effects of exercise." He further says that "short-term doses of free radicals may act like a vaccine, helping the body to defend itself from chronic stressors more efficiently by inducing a long-term adaptive response".

Dr. C. Ronald Kahn, a collaborating author from the Joslin Diabetes Center and Harvard Medical School, noted: "This is a very important study for the millions of people at risk for type 2 diabetes. Exercise is a proven way to improve insulin action and reduce diabetes risk, but clearly this beneficial effect can be largely blocked by taking these very commonly used vitamin supplements. We need larger studies to fully assess this effect, but in the meantime, individuals at risk for diabetes and maybe even some with type 2 diabetes itself, need to think carefully about the use of these vitamin supplements, especially if they exercise regularly to improve there health."

This result isn't surprising because free radicals work as signaling agents in the body. Denman Harman, the guy who originally proposed the free radical theory of aging back around 1955, said if you take too much antioxidant vitamins you will feel slugging because you'll basically damp down your metabolism. That was his own personal experience (as related in an interview I can no longer find on the web btw).

So use of antioxidant vitamins brings trade-offs. How to figure out optimal doses? The doses used in this study are in line with what a lot of people take.

For the study, Ristow and colleagues observed two groups of young men during four weeks of intensive exercise training. One group took a combination of vitamin C (1000 mg/day) and vitamin E (400 IU/day) while the other did not.

The men who took the supplements showed no changes in their levels of ROS, whereas those who did not showed increased levels of ROS and oxidative stress.

The vitamins suppress a free radical indicator called TBARS.

Muscle biopsies showed a two-fold increase in a marker of free radicals called TBARS (thiobarbituric acid-reactive substances) in those volunteers who didn't take antioxidants, but no increase in those who did take the supplements – suggesting that they were indeed mopping them up.

What we need: a pill that will simulate the effects of exercise without causing free radical damage. Then we can sit as couch potatoes and live longer than exercisers.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 13 07:14 AM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2009 May 12 Tuesday
Meditation Boosts Brain Gray Matter?

Does meditation expand hte size of some areas of the brain?

That's the finding from a group of researchers at UCLA who used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people who meditate. In a study published in the journal NeuroImage and currently available online (by subscription), the researchers report that certain regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger than in a similar control group.

Specifically, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus — all regions known for regulating emotions.

"We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior," said Eileen Luders, lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. "The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities."

Research has confirmed the beneficial aspects of meditation. In addition to having better focus and control over their emotions, many people who meditate regularly have reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune systems. But less is known about the link between meditation and brain structure.

Maybe meditation causes changes in the brain that account for this result. But since this was not a longitudinal study we do not know whether the meditators simply had more gray matter to start with.

Because this was not a longitudinal study — which would have tracked meditators from the time they began meditating onward — it's possible that the meditators already had more regional gray matter and volume in specific areas; that may have attracted them to meditation in the first place, Luders said.

Longitudinal study needed.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 12 10:50 PM  Brain Performance
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Islands Hold Evolutionary Relic Species

Some researchers from University of Bonn, UC San Diego and the University of Applied Sciences Eberswalde have published a research paper that finds islands contain a disproportionate fraction of all the unique and unusual species on the planet. Think of islands as evolutionary time capsules. Treasure and protect them.

The southwest Pacific island of New Caledonia stands out as the most unique with animals like the kagu, a bird with no close relatives found only in the forested highlands that is in danger of extinction, and plants like Amborella, a small understory shrub unlike any other flowering plant that is thought to be the lone survivor of an ancient lineage.

Fragments of continents that have broken free to become islands like Madagascar and New Caledonia often serve as a final refuge for evolutionary relicts like these. The source of diversity is different on younger archipelagos formed by volcanoes such as the Canary Islands, the Galápagos and Hawaii which offered pristine environments where early colonizers branched out into multiple related new species to fill empty environmental niches. The new measure doesn't distinguish between the two sources of uniqueness, which may merit different conservation strategies.

Although islands account for less than four percent of the Earth's land area, they harbor nearly a quarter of the world's plants, more than 70,000 species that don't occur on the mainlands. Vertebrate land animals – birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals – broadly follow this same pattern.

"Islands are important and should be part of any global conservation strategy," Kreft said. "Such a strategy wouldn't make any sense if you didn't include the islands."

This means we should not wipe out island rain forests in order to build palm oil plantations to create biodiesel fuel. Government-sponsored environmentalism enlisted in the cause of environmental destruction is a bad idea. Why is it even necessary to say this?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 12 07:30 AM  Trends Habitat Loss
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Eye Aging Slowed By Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Eyesight is a terrible thing to waste. Choose your oils wisely. Then look at beautiful things.

Regularly eating fish, nuts, olive oil and other foods containing omega-three fatty acids and avoiding trans fats appears to be associated with a lower risk for the eye disease age-related macular degeneration, according to two reports in the May issue of Archives of Ophthalmology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

By 2020, as many as 3 million Americans are expected to have late-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD), according to background information in one of the articles. AMD is the leading cause of severe vision loss among individuals older than 65 in the developed world. Established risk factors include age, genetic markers and smoking (the only consistently reported modifiable risk factor).

In one report, Jennifer S.L. Tan, M.B.B.S., B.E., of Westmead Hospital, University of Sydney, Australia, and colleagues studied 2,454 participants in the Blue Mountains Eye Study, which began in 1992 to 1994. At that time, participants completed a food frequency questionnaire that was analyzed to determine their intake of various fatty acids. Digital photographs of the retina were used to assess the development of AMD five and 10 years later.

After adjusting for age, sex and smoking, eating one serving of fish per week was associated with a 31 percent lower risk of developing early AMD. The association was stronger among individuals with a lower intake of linoleic acid, an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid found primarily in vegetable oils. Eating one to two servings of nuts per week was associated with a 35 percent lower risk of early AMD.

My question: Can one scale up one's omega 3 consumption to counterbalance the effects of consuming larger amounts of omega 6 fatty acids?

I periodically tweak my diet to improve it in various ways. One of my recent additions is to use olives as condiments on my lunch. I am guessing that the whole olives are more beneficial than just the olive oil since the olives will contain more of the non-oil compounds that are suspected of delivering additional health benefits. Get the beneficial oils but with more other good stuff.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 12 07:25 AM  Aging Diet Eye Studies
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Tissue Scaffold Grows Replacement Joint Material

We need ways to grow replacements for worn out body parts. Then we can become as repairable as cars. While embryonic and pluripotent stem cells get the lion's share of press attention the scientists who labor away at solving tissue engineering problems are making contributions every bit as important. I expect tissue engineering problems to be the long pole in the tent for developing replacement body parts. With this thought in mind, some researchers at MIT have developed implantable materials that stimulate mesenchymal stem cells to produce bone and cartilage. Their technique works in goats.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT engineers and colleagues have built a new tissue scaffold that can stimulate bone and cartilage growth when transplanted into the knees and other joints.

The scaffold could offer a potential new treatment for sports injuries and other cartilage damage, such as arthritis, says Lorna Gibson, the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and co-leader of the research team with Professor William Bonfield of Cambridge University.

"If someone had a damaged region in the cartilage, you could remove the cartilage and the bone below it and put our scaffold in the hole," said Gibson. The researchers describe their scaffold in a recent series of articles in the Journal of Biomedical Materials Research.

The technology has been licensed to Orthomimetics, a British company launched by one of Gibson's collaborators, Andrew Lynn of Cambridge University. The company recently started clinical trials in Europe.

The scaffold has two layers, one that mimics bone and one that mimics cartilage. When implanted into a joint, the scaffold can stimulate mesenchymal stem cells in the bone marrow to produce new bone and cartilage. The technology is currently limited to small defects, using scaffolds roughly 8 mm in diameter.

You can bet that goats who suffer joint injuries while scampering along steep hillsides and down rocky landscapes will be happy to hear that scientists have finally listened to their complaints.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 12 06:49 AM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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2009 May 11 Monday
Daydreaming Exercises Your Brain's Executive Network

If someone complains to you about your daydreaming just tell them you are thinking harder than they are.

A new University of British Columbia study finds that our brains are much more active when we daydream than previously thought.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that activity in numerous brain regions increases when our minds wander. It also finds that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to go dormant when we daydream – are in fact highly active during these episodes.

"Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness," says lead author, Prof. Kalina Christoff, UBC Dept. of Psychology. "But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks."

People who just do routine tasks are a bunch of mental slackers. Is it the daydreamers who are operating their "executive network". Tell anyone who complains about your daydreaming that you are going your lateral medial prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex a heavy work-out.

Until now, the brain's "default network" – which is linked to easy, routine mental activity and includes the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), the posterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction – was the only part of the brain thought to be active when our minds wander.

However, the study finds that the brain's "executive network" – associated with high-level, complex problem-solving and including the lateral PFC and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – also becomes activated when we daydream.

I feel so vindicated. Those grade school teachers who complained about my daydreaming were trying to hold back my intellectual development and turn me into a mental slacker. But I persevered against their resistance and did mental gymnastics in spite of them.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 11 10:02 PM  Brain Performance
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2009 May 09 Saturday
US Energy Dept Kills Hydrogen Vehicle Program

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced the end of the US government's program to develop a hydrogen-powered car. Hydrogen is difficult to store and the whole project faces other problems that will take a long time to solve. Speaking as a long-running skeptic of the hydrogen vehicle program this looks like good news. The money freed up can be directed toward better batteries and other more promising ideas.

The Obama Administration has also brought the carbon sequestering FutureGen coal electric power plant back to life. But does coal with carbon sequestration have a chance of competing with nuclear power on costs?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 09 06:08 PM  Energy Hydrogen
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Simplest Ocean Iron Fertilization Disappoints On Carbon Sequestration

The late oceanographer John Martin of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories proposed over 20 years ago using iron fertilization of oceans to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to cool the planet. Lawrence Berkeley Lab oceanographers find the simplest iron fertilization approach disappoints by not permanently sequestering much carbon.

BERKELEY, CA – Oceanographers Jim Bishop and Todd Wood of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have measured the fate of carbon particles originating in plankton blooms in the Southern Ocean, using data that deep-diving Carbon Explorer floats collected around the clock for well over a year. Their study reveals that most of the carbon from lush plankton blooms never reaches the deep ocean.

The surprising discovery deals a blow to the simplest version of the Iron Hypothesis, whose adherents believe global warming can be slowed or even reversed by fertilizing plankton with iron in regions that are iron-poor but rich in other nutrients like nitrogen, silicon, and phosphorus. The Southern Ocean is one of the most important such regions.

The scientists used floating autonomous sensor pods called Carbon Explorers that can take themselves down a few thousand feet and do continuous measurements for months. These pods collected the data that made this analysis possible. Deployment of a much larger number of Carbon Explorers would enable the scientists to develop a much more complex model of the ecosystem of phytoplankton and the zooplankton that feed on them.

The scientists aren't entirely dismissing the idea of using iron to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But they think finding a way to do this requires development of a much more complex understanding of how to optimize phytoplankton growth.

The Iron Hypothesis isn’t wrong, but it’s much more subtle than usually stated. Achieving optimum carbon sedimentation from plankton growth may require the right “recipe” of iron and other trace nutrients to grow the right kind of phytoplankton. Says Bishop, “You can grow a lot of Brussels sprouts, but kids won’t eat it. The same appears to be the case with diatom phytoplankton and zooplankton. It’s the zooplankton community that determines carbon sedimentation.”

By Randall Parker 2009 May 09 07:42 AM  Climate Engineering
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2009 May 08 Friday
Corn Better For Electricity Than For Ethanol

Corn as a form of biomass energy would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and move cars more miles if used to generate electricity to power electric cars.

Scientists are examining biomass - plant matter that's grown and used to generate energy - as a potential power source. Two biomass technologies involve ethanol and electricity. Biomass converted into ethanol, a corn-based fuel, can power internal combustion vehicles. Biomass converted into electricity can fuel a vehicle powered by an electric battery.

A study by University of California, Merced, Assistant Professor Elliott Campbell and two other researchers in the online edition of this week's Science journal suggests that biomass used to generate electricity could be the more efficient solution.

In the study, Campbell, along with Christopher Field, director of the department of global energy at the Carnegie Institution and David Lobell of Stanford University, the scientists found that biomass converted into electricity produced 81 percent more transportation miles and 108 percent more emissions offsets compared to ethanol.

In other words, said Campbell, vehicles powered by biomass converted into electricity "got further down the road" compared to ethanol. As a result, Campbell continued, "we found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues, transportation and climate."

I find this an unsurprising result. Previously I've argued that it makes more sense to burn corn kernels in place of heating oil as a heat source rather than use corn to produce ethanol. Why? Almost all the heat from burning the full kernel goes to producing space heat. Burning corn to produce heat for electric power generation will be highly efficient in a big electric power plant. By contrast lots of energy gets used to use part of corn to make ethanol.

My guess is that using corn to replace heating oil will be more efficient than using it to generate electricity to power electric cars. Better to displace the heating oil from heating and then use that heating oil as diesel fuel to power cars. Only once that displacement has been done does it make sense to begin to consider corn for electric power generation.

But keep in mind that the Merced researchers were comparing energy usages of corn. One still needs to compare the use of corn to generate electricity (or heat) with the use of wood or nuclear power or other energy sources. But this Merced comparison amounts to trying to find a more efficient way to placate the corn lobby with a different way to increase corn demand.

I expect you all see there's an obvious problem though in using corn to generate electricity specifically for transportation: the need for battery powered cars. But if the goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions then corn would be best used to displace coal for electric power generation. That displacement would not require production of millions of still rather expensive and limited range electric cars.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 08 07:40 PM  Energy Biomass
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2009 May 07 Thursday
Living Like A Refugee

Ever watch natural disasters on TV and wondered what it must be like to leave your home and stay in temporary shelters or extra rooms in homes or other sort of ad hoc living arrangements? I have wondered too. Now with the Santa Barbara Jesusita fire raging I'm experiencing at least one variation on that sort of thing. While I still have a place to return to I have no idea if that'll continue to be the case or when I'll return home.

The Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara makes for amazing pictures and even more amazing scenes if you are here. It has also gotten me thinking an assortment of thoughts.

First off, press coverage sucks. The local TV channel has people who talk a lot and repeated showing of flames bursting up. They'll put the camera on a house burning without telling where. You can spend a lot of time listening without learning much. l've heard lots of people complaining about the low information content. Evacuation orders do not provide enough information to tell whether it applies to you. Modest proposal: do what the national networks do and hire a retired expert. In this case: hire a fire chief to do the commentary. He can call his buddies, find out what is going on, and explain it. A forestry prof could provide more in-depth background on fuel amounts, burn rates, how long the fuel has been accumulating, etc. Educate the public while you have their attention.

The local government web sites lag for many hours. They should have a map page well advertised which instantly shows evacuation map changes. That map page should have notes on which neighborhoods can only be entered on foot and which you can drive into. Also spoken statements about evacuation areas should not say a single street name by itself. Yet I heard such statements yesterday. Neighbors were coming by asking "does the new evacuation order apply to us?" I couldn't figure it out either. The Public Information Officers should have canned formats in which they release information that are structured so that they communicate in intelligible ways. Some can't ad lib worth squat. The ambiguity wasn't cleared until when police cruised by saying "you are in imminent danger" and other words to that effect.

The government press conferences feature emergency officials and a few elected officials. They ought to sit down together afterward, watch their press conferences, and critique themselves for how long they took to say how little. I know they just feel for us and want us to take warnings seriously. But I'd like to see more coherent communication. Also, each agency gets up and says their piece. The US Forest Service guy at one conference said the fire hadn't burned much US Forest Service forest yet. Yes, okay, you are parochial guy. But how is this information helping?

The firemen and police perform admirably. Roads near my home are blocked off by police from Pismo Beach. Lots of other police cars and fire trucks are from all over southern California. LAFD were parked next to the old Mission Wednesday waiting for orders. Ventura and other cities and counties have crews here. If you are into fire trucks this is a great place to watch a variety of makes and models.

But what about technology? I know people who claim to have seen the fire up in the hills as soon as smoke became visible. Last night a couple of guys were telling me exactly what I was thinking already: Extremely fast methods of spotting fires in early stages along with very fast reaction times for helicopter tankers could nip somem fires in the bud. Time is of the essence. Could cameras trained on hillsides with image processing software spot fires 10 minutes earlier on average?

Then there is the effect of absolutely massive efforts. If 40 or 50 old jumbo jets were converted into water carriers could a fire get put out even after it has reached a couple of hundred acres? We got lucky the first night when the wind died down. The sundowner was way less than expected. Could a massive aerial assault have stopped it then? The America of the 1950s, given such tech, would have tried. The America of today - not so much.

One cool thing: Some (water-dropping) helicopters can fly at night with night vision goggles. What's the cost limit on more having that ability? Training? Performance capabilities of the chopper?

Update: Another thought: What would it cost to build massive piping along the tops of some valleys to be able to pump up and release water along boundaries in which firemen would want to try to contain a fire? Granted, under heavy winds burning embers travel a long way. But a lot of the fire spread is at lower speeds. If a fire could be stopped on a side with basically an irrigation system then the job of containing the fire would get a lot easier.

Update: Friday May 9, 2009: The evacuation zone (Google Maps link from County of Santa Barbara) has grown to displace 30,000 people. It is moving along the hills and mountainsides into Goleta and Montecito. Sundowner winds off the mountains could pull the fire down to threaten a lot more residential areas. The end is not in sight.

More airborne resources are being thrown at it including 15 helicopters, some fixed wing prop jobs and a DC-10 will arrive today. Ramp-ups to fight fires ought to happen faster with more aircraft thrown at them in the first day to try to stop them when they are still small. Also, a friend asks whatever happened to controlled burns during the rainy seasons? Were these stopped for the benefit of tourists?

Update: Saturday May 10, 2009: I hear no helicopters on Saturday morning. That's the first daytime silence since early afternoon Tuesday. Over 4000 firefighters fought the blaze.

With more than 4,000 firefighters on site, 14 air tankers, 15 helicopters and a DC-10, it was the largest mutual aid deployment in the history of Santa Barbara County.

We need better ways to control fires.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 07 12:38 PM  Miscellaneous Coverage
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2009 May 06 Wednesday
Fleet Pluggable Hybrids Disappoint On Fuel Efficiency

A few months ago I did a post on how cars converted to run as pluggable hybrids to run in fleets are disappointing on fuel efficiency. Wired magazine picks up on this development with a story on how fleet pluggable hybrids are disappointing in Seattle.

Having racked up some 17,000 miles, the plug-in Prius hybrids are averaging just 51 mpg. That's raising uncomfortable questions about the value and effectiveness of plug-in technology, even as President Obama pledges to have 1 million of them on the road by 2015.

"Getting 51 miles per gallon sounds fine compared to most gas cars," railed Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. "But it's a black eye for a technology that trumpets it will get twice that."

Well, it works great in theory. It works great when hypermilers are behind the wheel. But most people can't be bothered to be hypermilers.

Is Seattle an exception? Nope.

Idaho National Laboratory is seeing similar results among the plug-in fleets it is monitoring nationwide.

Also see my original post and you can check out Google's pluggable hybrids fleet.

One problem with the existing pluggables is that they shift over to gasoline power if pushed hard. A pluggable that can accelerate rapidly under pure electric power will do better than a converted Prius. So we can expect better results from a Chevy Volt for example.

Another problem is that one has to bother to plug in the car. People don't want to add another daily ritual to their lives. Come home, pull out a cord, plug in, and only then go inside. The come out to go to the store (need ketchup or steaks for dinner) and do not forget to unplug. Then come back and plug in again. Is this the last errand tonight? Maybe not. So don't bother to plug in. Then forget to plug in before going to bed. It is this frequent nagging task that people will resist.

We can look at Europe to see what high gasoline prices will do to modify behavior. Mostly people shift down to smaller cars with manual transmissions. They also live closer to work. Contrary to popular impressions mass transit plays a small role in moving people around Europe. See this page at Figure 1: Motorised Travel (passenger-kms per capita per annum) in 2003 where it compares many European countries for public transport use. Also see "Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003". What leaps out at me is that after all the mass transit subsidies and high taxes on gasoline well over 80% of passenger miles traveled on the ground in Europe are done by car.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 06 02:57 PM  Energy Transportation
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Method Lowers Algae Oil Extraction Costs

Origin Oil claims a faster method for extracting oil from algae.

OriginOil, an algae biofuel company based in Los Angeles, has developed a simpler and more efficient way to extract oil from algae. The process combines ultrasound and an electromagnetic pulse to break the algal cell walls. Then the algae solution is force-fed carbon dioxide, which lowers its pH, separating the biomass from the oil.

Does any reader know much about biodiesel algae economics? If the extraction step became, say, an order of magnitude cheaper would that cut more or less than half the current cost of algae biodiesel production? Is the growing or the extraction the higher cost?

Update: Here is an overview of companies developing algae ponds for energy and feed. Can algae pond operations become more economically feasible by producing biomass for animal food?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 06 12:13 AM  Energy Biomass
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Predator Fish Disappearing From Caribbean Coral Reefs

The growing and hungry human population is eating its way thru large fish species.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Sharks, barracuda and other large predatory fishes disappear on Caribbean coral reefs as human populations rise, endangering the region's marine food web and ultimately its reefs and fisheries, according to a sweeping study by researcher Chris Stallings of The Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

While other scientists working in the Caribbean have observed the declines of large predators for decades, the comprehensive work by Stallings documents the ominous patterns in far more detail at a much greater geographic scale than any other research to date. His article on the study, "Fishery-Independent Data Reveal Negative Effect of Human Population Density on Caribbean Predatory Fish Communities," is published in the May 6, 2009 issue of the journal PLoS One (www.plosone.org/).

"Seeing evidence of this ecological and economic travesty played out across the entire Caribbean is truly sobering," said Associate Professor John Bruno of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who served as the PLoS One academic editor for Stallings' paper.

We are eating our way thru the big fish predator species. As the human population continues to grow our impact on habitats and species will become much more severe.

Humans are eating their way down fish food chains.

"I examined 20 species of predators, including sharks, groupers, snappers, jacks, trumpetfish and barracuda, from 22 Caribbean nations," said Stallings, a postdoctoral associate at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory. "I found that nations with more people have reefs with far fewer large fish because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. Fishermen typically go after the biggest fish first, but shift to smaller species once the bigger ones become depleted. In some areas with large human populations, my study revealed that only a few small predatory fish remain."

Should we care that we are eating our way thru food chain after food chain? Should we care that additional billions of additional humans will come along to feed on food chains that are already severely depleted?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 06 12:02 AM  Trends Extinction
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2009 May 04 Monday
Women Who Make Babies In Their 40s Live Longer

A study of the Utah Population Database at the University of Utah which tracks the original Mormon pioneers and their descendants finds that women who are still able to reproduce in their 40s also live longer.

SALT LAKE CITY, May 4, 2009 – Women who have babies naturally in their 40s or 50s tend to live longer than other women. Now, a new study shows their brothers also live longer, but the brothers' wives do not, suggesting the same genes prolong lifespan and female fertility, and may be more important than social and environmental factors.

"If women in your family give birth at older ages, you may well have a chance of living longer than you would otherwise," says the study's lead author, demographer Ken R. Smith, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. "If you have a female relative who had children after age 45, then there may be some genetic benefit in your family that will enhance your longevity."

This is not a surprising result. Women whose bodies are aging more slowly are also more likely to have reproductive organs that can produce babies for a longer period of time.

Studies like this one will eventually lead to the identification of genetic variations that slow the aging process. How will we use this information? Some of us will opt to have our replacement organs grown from cells genetically modified to contain all the genetic variants that make the organs last longer.

Speaking of replacement organs, a good article in Scientific American surveys recent progress in tissue engineering and growth of replacement organs.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 04 10:59 PM  Aging Studies
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2009 May 03 Sunday
Two Companies Claim Cheaper Solar Concentrator Designs

Skyliine Solar uses parabolic mirrors to focus light on photovoltaic (PV) cells to generate electricity.

Skyline Solar, a startup that today announced its existence to the world, has developed a cheaper way to harvest energy from the sun. The company's solar panels concentrate sunlight onto a small area, reducing the amount of expensive semiconductor material needed to generate electricity.

Skyline Solar uses the parabolic trough approach used in solar thermal electric plants. They only concentrate the light by a factor of 10. Other companies pursuing photovoltaics (PV) with solar concentrators use much higher factors of light concentration and therefore have much bigger heat dissipation problems. The falling prices for PV reduces the advantage of using concentrators. The cheaper the PV the less point in using concentrators to reduce the amount of PV used.

Increases in PV efficiency help improve the economics of concentrating solar. If SunPower can improve their PV from 22% to 24% and beyond this will lower concentrating solar's costs because the same amount of mirrors will make more electricity. Higher efficiency PV fits well with concentrating solar. So concentrating solar with silicon-based high efficiency PV competes with thin film lower efficiency and lower cost PV.

An Israeli solar concentrator start up, Zenith Solar, is also claiming a cheaper way to do concentrated solar that uses both PV and thermal energy.

The technology, a system of rotating dishes made up of mirrors, is capable of harnessing up to 75 percent of incoming sunlight – roughly five times the capacity of traditional solar panels. In addition, using mirrors to reduce the number of photovoltaic cells needed, it makes the cost of solar energy roughly comparable to fossil fuels.

While this technology has been implemented elsewhere, Israeli start-up ZenithSolar – working in conjunction with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University – is a pioneer in combining it with a water-based cooling system that increases the photovoltaic cells’ efficiency and produces thermal energy to boot.

The value of that thermal energy depends on what you can do with it. Solar thermal's highest value comes in late winter and early spring when the days have gotten longer but the weather is still cold. The thermal energy can be used to heat buildings. But on a hot summer's day the hot water is only useful if it can boil and produce steam to generate electricity.

Do solar concentrators have a long range future? Or will declining PV prices make concentrators pointless?

By Randall Parker 2009 May 03 11:31 PM  Energy Solar
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Wearable Patch Will Count Calories Burned And Consumed

A wearable patch that you replace once a week monitors heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and other indicators to calculate your calorie consumption and burning rates. Then a cell phone or PC can get the information via Bluetooth and advise you about whether you need to eat less or exercise more.

The calorie monitor, which is being developed by biotech incubator PhiloMetron, uses a combination of sensors, electrodes, and accelerometers that--together with a unique algorithm--measure the number of calories eaten, the number of calories burned, and the net gain or loss over a 24-hour period. The patch sends this data via a Bluetooth wireless connection to a dieter's cell phone, where an application tracks the totals and provides support. "You missed your goal for today, but you can make it up tomorrow by taking a 15-minute walk or having a salad for dinner," it might suggest.

I have no idea how well this generation of device works. But it is a step in an inevitable direction. We will wear external sensors as patches and as sensor nets built into clothing, jewelry, and watches. Diabetics and heart patients can benefit from real time warnings. Athletes can get warnings of overheating and dehydration.

The monitoring systems will eventually get integrated with embedded drug releasing systems that will act much like endocrine organs adjusting our metabolism when it gets out of desirable operating ranges.

Calorie Counter.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 03 10:47 PM  Brain Appetite
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2009 May 01 Friday
Brain Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex Gives Us Power To Refrain

Some CalTech scientists think that using brain scans and food choices they have been able to identify the part of the brain that allows people control their desires and refrain from making harmful decisions. If you can say no to unhealthy food you probably have a fairly strong dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in your brain

After all the choices had been made, the researchers were able to pick out 19 volunteers who showed a significant amount of dietary self-control in their choices, picking mostly healthy foods, regardless of taste. They were also able to identify 18 additional volunteers who showed very little self-control, picking what they believed to be the tastier food most of the time, regardless of its nutritional value.

When they looked at the brain scans of the participants, they found significant differences in the brain activity of the self-control group as compared to the non-self-controllers.

Previous studies have shown that value-based decisions--like what kind of food to eat--are reflected in the activity of a region in the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC. If activity in the vmPFC goes down, explains Todd Hare, a postdoctoral scholar in neuroeconomics and the first author on the Science paper, "it means the person is probably going to say no to that item; if it goes up, they're likely to choose that item."

In the non-self-controllers, Rangel notes, the vmPFC seemed to only take the taste of the food into consideration in making a decision. "In the case of good self-controllers, however, another area of the brain--called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC]--becomes active, and modulates the basic value signals so that the self-controllers can also incorporate health considerations into their decisions," he explains. In other words, the DLPFC allows the vmPFC to weigh both taste and health benefits at the same time.

"The vmPFC works during every decision," says Hare. "The DLPFC, on the other hand, is more active when you're employing self-control."

"This, ultimately, is one reason why self-controllers can make better choices," Rangel adds.

Still, the DLPFC can only do so much. For instance, it can't override a truly negative reaction to a food, notes Hare. "We rarely got people to say they'd eat cauliflower if they didn't like cauliflower," he says. "But they would choose not to eat ice cream or candy bars, knowing they could eat the healthier index food instead."

Suppose neural stem cell therapy could boost the power of your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Would opt for the cell therapy that would do this?

I expect future prospective parents will gain the option of boosting and dampening various brain genes. I expect most prospective parents will opt for genetic twiddling that will boost the power of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. So people of the future will be more self-controlled.

By Randall Parker 2009 May 01 12:24 AM  Brain Appetite
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