2009 December 30 Wednesday
Hot Electrons To Double Solar PV Efficiency?

Researchers at Boston College have found evidence that a theory about how to double photovoltaic sunlight conversion efficiency might really work.

The results are a step toward solar cells that break conventional efficiency limits. Because of the way ordinary solar cells work, they can, in theory, convert at most about 35 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity, wasting the rest as heat. Making use of hot electrons could result in efficiencies as high as 67 percent, says Matthew Beard, a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, who was not involved in the current work. Doubling the efficiency of solar cells could cut the cost of solar power in half.

First Solar, Solyndra, Nanosolar, and other contenders are already developing lots of ways to cut manufacturing costs. If the cost cutting trend continues PV will become cost effective for a larger number of potential buyers even without a big efficiency boost. But a doubing in efficiency would be on top of these manufacturing innovations.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 30 11:02 PM  Energy Solar
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2009 December 29 Tuesday
Global Warming Won't Prevent Ice Age

Writing in Technology Review Duke University prof Franklin Hadley Cocks says even if a worst case scenario for global warming happens in a couple thousand years we'll be headed into the next Ice Age.

Even if the rate of growth could be moderated enough to stabilize levels at about 550 ppmv, average temperatures might well rise by about 5 oC--with devastating effects for us earthlings, such as rising sea levels and dramatic changes in weather patterns.

But even that warming will not stave off the eventual return of huge glaciers, because ice ages last for millennia and fossil fuels will not.In about 300 years, all available fossil fuels may well have been consumed.Over the following centuries, excess carbon dioxide will naturally dissolve into the oceans or get trapped by the formation of carbonate minerals. Such processes won't be offset by the industrial emissions we see today, and atmospheric carbon dioxide will slowly decline toward preindustrial levels. In about 2,000 years, when the types of planetary motions that can induce polar cooling start to coincide again, the current warming trend will be a distant memory.

For the last couple million years of the Quaternary Period You can see by looking at long term temperature graphs that the interglacial periods have been shorter than the glacial periods. Our civilization is very much a product of the current Holocene/Anthropocene interglacial period. We should try to make this period last.

I would prefer we didn't burn up all the limited supply of fossil fuels now so that we could burn them later when we really need to heat up the planet. But the average human discount rate precludes that sort of restraint and long term planning. We effectively can't even plan for 50 years from now. 2000 years is out of the question.

But I'm thinking 2000 years from now what we (those of us who live long enough to get full body rejuvenation and then avoid accidents and war) can find other ways to heat the planet. For example, we could use nuclear or solar energy to power synthesis of methane. Or we could synthesize and release the much more potent trifluoromethyl sulphur pentafluoride (SF5CF3). Or we could synthesize the most potent greenhouse gas nitrogen trifluoride, NF3. It is 17,000 times more potent than CO2. Surely in a couple thousand years we (or the artificial intelligences that take over the planet) will be able to find many ways to prevent the next ice age. So, absent an extinction event that wipes out intelligent life on the planet I do not expect the next ice age to happen on schedule.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 29 05:04 PM  Climate Trends
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Canadian Equivalent Of Pickens Plan For Natural Gas

T. Boone Pickens had bad luck in timing his proposed Pickens Plan to transition from oil to natural gas for vehicle power. The financial crisis, recession and associated temporary decline in oil prices took the momentum out of his plan soon after it was announced. But a Canadian natural gas producer might succeed in implementing a smaller scale version of what Boone proposes.

Over the past few months, EnCana Corp. (ECA-T34.49----%) has been in talks with government officials about a plan to build a network of hundreds of compressed and liquid natural gas fuelling stations between Windsor, Ont. and Quebec City, Canada's busiest highway corridor.

EnCana wants to migrate some trucks over to natural gas. Long haul trucks make a good first target for large scale natural gas roll-out because they use a fairly small subset of all gasoline stations - mostly really big truck stops on interstates that have large areas to handle trucks. A relatively small number of long haul truck stops connected to natural gas pipelines could enable a large shift from diesel to natural gas burning.

Diesel demand varies more over the course of the business cycle than gasoline demand. In the last big surge in oil prices the price of diesel went up much more than the price of gasoline. I watched a gallon of diesel go from 28 cents less than gasoline to 96 cents more by July 2008 in a Shell station near where I live. That's gotta hurt the truck drivers. If the world economy can get strong enough to push up the price of oil up above $100 per barrel again then the economics for natural gas powered trucks will look a lot more favorable.

In the long run Peak Oil is going to force a big shift toward natural gas for cars and trucks. But natural gas also offers a health advantage: Far less particulate pollution. You'll breathe cleaner air on road trips and daily commutes to the extent that trucks shift from diesel to natural gas.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 29 11:46 AM  Energy Transportation
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Facial Proportions Key For Facial Beauty

Ideal beauty down to facial proportions.

TORONTO, ON – Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder but also in the relationship of the eyes and mouth of the beholden. The distance between a woman's eyes and the distance between her eyes and her mouth are key factors in determining how attractive she is to others, according to new psychology research from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Toronto.

Pamela Pallett and Stephen Link of UC San Diego and Kang Lee of the University of Toronto tested the existence of an ideal facial feature arrangement. They successfully identified the optimal relation between the eyes, the mouth and the edge of the face for individual beauty.

In four separate experiments, the researchers asked university students to make paired comparisons of attractiveness between female faces with identical facial features but different eye-mouth distances and different distances between the eyes.

They discovered two "golden ratios," one for length and one for width. Female faces were judged more attractive when the vertical distance between their eyes and the mouth was approximately 36 percent of the face's length, and the horizontal distance between their eyes was approximately 46 percent of the face's width.

You can see from this one of the limits to beauty enhancement from plastic surgery today. Even if we had stem cell therapies, gene therapies, interference RNA therapies, and other means to totally rejuvenate the face changing facial proportions is another level of problem that involves cutting into bones to shorten and extend bone lengths.

Anyone still alive 30 or so years from now with the money to afford it will be able to go in for a full facial rejuvenation. Grow new teeth. Gradually replace stem cells to generate new skin and collagen layers. New stem cells for the bones will help refill the bones. But achieving absolute beauty will require much more radical changes.

Regardless of how difficult facial reshaping remains in the future ideal beauty will become commonplace. For new babies ideal beauty will increase due to embryo selection but will really take off once embryo genetic engineering becomes possible. Enabled by the massive and continuing declines in the cost of DNA sequencing some scientists will find genetic variants that create differences in facial proportions. Then the problem becomes how to get the right genetic variants into an embryo. Once we can put beauty genes into embryos we are going to have one sexy world.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 29 11:06 AM  Brain Beauty
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2009 December 28 Monday
Alzheimers And Cancer Protect Against Each Other?

You know that (probably wrong saying) "starve a cold, feed a fever"? People who get Alzheimer's Disease are less likely to get cancer and vice versa.

People who have Alzheimer’s disease may be less likely to develop cancer, and people who have cancer may be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study published in the December 23, 2009, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Anyone care to explain this?

During the study, 478 people developed dementia and 376 people developed invasive cancer. For people who had Alzheimer’s disease at the start of the study, the risk of future cancer hospitalization was reduced by 69 percent compared to those who did not have Alzheimer’s disease when the study started. For Caucasian people who had cancer when the study started, their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease was reduced by 43 percent compared to people who did not have cancer at the start of the study, although that finding was not evident in minority groups.

I would expect a stronger immune system to protect against both diseases. But might inflammation contribute to the development of Alzheimer's while at the same time stimulating the immune system to attack cancer cells?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 28 11:13 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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2009 December 27 Sunday
Wind Energy Limits In Britain

A BBC article about the problems with micro wind turbines (in a nutshell: fuggedaboutit) ends up with an analysis of the wind energy potential in the UK. The problem is that Britain isn't big enough to produce enough power from wind to supply the whole (dense) population. This illustrates a larger problem.

Professor David MacKay, the new chief scientist at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, has done the maths on this. Instead of kW, he calculates power in kWh, and he estimates that if we put wind turbines across the windiest 10% of the country, we would generate only 20 kWh per day per person in Britain.


Add in offshore turbines covering a third of the available shallow water locations (44,000 turbines) and installing deep water turbines in a 9km-wide strip all round the entire British coast and you get an additional 48kWh day per person.

That's a lot of power, but even on quite conservative estimates the average UK resident uses 125 kWh day.

That 9kn-wide strip of offshore wind turbines all the way around Britain would be much more expensive than onshore wind as well. Plus, hey, sometimes the wind doesn't blow.

Europe is densely populated and it is pretty far north. These two facts are highly problematic for European efforts to gradually phase out fossil fuels in order to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Europe doesn't have enough land to put up enough wind turbines to supply all the power the continent needs. At the same time, solar power still costs too much and Europe is too far north to get enough solar energy during the winter anyway. In much of Europe demand for electric power peaks in the winter (not in the summer like much of the United States). So Europe can't shift over to running purely on wind and solar power.

Since Europe can't run just on wind and solar power either it must bring power in from distant places (whether renewable or fossil fuels) or it has to use nuclear power. The current ban on new nuclear power plants in Germany therefore is impractical.

Even provided enough electric power for all energy needs the migration to a pure electric economy is still very problematic. Airplanes need liquid fuels and liquid fuels are still much cheaper than electric power for vehicles in most cases. There's also still the need for chemical feedstocks. We still need many technological advances in order to migrate away from fossil fuels. Oil's liquid hydrocarbons are especially valuable.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 27 09:36 PM  Energy Wind
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2009 December 26 Saturday
Microphotovoltaic Cells Could Embed In Clothing

Very small solar cells open up the possibility of many applications.

Sandia National Laboratories scientists have developed tiny glitter-sized photovoltaic cells that could revolutionize the way solar energy is collected and used.

The tiny cells could turn a person into a walking solar battery charger if they were fastened to flexible substrates molded around unusual shapes, such as clothing.

Such cells could be placed on irregular building shapes, vehicle surfaces, and surfaces where conventional PV can't attach.

Sandia lead investigator Greg Nielson said the research team has identified more than 20 benefits of scale for its microphotovoltaic cells. These include new applications, improved performance, potential for reduced costs and higher efficiencies.

“Eventually units could be mass-produced and wrapped around unusual shapes for building-integrated solar, tents and maybe even clothing,” he said. This would make it possible for hunters, hikers or military personnel in the field to recharge batteries for phones, cameras and other electronic devices as they walk or rest.

The much lower use of silicon should cut costs since silicon is a major portion of the cost of silicon-based PV. This suggests these cells might be able to compete on cost versus the cheaper CdTe and CIGS thin film PV that is currently underselling silicon PV on price.

“So they use 100 times less silicon to generate the same amount of electricity,” said Okandan. “Since they are much smaller and have fewer mechanical deformations for a given environment than the conventional cells, they may also be more reliable over the long term.”

The conversion efficiency is pretty high - higher than the cheap thin films.

Offering a run for their money to conventional large wafers of crystalline silicon, electricity presently can be harvested from the Sandia-created cells with 14.9 percent efficiency. Off-the-shelf commercial modules range from 13 to 20 percent efficient.

New discoveries for making better solar cells keep getting announced by research labs while a growing assortment of PV makers compete with new approaches for cutting manufacturing and installation costs. Some day PV is going to become a cheap way to generate electricity.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 26 08:08 PM  Energy Solar
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2009 December 23 Wednesday
Digital Quantum Battery To Far Exceed Lithium Batteries?

Game changing technologies do pop up on occasion. If this technology works out it could revolutionize the auto industry with capacity at least double current lithium batteries.

A "digital quantum battery" concept proposed by a physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could provide a dramatic boost in energy storage capacity--if it meets its theoretical potential once built.

The concept calls for billions of nanoscale capacitors and would rely on quantum effects--the weird phenomena that occur at atomic size scales--to boost energy storage. Conventional capacitors consist of one pair of macroscale conducting plates, or electrodes, separated by an insulating material. Applying a voltage creates an electric field in the insulating material, storing energy. But all such devices can only hold so much charge, beyond which arcing occurs between the electrodes, wasting the stored power.

The amount of oil in the ground is finite. New discoveries are mostly in deep water and very expensive to extract. During a deep recession oil prices are hovering around $75 per barrel. Some experts believe world oil production has already peaked. In the United States 71% of oil gets used for transportation and oil provides 95% of the energy used in transportation. We need the ability to move around without using liquid fuel. We have no shortage of ways to generate electricity. Workable high density and cheap batteries for cars would make the adjustment to Peak Oil very easy to do. Will nanoscale capacitors be the ticket?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 23 05:15 PM  Energy Batteries
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2009 December 22 Tuesday
Support For Climate Engineering Goes Mainstream

Writing in Technology Review Kevin Bullis reports that mainstream scientists are beginning to accept the necessity of climate engineering.

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have already climbed to 385 parts per million, well over the 350 parts per million that many scientists say is the upper limit for a relatively stable climate. And despite government-led efforts to limit carbon emissions in many countries, annual emissions from fossil-fuel combustion are going up, not down: over the last two decades, they have increased 41 percent. In the last 10 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by nearly two parts per million every year. At this rate, they'll be twice preindustrial levels by the end of the century. Meanwhile, researchers are growing convinced that the climate might be more sensitive to greenhouse gases at this level than once thought. "The likelihood that we're going to avoid serious damage seems quite low," says Schrag. "The best we're going to do is probably not going to be good enough."

This shocking realization has caused many influential scientists, including Obama advisors like Schrag, to fundamentally change their thinking about how to respond to climate change. They have begun calling for the government to start funding research into geoengineering--large-scale schemes for rapidly cooling the earth.

If the Earth heats up so much that major coastal cities are going to flood then I see climate engineering as inevitable as soon as the oceans rise by a meter or two. In fact, one could probably figure out for each nation with an ocean border how high the oceans would need to rise to cause its populace and leaders to switch toward favoring climate engineering.

However, I can see a possible exception: Russia. If Siberia warms up won't the Russians benefit far more from massive areas becoming livable than from the loss of part of St. Petersburg. Most of the Russian population isn't near coasts.

In some nations with limited water resources global warming might be seen as a big blessing if it boosts rainfall.

The various different engineering methods for cooling differ in many ways that will be debated in detail in coming decades. For example, some cooling gases stay in the atmosphere for a short time, others for a long time. It would probably make sense to start out with short duration cooling gases so that the effects of a cooling intervention won't be long lasting in case they cause side effects that are too problematic.

A big volcanic eruption that cools the Earth for a few years in the 2020s or 2030s might catalyze support for intentional cooling. A short cooling from a natural cause would serve as a powerful demonstration of the potential for engineered cooling under human control.

Update: Some people in the comments are obviously upset by the idea of intervening in the weather to solve a problem which they doubt really exists. Well, don't go getting your panties in a bunch. Climate engineering can be done very rapidly. Therefore it doesn't need to be started until major melting and ocean level rises are clearly underway. Spew a huge amount of silicon dioxide into the air for a year and you can bring on another ice age. This isn't rocket science. It isn't expensive either.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 22 10:26 PM  Climate Engineering
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Housing Development Near US Protected Areas

People into the United States are moving into areas around protected areas.

MADISON — Conservationists have long known that lines on a map are not sufficient to protect nature because what happens outside those boundaries can affect what happens within. Now, a study by two University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists in the department of forest and wildlife ecology measures the threat of housing development around protected areas in the United States.

In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Volker Radeloff, an associate professor, and Anna Pidgeon, an assistant professor, looked at housing around every national park, national forest and federal wilderness area in the 48 contiguous states. Using data from the U.S. Census and local sources, they counted housing units built within 1 to 50 kilometers of these reserves, and produced maps and statistics that document the change since 1940 and project forward to 2030.

In 2000, 38 million housing units were within 50 kilometers of these conserved lands, compared to 9.8 million in 1940, and housing was growing faster inside that 50-kilometer range than outside it.

A house's sphere of influence extends beyond its own lot, because housing can encourage the spread of invasive species, alter drainage patterns and foster increased recreational use of the conserved land, which can, ironically, harm wildlife.

Nature is shrinking. The human domain is expanding.

I know people who are intentionally building near national forests in order to be close to natural areas that will be preserved. Some of them are hunters. Some are boaters. All this is more strain on nature. At the same time, I'd like to live inside a national forest.

One category of development that jumped out of the data was the 940,000 housing units built between 1940 and 2000 in private land inside the boundaries of national forests. These so-called "in-holdings" are surrounded by conserved land and therefore pose a special challenge for wildlife.

The Wisconsin scientists project that housing within 50 kilometers of wilderness areas will have grown 45 percent (10 million units) by 2030 compared to 2000. During the same period, they project housing to grow 52 percent within 1 kilometer of national forests.

Population growth will accelerate the spread of humans into wilder areas. The telecommunications revolution helps people live away from cities and they are moving toward nature when they are able. Population growth of 50% (as will happen to the US by 2050 under high immigration scenarios) would boost land usage for housing, highways, farms, factories, commercial buildings, mines, and other ways humans use land. The land not used for farms isn't as productive the land used for farms. So we take more of the useful habitats than we do of land overall.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 22 10:02 PM  Trends Habitat Loss
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2009 December 21 Monday
Stem Cell Dangers Expected To Decrease

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a scientist who did key scientific experiments to turn adult cells into pluripotent stem cells is the subject of a New York Times story on the bright prospects for stem cell research. Yamanaka sees both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells as still risky for therapies. But he's optimistic about solving these problems.

As for the cells with which he now works, iPS cells, many hurdles remain before they are truly as versatile as the embryonic stem cells they mimic. “Embryonic stem cells are not safe,” he said. “But at the moment, iPS cells are more dangerous.”

For instance, many skin cells only partly complete the transition to stem cells, and there are no reliable markers yet to flag those that are incomplete. Embryonic stem cells also tend to form benign tumors made of a mix of muscle, bone and other cell types. For unknown reasons, Dr. Yamanaka’s stem cells are more prone to produce them. One of the trigger genes can cause cancer, and the viruses that ferry the transforming genes into a target skin cell may not deliver them where they are needed.

To turn stem cells into other cell types requires many changes in the regulatory state of the cells. DNA has many sites on it where proteins bind, methyl groups get placed, and other changes are made to regulate the behavior of tens of thousands of genes. Each type of cell in the body has a different pattern of regulation. To develop control over cell state is a very difficult undertaking.

The iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells made by transforming adult cells (e.g a piece of skin tissue) hold much promise for two reasons. First, since creation of the cells avoids use of an embryo the iPS cells do not elicit big ethical objections. Second, iPS cells can be made using a person's own starter cells. So they are much more likely to be immunologically compatible. Dr. Yamanaka’s work in figuring out how to create iPS cells will eventually result in therapies that many of us will get. If you are still alive 30 years from now expect to get in line for stem cell therapies for all that ails you.

What I first want from stem cell therapy: the quality of eyesight I had as a teenager.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 21 10:39 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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Brain Positive Emotions Peter Out In Depressed

In depressed people the areas of the brain that generate positive emotions do not maintain high activity levels for as long.

MADISON — A new study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that depressed patients are unable to sustain activity in brain areas related to positive emotion.

The study challenges previous notions that individuals with depression show less brain activity in areas associated with positive emotion. Instead, the new data suggest similar initial levels of activity, but an inability to sustain them over time. The new work was reported online this week (Dec. 21) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure in things normally rewarding, is a cardinal symptom of depression," explains UW-Madison graduate student Aaron Heller, who led the project. "Scientists have generally thought that anhedonia is associated with a general reduction of activity in brain areas thought to be important for positive emotion and reward. In fact, we found that depressed patients showed normal levels of activity early on in the experiment. However, towards the end of the experiment, those levels of activity dropped off precipitously.

"Those depressed subjects who were better able to sustain activity in brain regions related to positive emotion and reward also reported higher levels of positive emotion in their everyday experience," Heller continues.

If depressed people were to receive more rewards would a higher frequency of rewards keep the positive emotion areas lit up? Or do these areas lack energy or chemicals needed to maintain higher activity levels? Do these brain areas fatigue? Or do other brain areas send them signals that dampen down the positive emotions?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 21 10:20 PM  Brain Depression
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Salmon More Sensitive To Pesticide Run-Off?

Salmon are good for you. An environment in which salmon thrive is therefore in our collective best interest. Depleted salmon populations might recover more rapidly if less pesticides were allowed to run off into rivers where salmon run.

Biologists determined that short-term, seasonal exposure to pesticides in rivers and basins may limit the growth and size of wild salmon populations. In addition to the widespread deterioration of salmon habitats, these findings suggest that exposure to commonly used pesticides may further inhibit the recovery of threatened or endangered populations.

"Major efforts are currently underway to restore Pacific salmon habitats in an effort to recover depressed populations," says David Baldwin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who co-authored the study with NOAA colleagues in the December issue of the ESA journal Ecological Applications. "However, not much research has been done to determine the importance of pollution as a limiting factor of ESA-listed species."

Mind you, this is all a result of computer modeling. But if the model is correct then pesticides can make a big negative impact.

The biologists found in previous studies that, on an individual level, the pesticides directly affected the activity of acetylcholinesterase, an important enzyme in the salmon brain. As a result, the salmon experienced reductions in feeding behavior. The reductions in food were then extended using the model to calculate reductions in the growth, size, and subsequent survival at ocean migration. In one scenario, the model predicted that, within a span of 20 years, returning spawners would have an increase of 68 percent abundance compared to a 523 percent projected increase in an unexposed chinook population.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 21 10:13 PM  Environment Aquatic Pollution
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DHA And EPA Reduce Sensory Overload In Mice

Omega 3 fatty acids from fish make mice less likely to overreact to loud noises. The idea here is maybe the same happens with humans.

WASHINGTON — The omega-3 essential fatty acids commonly found in fatty fish and algae help animals avoid sensory overload, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. The finding connects low omega-3s to the information-processing problems found in people with schizophrenia; bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders; Huntington's disease; and other afflictions of the nervous system.

The study, reported in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, provides more evidence that fish is brain food. The key finding was that two omega-3 fatty acids – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – appear to be most useful in the nervous system, maybe by maintaining nerve-cell membranes.

"It is an uphill battle now to reverse the message that 'fats are bad,' and to increase omega-3 fats in our diet," said Norman Salem Jr., PhD, who led this study at the Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

LNA (alpha-linolenic acid), the DHA precursor fat found in plant foods (e.g. in flax oil) does not provide this benefit.

In the study, the researchers fed four different diets with no or varying types and amounts of omega-3s to four groups of pregnant mice and then their offspring. They measured how the offspring, once grown, responded to a classic test of nervous-system function in which healthy animals are exposed to a sudden loud noise. Normally, animals flinch. However, when they hear a softer tone in advance, they flinch much less. It appears that normal nervous systems use that gentle warning to prepare instinctively for future stimuli, an adaptive process called sensorimotor gating.

Only the mice raised on DHA and EPA, but not their precursor of LNA, showed normal, adaptive sensorimotor gating by responding in a significantly calmer way to the loud noises that followed soft tones. The mice in all other groups, when warned, were startled nearly as much by the loud sound. When DHA was deficient, the nervous system most obviously did not downshift. That resulted in an abnormal state that could leave animals perpetually startled and easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.

DHA is found in algae and that is why fish have so much DHA. Some of the DHA found in capsules comes from growing algae.

Get easily distracted or rattled by noises? A diet big in salmon or sardines might be worth a try.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 21 10:03 PM  Brain Nutrition
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2009 December 20 Sunday
Dogs Better Than Human Walking Companions

No surprise here. Oh, and cats aren't getting you any exercise.

Is it better to walk a human or to walk a dog?

New research from the University of Missouri has found that people who walk dogs are more consistent about regular exercise and show more improvement in fitness than people who walk with a human companion. In a 12-week study of 54 older adults at an assisted living home, 35 people were assigned to a walking program for five days a week, while the remaining 19 served as a control group. Among the walkers, 23 selected a friend or spouse to serve as a regular walking partner along a trail laid out near the home. Another 12 participants took a bus daily to a local animal shelter where they were assigned a dog to walk.

Click thru to read the details. Suffice to say, dogs rule.

Speaking as someone whose late, great, and much missed Australian Shepherd served as my personal trainer this result comes as no surprise. You walk in the door after work and that dog knows what you should do next. Get your ass in gear and lets start running up the road to a park. Been home for a few hours continuously? Time for another work-out. Come on. Can't you see how important this is?

Friends are just going to take turns flaking out on each other. Dogs just love that exercise far too much and can't imagine how something else could possibly be more important. Dogs are good for humans.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 20 12:01 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2009 December 19 Saturday
Tea And Coffee Cut Type 2 Diabetes Risk

Tea and coffee reduce the risk of insulin-resistant diabetes that many develop in middle age and later.

Drinking more coffee (regular or decaffeinated) or tea appears to lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to an analysis of previous studies reported in the December 14/28 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, JAMA (1).

By the year 2025, approximately 380 million individuals worldwide will be affected by type 2 diabetes (1).

Despite considerable research attention, the role of specific dietary and lifestyle factors remains uncertain, although obesity and physical inactivity have consistently been reported to raise the risk of diabetes mellitus. A previously published meta-analysis suggested drinking more coffee may be linked with a reduced risk, but the amount of available information has more than doubled since.

Decaffeinated coffee appears to cut risks the most while tea cuts risks the least. This makes caffeine unlikely to be the protective agent.

When the authors combined and analyzed the data, they found that each additional cup of coffee consumed in a day was associated with a 7 percent reduction in the excess risk of diabetes.

Individuals who drank three to four cups per day had an approximately 25 percent lower risk than those who drank between zero and two cups per day.

In addition, in the studies that assessed decaffeinated coffee consumption, those who drank more than three to four cups per day had about a one-third lower risk of diabetes than those who drank none. Those who drank more than three to four cups of tea had a one-fifth lower risk than those who drank no tea.

Magnesium and some antioxidants might offer protection.

Other compounds in coffee and tea including magnesium, antioxidants known as lignans or chlorogenic acids may be involved, the authors note.

Okay, so is magnesium a plausible protective agent? First off, let us look at how much magnesium is in a cup of coffee. A real cup is 8 ounces though people frequently drink less than 8 ounces at a time. But let us assume 3 8 ounce cups or 24 ounces per day. That's at least in the ballpark since some people drink 4 smaller servings. Well, each ounce of coffee contains 24 mg of magnesium and 34.5 mg of potassium. It also provides 1.6 mg of niacin. 24 ounces times 24 mg equals 576 mg of magnesium - a quite substantial amount.

Over the age of 30 the recommended daily dose of magnesium for males is 420 mg and for females 320 mg. So a 4 cup coffee drinker is going to get more than the recommended daily dose of magnesium.

But tea only contains .3 mg of magnesium per ounce. So tea's protective effect must not be due to magnesium. Tea's lack of magnesium does not mean that the magnesium in coffee isn't helping however. A number of studies have found that magnesium lowers type 2 diabetes risk and risk of metabolic syndrome.

If you want to get more magnesium without drinking coffee then nuts, green leafy vegetables, beans, and whole grains will help.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 19 08:04 PM  Aging Diet Metabolism
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2009 December 17 Thursday
Mass Production Pluggable Hybrid Cars Decades Away?

A study by the US National Research Council finds that substantial production of plug-in hybrids lies a few decades in the future. Will battery costs really fall so slowly?

The mass-introduction of the plug-in hybrid electric car is still a few decades away, according to new analysis by the National Research Council.

The study, released on Monday, also found that the next generation of plug-in hybrids could require hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies to take off.

The study claims battery costs are huge and therefore the fuel saved using pluggable hybrids take too long to pay back the added costs.

GM will start selling the Chevy Volt pluggable hybrid in November 2010. Toyota will start selling a pluggable hybrid in 2011. Nissan is embracing pure electric cars in a big way and CEO Carlos Ghosn expects electric cars to make up 10% of global car sales by 2020.

How fast will battery prices drop? How high up will oil prices go due to Peak Oil? You need to know the answers to both those questions in order to accurately predict the rate of demand growth for pluggable hybrids and pure electric cars.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 17 10:45 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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Cardiovascular Health Boosts Mental Performance

Teens who are in better cardiovascular shape perform better on cognitive tests. More muscle mass does not help. The researchers controlled for genetics by including twins in their analysis.

Pedersen, lead author Maria Åberg of the University of Gothenburg and the research team looked at data for all 1.2 million Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976 who enlisted for mandatory military service at the age of 18.

In every measure of cognitive functioning they analyzed – from verbal ability to logical performance to geometric perception to mechanical skills – average test scores increased according to aerobic fitness.

However, scores on intelligence tests did not increase along with muscle strength, the researchers found.

"Positive associations with intelligence scores were restricted to cardiovascular fitness, not muscular strength," Pedersen explained, "supporting the notion that aerobic exercise improved cognition through the circulatory system influencing brain plasticity."

The fact that muscle strength doesn't boost brain performance suggests better oxygen and nutrient supply to the brain is key.

"Direct causality cannot be established. However, the fact that we demonstrated associations between cognition and cardiovascular fitness but not muscle strength . . . and the longitudinal prediction by cardiovascular fitness on subsequent academic achievement, speak in favor of a cardiovascular effect on brain function," Pedersen said.

The results from twins increases the likelihood that the causal relationship runs from cardiovascular health to brain performance.

Even among identical twin pairs, the link between cardiovascular health and intelligence remained strong, according to the study. Thus, the results are not a reflection of genetic influences on cardiovascular health and intelligence. Rather, the twin results give further support to the likelihood that there is indeed a causal relationship, Pedersen explained.

So how is your cardiovascular fitness? Ever run or swim or at least walk rapidly long distances?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 17 09:46 PM  Brain Performance
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2009 December 16 Wednesday
Diplomatic Problem With Asteroid Deflection

Former astronaut Rusty Schweickart’s group for promoting the development of asteroid defenses points out a curious problem: While an asteroid would be in the process of getting deflected its aim would shift across the planet Earth. Countries would oppose an asteroid's collision path cross over their territory while it was in the process of being re-aimed to miss Earth entirely.

Schweickart’s group, The B612 Foundation, has advocated a different approach to asteroid deflection, but one that will require an equally difficult international negotiation. They propose to bump or tow an asteroid “in a controlled manner” so that it misses Earth. The only problem is that such a process would take time and as the asteroid’s trajectory changed, it would be “pointed” at different places along a horizontal plane on Earth called the risk corridor.

I think we ought to put more effort into discovering all the asteroids out there. I'd prefer to know when one is going to hit and then have the diplomatic problem of how to deflect it rather than discover it was going to hit 3 days before it got here.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 16 11:50 PM  Dangers Asteroids
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Soot Pollution Melting Glaciers

These glaciers are a sign of what is going into your lungs. If we replaced all the world's coal electric power plants with nukes we'd breathe cleaner air and the glaciers wouldn't lose so much ice.

WASHINGTON – Black soot deposited on Tibetan glaciers has contributed significantly to the retreat of the world's largest non-polar ice masses, according to new research by scientists from NASA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Soot absorbs incoming solar radiation and can speed glacial melting when deposited on snow in sufficient quantities.

Temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau -- sometimes called Earth's "third pole" -- have warmed by 0.3°C (0.5°F) per decade over the past 30 years, about twice the rate of observed global temperature increases. New field research and ongoing quantitative modeling suggests that soot's warming influence on Tibetan glaciers could rival that of greenhouse gases.

"Tibet's glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate," said James Hansen, coauthor of the study and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City. "Black soot is probably responsible for as much as half of the glacial melt, and greenhouse gases are responsible for the rest."

"During the last 20 years, the black soot concentration has increased two- to three-fold relative to its concentration in 1975," said Junji Cao, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and a coauthor of the paper.

The study was published December 7th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Fifty percent of the glaciers were retreating from 1950 to 1980 in the Tibetan region; that rose to 95 percent in the early 21st century," said Tandong Yao, director of the Chinese Academy's Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. Some glaciers are retreating so quickly that they could disappear by mid-century if current trends continue, the researchers suggest.

See this post over at Naked Capitalism (which includes quotes by James Hansen about soot pollution) about why soot pollution reduction should be a priority. Why not cut soot pollution ahead of carbon dioxide emissions. The move will certainly improve human health, reduce glacier melting (and therefore improve water supplies in the summer), and will have a cooling effect. Landscape darkened by soot absorbs more light and therefore heats up.

Soot in India draws more moisture and heat northward to do even more to melt the glaciers. Obviously India also should replace its coal electric plants with nuclear power plants.

The thick soot and dust layer absorbs solar radiation, and heats up the air around the Himalayan foothills. The warm, rising air enhances the seasonal northward flow of humid monsoon winds, forcing moisture and hot air up the slopes of the Himalayas.

As the aerosol particles rise on the warm, convecting air, they produce more rain over northern India and the Himalayan foothill, which further warms the atmosphere and fuels a "heat pump" that draws yet more warm air to the region.

"The phenomenon changes the timing and intensity of the monsoon, effectively transferring heat from the low-lying lands over the subcontinent to the atmosphere over the Tibetan Plateau, which in turn warms the high-altitude land surface and hastens glacial retreat," Lau said. His modeling shows that aerosols -- particularly black carbon and dust -- likely cause as much of the glacial retreat in the region as greenhouse gases via this "heat pump" effect.

Many rivers will be harmed by the loss of meltwater during the drier periods. Rising populations will of course make this problem much worse.

A unique landscape plays supporting actor in the melting drama. The Himalayas, which dominate the plateau region, are the source of meltwater for many of Asia's most important rivers—the Ganges and Indus in India, the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, the Salween through China, Thailand and Burma, the Mekong across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China. When fossil fuels are burned without enough oxygen to complete combustion, one of the byproducts is black carbon, an aerosol that absorbs solar radiation (Most classes of aerosols typically reflect incoming sunlight, causing a cooling effect). Rising populations in Asia, industrial and agricultural burning, and vehicle exhaust have thickened concentrations of black carbon in the air.

Update: One quarter of the soot could be removed for just $15 billion.

But one simple measure could slow warming in some of Earth’s most sensitive regions, effective immediately — and it would cost just $15 billion.

That’s a rough price tag for providing clean stoves to the 500 million households that use open fires, fed by wood and animal dung and coal, to heat their homes and cook.

This would improve the health of billions of people.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 16 06:07 PM  Pollution Trends
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2009 December 15 Tuesday
Adapt To Global Warming?

Bjorn Lomborg argues that we could adapt to global warming more cheaply than we could prevent it.

Take malaria. Most estimates suggest that if nothing is done, 3% more of the Earth's population will be at risk of infection by 2100. The most efficient global carbon cuts designed to keep average global temperatures from rising any higher than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (a plan proposed by the industrialized G-8 nations) would cost the world $40 trillion a year in lost economic growth by 2100—and have only a marginal impact on reducing the at-risk malaria population. By contrast, we could spend $3 billion a year on mosquito nets, environmentally safe indoor DDT sprays, and subsidies for new therapies—and within 10 years cut the number of malaria infections by half. In other words, for the money it would take to save one life with carbon cuts, smarter policies could save 78,000 lives.

But I question the high costs claimed for CO2 emissions reduction. For example, one third of the CO2 emitted in the United States from human activity comes from burning coal to make electricity. Well, with 103 (104?) nuclear reactors the United States gets 20% of US electric power from nukes and almost 50% from coal. Well, build two and a half times as many nuclear reactors as now exist in the US and then all those coal electric plants could be retired for a one third reduction in CO2 emissions. Cost? Probably about $2 trillion if we assume $8 billion per nuclear reactor. Too low? Even at $10 billion per nuclear reactor we are still at only $2.5 trillion. That's not per year, that's total. Spread across 20 years to make the transition the cost is only $125 billion per year. Granted that's only the United States. But the same could be done in the rest of the world too.

The hardest part of emissions reduction is due to oil used for transportation. I'm expecting Peak Oil to take care of that problem - albeit at the cost of an economic depression. But suppose I'm wrong to think that Peak Oil is just around the corner. What to do? Switch to pluggable hybrid electric cars (recharged with nukes, wind, and solar power of course). Suppose they cost $10k extra each. If the United States builds, say, 10 million of them per year then the extra cost is $100 billion per year. Not much in an economy with a $14.2 trillion yearly GDP. Besides, pluggable hybrids lower cost of fuel and therefore much of the initial higher purchase cost eventually gets paid back by savings due to less money spent on fuel.

For anything we can switch to electric power we can avoid the burning of fossil fuels. We can also reduce pollution from soot and other stuff we don't want to breathe into our lungs. An electrified society is a cleaner and healthier society.

On a related note: a reduction in soot emissions would help improve human health and reduce global warming. Why not pursue policies that reduce conventional lung-damaging and heart-damaging pollutants which as a side effect also reduce the risks of warming? Conventional pollutant reduction doesn't get the attention that it deserves because global warming gets so much attention.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 15 10:40 PM  Climate Policy
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2009 December 14 Monday
7600 Year Old Woolly Mammoth DNA Found In Tundra?

10000 to 7600 year old woolly mammoth DNA was found frozen in Alaskan tundra. So this raises the obvious question: Is the DNA good enough to sequence and use some day to bring back the woolly mammoth?

The work of U of A Earth and Atmospheric Sciences professor Duane Froese and his colleagues counters an important extinction theory, based on radiocarbon dating of bones and teeth. That analysis concluded that more than half of the large mammals in North America (the 'megafauna') disappeared about 13,000 years ago.

In the new research, DNA samples recovered from Alaskan permafrost showed that woolly mammoths and ancient horses were still roaming through central Alaska about 10,000 years ago, and possibly as recently as 7600 years ago. That predates the established record from fossil bones and teeth by at least 3,000 years.

The DNA samples were recovered from permafrost near the central Alaskan community of Stevens Village, on the banks of the Yukon River. Analysis of the samples from soils that formed between 10,000 and 7600 years ago showed the presence of mammoth and horse DNA together with animals typically found in the region today, such as moose and arctic hare.

I'm picturing the Holocene Park - kinda like the Jurassic Park but with animals from our more recent past. Saber tooth tigers anyone? Also, right before the Holocene came the Pleistocene epoch. Surely some critters from that era are frozen in the tundra too.

Which extinct species would you most like to bring back? I'm thinking Neandertals.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 14 10:27 PM  Nature Species Recovery
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Younger Looking Twins Live Longer

Your face shows how much damage has accumulated in your body.

Danish scientists say appearance alone can predict survival, after they studied 387 pairs of twins.

The researchers asked nurses, trainee teachers and peers to guess the age of the twins from mug shots.

Those rated younger-looking tended to outlive their older-looking sibling, the British Medical Journal reports.

The twins were in their 70s and older. The younger looking ones had longer telomere caps on their chromosomes.

In the study, the people who looked younger had longer telomeres.

The telomere link to life expectancy isn't surprising. Also see my posts Telomere Length Indicates Mortality Risk, Chronic Stress Accelerates Aging As Measured By Telomere Length, Telomeres Shorten Quicker If You Have Less Vitamin D, and Sedentary Lifestyles Age Chromosome Telomeres Faster.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 14 10:15 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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Super-Earths Found Orbiting Nearby Stars

Rocky planets as small as 5 times Earth's mass have been found orbiting stars in our neighborhood. These results suggest we will find a lot more solar systems with planets closer to our own in size. Have intelligent dinosaurs developed on some and do they see us hominids as revolting enemies? Or as tasty snacks?

Washington, D.C. — Two nearby stars have been found to harbor "super-Earths"― rocky planets larger than the Earth but smaller than ice giants such as Uranus and Neptune. Unlike previously discovered stars with super-Earths, both of the stars are similar to the Sun, suggesting to scientists that low-mass planets may be common around nearby stars.

"Over the last 12 years or so nearly 400 planets have been found, and the vast majority of them have been very large―Jupiter mass or even larger," says researcher Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. "These latest planets are part of a new trend of finding much smaller planets – planets that are more comparable to Earth."

The international team of researchers, co-led by Butler and Steven Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz, was able to detect the new planetary systems by combining data from observations spanning several years at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Anglo-Australian Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. The researchers used the subtle "wobbling" of the stars caused by the planets' gravitational pull to determine the planets' size and orbits. Greg Henry at Tennessee State University independently monitored the brightness of the stars to rule out stellar "jitter"―roiling of gases on a star's surface that can be confused with a planet-induced wobble.

The bright star 61 Virginis, visible with the naked eye in the constellation Virgo, is only 28 light-years from Earth and closely resembles the Sun in size, age and other properties. Earlier studies had eliminated the possibility of a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting 61 Virginis. In this study, the researchers found evidence of three low-mass planets, the smallest of which is five times the mass of Earth and speeds around the star once every four days.

Will some of us live long enough to find life on other planets? Is it possible to detect life on a planet in another solar system without picking up radio signals?

Think of the possibilities. We could ask older civilizations if they overheated their planets by burning fossil fuels.

"These planets are particularly exciting," said team member Professor Chris Tinney of the University of NSW. "Neptune in our Solar System has a mass 17 times that of the Earth. It looks like there may be many Sun-like stars nearby with planets of that mass or less. They point the way to even smaller planets that could be rocky and suitable for life."

By Randall Parker 2009 December 14 10:04 PM  Space Exploration
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CT Scans Boost Cancer Rate

Think twice before getting a CT scan.

Doses of radiation from commonly performed computed tomography (CT) scans vary widely, appear higher than generally believed and may contribute to an estimated tens of thousands of future cancer cases, according to two reports in the December 14/28 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

CT scans have become increasingly common in the United States—about 70 million were performed in 2007, up from 3 million in 1980, according to background information in one of the articles. "While CT scans can provide great medical benefits, there is concern about potential future cancer risks because they involve much higher radiation doses than conventional diagnostic X-rays," the authors of one report write. For example, a chest CT scan exposes the patient to more than 100 times the radiation dose of a routine chest X-ray. "The risks to individuals are likely to be small, but because of the large number of persons exposed annually, even small risks could translate into a considerable number of future cancers."

I've come across marketing literature promoting CT scans as valuable for early detection screening for cancer and other diseases. For the vast majority of the population CT scans for seemingly healthy people seem like an unnecessary risk.

Here are some odds of cancer from CT scans.

The estimated number of CT scans that would lead to the development of one cancer case also varied by type of CT scan and also by each patient's age and sex. For instance, an estimated one in 270 women and one in 600 men who undergo CT coronary angiography (a heart scan) at age 40 will develop cancer as a result. One cancer case will likely occur among every 8,100 women and 11,080 men who had a routine head CT scan at the same age. "For 20-year-old patients, the risks were approximately doubled, and for 60-year-old patients, they were approximately 50 percent lower," the authors write.

When you are older you have fewer years to live due to other reasons. So radiation can zap some cell and kick it on the long road toward cancer and yet you might die from a heart attack or stroke before abnormal cells can accumulate enough additional mutations to become malignant.

Those 70 million CT scans per year in the United States might cause 29,000 future cancers per year. That's a very high number.

"Overall, we estimated that approximately 29,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans performed in the U.S. in 2007," the authors write. This includes an estimated 14,000 cases resulting from scans of the abdomen and pelvis; 4,100 from chest scans; 4,000 from head scans; and 2,700 from CT angiography. One-third of these projected cancer cases would occur following scans performed on individuals age 35 to 54 years, compared with 15 percent due to scans performed in children and teens. Two-thirds of the cancers would be in women.

To put that in perspective, about 1.4 million people get diagnosed with cancer per year in the United States and about 564 thousand die from cancer. So if this estimate about CT scans causing cancer is correct then CT scans are increasing the rate of cancer by slightly more than 2%.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 14 08:06 PM  Aging Cancer Studies
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2009 December 13 Sunday
CO2 Emissions Up 29% Since 2000

Speaking as an agnostic (on both religious and unresolved scientific questions) one can only hope that the most certain global warming skeptics are correct in their denial. CO2 emissions are way up. Since oil production has been on a bumpy plateau since 2005 this result says a lot about the growth in coal usage - especially for electric power generation. One thing I am certain about: conventional pollutants like particulates and mercury are bad for us and this big surge in CO2 emissions certainly brought along a lot of pollutants that are doing real harm to human health.

The strongest evidence yet that the rise in atmospheric CO2 emissions continues to outstrip the ability of the world's natural 'sinks' to absorb carbon is published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.

An international team of researchers under the umbrella of the Global Carbon Project reports that over the last 50 years the average fraction of global CO2 emissions that remained in the atmosphere each year was around 43 per cent - the rest was absorbed by the Earth's carbon sinks on land and in the oceans. During this time this fraction has likely increased from 40 per cent to 45 per cent, suggesting a decrease in the efficiency of the natural sinks. The team brings evidence that the sinks are responding to climate change and variability.

The scientists report a 29 per cent increase in global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel between 2000 and 2008 (the latest year for which figures are available), and that in spite of the global economic downturn emissions increased by 2 per cent during 2008. The use of coal as a fuel has now surpassed oil and developing countries now emit more greenhouse gases than developed countries – with a quarter of their growth in emissions accounted for by increased trade with the West.

More CO2 in the atmosphere means more CO2 dissolved into the oceans. That has an acidifying effect. That comes on top of agricultural run-off causing expanding dead zones and overfishing on a massive scale. The future of fisheries is already grim.

In the United States coal accounts for almost 50% of electric power generation and 36% of CO2 emissions. 33% of CO2 emissions in the United States comes from coal burned for electric power generation. But China has surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions and continues to widen the gap due to faster economic growth and heavy usage of coal for electric power generation.

Again, I hope the global warming disbelievers are right. Though I can think of one circumstance where I hope they are wrong about the effects of CO2: If the Sun goes thru an extended period of lower solar output then I would like for temperatures to be responsive to increases in atmospheric CO2.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 13 08:24 PM  Pollution Trends
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John Tierney On Climate Engineering

John Tierney points to discussions by climate scientists about whether to do climate engineering to prevent global warming. Tierney is confident that the nations of the world are not going to agree to huge sacrifices to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions. I tend to agree. So if CO2 really is going to warm the planet other measures will be needed to deal with it. So climate engineering is getting wider consideration.

The National Academy of Sciences and Britain’s Royal Society are preparing reports on climate engineering, and the Obama administration has promised to consider it. But so far there has been virtually no government support for research and development — certainly nothing like the tens of billions of dollars allotted to green energy and other programs whose effects on the climate would not be felt for decades.

For perhaps $100 million, climate engineers could begin field tests within five years, says Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science. Dr. Caldeira is a member of a climate-engineering study group that met last year at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics under the leadership of Steven E. Koonin, who has since become the under secretary for science at the United States Department of Energy. The group has just issued a report, published by the Novim research organization, analyzing the use of aerosol particles to reflect shortwave solar radiation back into space.

Caldeira thinks we should test a cooling method well in advance of when we think we might need it. But other researchers fear side effects (e.g. decreased precipitation of rain and therefore crop failures) make such experiments too risky in advance of an acute need.

One of the methods mentioned is to squirt lots of ocean water into the atmosphere to increase white cloud formation and therefore to reflect more sunlight back into space. I would expect that technique to also increase precipitation (what goes up must come down eventually). While the rains wouldn't necessarily come where most needed I would expect they could in some instances. For example, wind-driven misting machines off the west coast of Canada and the United States could cause more rainfall over North American farm fields.

Since we have several ways to cool the planet which can be implemented quickly I think for now research on them ought to fall short of real experiments that alter our weather. Currently climate scientists are wrestling with the question of why haven't their temperature modeling stations detected any warming for the last 10 years? The last 10 years do not fit their models. Obviously their models are far from complete. The shorter term causes of variation aren't sufficiently well understood and so that makes picking up long term signals harder. What if some natural forcer is going to keep the planet from warming further for another 5-10 years?

The warming pause really points to a problem with climate engineering experiments: How to know whether, say, silicon dioxide or sulfur or water mists in a climate engineering experiment really did result in some cooling? One needs to have a certain degree of certainty about what the climate would be like without the intervention. If a climate engineering experiment had begun in 1999 the experimenters might have incorrectly concluded that their intervention caused the last 10 year warming pause.

The climate is an extremely complex system with lots of positive and negative feedbacks and multiple inputs. We do not have a couple dozen planets to experiment with in order to compare results of experiments and verify results. That's the fundamental problem with all climate research. There's a very limited potential for greater understanding thru experimentation. Yet experimentation is at the core of the scientific method.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 13 03:33 PM  Climate Engineering
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Slower Mouse Aging Delays Alzheimer's Disease

Slowing the aging process in mice slows the development of a mouse model for Alzheimer's disease.

Therapies that can keep us younger longer might also push back the clock on Alzheimer's disease, suggests a new study of mice in the December 11th issue of the journal Cell, a Cell Press publication.

"There's something about being youthful that protects us from Alzheimer's disease," said Andrew Dillin of The Salk Institute for Biological Studies. "People say that if you live long enough, you get Alzheimer's. But if that were true, mice that live longer should get the disease at the same rate. That's not what we found."

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey expects results like this one. He believes the most effective way to deal with the diseases of old age is to not grow old in the first place. A young immune system, cardiovascular system, et cetera will prevent lots of diseases that accompany old age. Stem cells and gene therapies that repair some of our aging pieces will prevent dysfunctions of those and other pieces.

The amyloid plaques still developed but had less of a toxic effect.

The researchers show that mice carrying human genes that cause them to develop Alzheimer's can be protected from that disease by turning down a pathway that is well known for its effects on aging. Surprisingly, the brains of the mice who were spared the cognitive, inflammatory and neural effects of Alzheimer's by reducing the so-called insulin/IGF signaling pathway were still riddled with amyloid plaques. However, those plaques were more tightly packed into larger clusters than they would otherwise have been.

These researchers focused on IGF-1 signaling because reduction of signaling on that pathway increases mouse life expectancy.

To answer this intriguing question, he slowed the aging process in a mouse model for Alzheimer’s by lowering the activity of the IGF-1 signaling pathway. “This highly conserved pathway plays a crucial role in the regulation of lifespan and youthfulness across many species, including worms, flies, and mice and is linked to extreme longevity in humans,” he explains. As a result, mice with reduced IGF-1 signaling live up to 35 percent longer than normal mice.

Studies like this one make me wonder whether I should take resveratrol. However, one study found no effect on IGF-1 levels from resveratrol in mice. Anyone know of other studies that suggest resveratrol might slow brain aging?

Following two months of dietary intervention, we observed reduced IGF-1 levels in CR mice, but not in resveratrol treated mice (Figure 2B).

But resveratrol does alter insulin signaling pathways.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 13 12:11 PM  Aging Brain Studies
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2009 December 11 Friday
Hourly Pay Brings More Joy Than Salary?

Happiness comes by the hour.

Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC (December 10, 2009) People paid by the hour exhibit a stronger relationship between income and happiness, according to a study published in the current issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), the official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers explored the relationship between income and happiness by focusing on the organizational arrangements that make the connection between time and money. They found that the way in which an employee is paid is tied to their feeling of happiness.

Thinking that you are primarily working to earn a medium of exchange makes you more happy?

The researchers theorize that hourly wage-earners focus more attention on their pay than those who earn a salary. That concrete, consistent focus on the worth of the employee's time in each paycheck influences the level of happiness the employee feels.

"Much of our day-to-day lives are subject to various organizational practices of payment that can prime different ways of thinking, such as the monetary value of one's time," write authors Sanford E. DeVoe of the University of Toronto and Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University. "It is important to consider the broader context in which people live and work in order to gain a better understanding of the determinants of happiness."

Would you rather make $500 per hour or $1 million per year? I would prefer the $500 per hour if I thought I could be sure of getting enough billable hours.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 11 09:35 PM  Brain Economics
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Cyanobacterium Produces Liquid Fuel From Sun Power

But will it scale at low cost?

Global climate change has prompted efforts to drastically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels.

In a new approach, researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have genetically modified a cyanobacterium to consume carbon dioxide and produce the liquid fuel isobutanol, which holds great potential as a gasoline alternative. The reaction is powered directly by energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis.

The research appears in the Dec. 9 print edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology and is available online.

This new method has two advantages for the long-term, global-scale goal of achieving a cleaner and greener energy economy, the researchers say. First, it recycles carbon dioxide, reducing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Second, it uses solar energy to convert the carbon dioxide into a liquid fuel that can be used in the existing energy infrastructure, including in most automobiles.

If this can ever be done cheaply it would provide a much bigger advantage: to ease our adjustment to Peak Oil. If some scientists and engineers can find a way to use sun power to drive a liquid fuel economy then we could maintain our current level of mobility post-peak as world oil production goes into long term decline.

Using the cyanobacterium Synechoccus elongatus, researchers first genetically increased the quantity of the carbon dioxide–fixing enzyme RuBisCO. Then they spliced genes from other microorganisms to engineer a strain that intakes carbon dioxide and sunlight and produces isobutyraldehyde gas.

The isobutyraldehyde gets separated easily in gaseous form and they then chemically convert isobutyraldehyde to isobutanol.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 11 08:36 PM  Energy Biomass
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2009 December 10 Thursday
Efficiency Could Halt US Electric Demand Growth

The United States could avoid electric power demand growth for 20 years by implementing more technologies that boost energy efficiency.

WASHINGTON -- Energy efficiency technologies that exist today or that are likely to be developed in the near future could save considerable money as well as energy, says a new report from the National Research Council. Fully adopting these technologies could lower projected U.S. energy use 17 percent to 20 percent by 2020, and 25 percent to 31 percent by 2030.

Waste not, want not.

Buildings are where most energy usage happens, not cars, trucks, and airplanes. Update: Oops, that's electric power consumption they are referring to.

Achieving full deployment of these efficiency technologies will depend in part on pressures driving adoption, such as high energy prices or public policies designed to increase energy efficiency. Nearly 70 percent of electricity consumption in the United States occurs in buildings. The energy savings from attaining full deployment of cost-effective, energy-efficient technologies in buildings alone could eliminate the need to add new electricity generation capacity through 2030, the report says. New power generation facilities would be needed only to address imbalances in regional energy supplies, replace obsolete facilities, or to introduce more environmentally friendly sources of electricity.

Think about energy efficiency when upgrading home equipment.

Many cost-effective efficiency investments in buildings are possible, the report says. For example, replacing appliances such as air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, furnaces, and hot water heaters with more efficient models could reduce energy use by 30 percent. Opportunities for achieving substantial energy savings exist in the industrial and transportation sectors as well. For example, deployment of industrial energy efficiency technologies could reduce energy use in manufacturing 14 percent to 22 percent by 2020, relative to expected trends. Most of these savings would occur in the most energy-intensive industries, such as chemical manufacturing, petroleum refining, pulp and paper, iron and steel, and cement.

Update: Turns out that electric power uses more energy than transportation (and very little transportation energy gets used as electric power). So cutting back electric power consumption really would have a big impact on total energy consumption. However, from the standpoint of which forms of energy we most need to shift away from more efficient usage of electric power doesn't buy us so much. Liquid fuels are the most expensive forms of energy and they are not used much to generate electric power. The biggest usage of liquid fuels is in transportation.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 10 10:59 PM  Energy Conservation
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Fairness Perceptions Differ When Money Involved

Goods that have perceived innate value elicit a different mental state and sense of morality than mediums of exchange do.

A study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that when it comes to distributing resources, people’s ideas about what’s fair change depending on what’s being handed out. If it’s something that has its own intrinsic value – in-kind goods such as food or vacation days – people are more likely to see equal distribution of such items as fair.

But if it’s something that is only valuable when it’s exchanged – such as money or even credit card reward points – ideas of fairness shift to a more market-based attitude. In that case, the thinking is that people should receive according to what they’ve contributed.

“What exactly is it about money that causes people to treat it so differently than other resources?” asks Sanford DeVoe, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour, at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management who co-wrote the paper with Columbia University’s Sheena Iyengar.

“The paper shows that it is the property of money being a medium of exchange,” Prof. De Voe says. “When you allocate something that only has its value in what it can be exchanged for, that is what activates a market mindset and really invokes these strong norms about input and effort leading to reward.”

So then do we have an innate market mindset capacity that was selected for? Can we manipulate our environment to cause us to spend more or less time with a market mindset? Do people who make more money spend more of their mental time with a market mindset?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 10 10:55 PM  Brain Economics
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Greater Climate Sensitivity To CO2?

The question of climate sensitivity to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is unsettled. If we only knew the correct level of temperature sensitivity to CO2 concentration we would have a much more accurate view of what is in store for our climate future. But no. A new paper argues that the climate is far more sensitive to CO2 changes than previously thought.

The climate may be 30–50 percent more sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide in the long term than previously thought, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience yesterday. 

Projections over the next hundreds of years of climate conditions, including global temperatures, may need to be adjusted to reflect this higher sensitivity.

Is this report correct? I think it illustrates how little we know about the potency of CO2 as a greenhouse warming gas. Here we are in 2009 and some researchers argue that the climate sensitivity to CO2 is much larger than previously thought. Will this turn out to be an underestimate or overestimate?

Sounds like a correlation study. Even assuming that it is possible to accurately measure temperatures millions of years ago the study doesn't prove the direction of causation.

A team of scientists, led by the University of Bristol and including the U.S. Geological Survey, studied global temperatures 3.3 to 3 million years ago, finding that the averages were significantly higher than expected from the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at the time.

These underestimates occurred because the long-term sensitivity of the Earth system was not accurately taken into account. In these earlier periods, Earth had more time to adjust to some of the slower impacts of climate change. For example, as the climate warms and ice sheets melt, Earth will absorb more sunlight and continue to warm in the future since less ice is present to reflect the sun.

We could change the albedo (reflectivity) of the planet Earth by painting roofs white and cool the planet.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 10 10:52 PM  Climate Trends
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Mediterranean Sea Represents Polluted Future Of Oceans?

Does the Med show us the fate of larger bodies of water? Hope not.

Warmed, overfished and polluted, the small Mediterranean Sea is giving scientists a look at what the future may hold for the rest of Earth’s oceans — and it’s not pretty.

Beneath its surface, a transformation is taking place. Food webs are shrinking, with rich ecosystems that supported valuable commercial fisheries giving way to barrens dominated by jellyfish and tiny invertebrates. Mass die-offs and disease are now common.

“The predicted effects of climate change are being met in the Mediterranean. The results are more obvious and dramatic, but the drivers are the same all over the world,” said Pierre Chevaldonné, a University of the Mediterranean biologist.

I expect agricultural run-off to go up with more use of intensive agriculture due to rising food demand driven by population growth and industrialization. Therefore dead zones at the outlets of rivers will likely continue to increase in size.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 10 10:11 PM  Pollution Trends
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2009 December 09 Wednesday
Testosterone Increases Fairness In Game-Playing?

Testosterone caused economic game players to make better offers.

For the study, published in the renowned journal Nature, some 120 test subjects took part in a behavioral experiment where the distribution of a real amount of money was decided. The rules allowed both fair and unfair offers. The negotiating partner could subsequently accept or decline the offer. The fairer the offer, the less probable a refusal by the negotiating partner. If no agreement was reached, neither party earned anything.

Before the game the test subjects were administered either a dose of 0.5 mg testosterone or a corresponding placebo. "If one were to believe the common opinion, we would expect subjects who received testosterone to adopt aggressive, egocentric, and risky strategies – regardless of the possibly negative consequences on the negotiation process," Eisenegger elucidates.

Fairer with testosterone

The study's results, however, contradict this view sharply. Test subjects with an artificially enhanced testosterone level generally made better, fairer offers than those who received placebos, thus reducing the risk of a rejection of their offer to a minimum. "The preconception that testosterone only causes aggressive or egoistic behavior in humans is thus clearly refuted," sums up Eisenegger. Instead, the findings suggest that the hormone increases the sensitivity for status. For animal species with relatively simple social systems, an increased awareness for status may express itself in aggressiveness. "In the socially complex human environment, pro-social behavior secures status, and not aggression," surmises study co-author Michael Naef from Royal Holloway London. "The interplay between testosterone and the socially differentiated environment of humans, and not testosterone itself, probably causes fair or aggressive behavior".

Maybe testosterone causes people to make more precise calculations of their self-interest? Might higher testosterone levels signal to the brain that one has higher status and that one needs to offer good deals to those with lower status in order to stay on top of the status heap?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 09 08:41 PM  Brain Economics
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Promise Breakers Found Via Brain Scans

Some day you won't be able to escape into the privacy of your own mind.

Despite the ubiquity of promises in human life, we know very little about the brain physiological mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. In order to increase understanding in this area, neuroscientist Thomas Baumgartner (University of Zurich) and economists Ernst Fehr (University of Zurich) and Urs Fischbacher (University of Konstanz) carried out a social interaction experiment in a brain scanner where the breach of a promise led both to monetary benefits for the promise breaker and to monetary costs for the interaction partner. The results of the study show that increased activity in areas of the brain playing an important role in processes of emotion and control accompany the breach of a promise. This pattern of brain activity suggests that breaking a promise triggers an emotional conflict in the promise breaker due to the suppression of an honest response.

Furthermore, the most important finding of the study enabled the researchers to show that "perfidious" patterns of brain activity even allow the prediction of future behavior. Indeed, experimental subjects who ultimately keep a promise and those who eventually break one act exactly the same at the time the promise is made – both swear to keep their word. Brain activity at this stage, however, often exposes the subsequent promise breakers.

The ability to detect promising breaking is a subset of lie detection.

What I'm wondering: Can some people train with brain scanners to learn how to fool brain scanners to see seemingly honest behavior while a person really is deciding to deceive and break promises?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 09 08:35 PM  Brain Surveillance
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2009 December 08 Tuesday
Stem Cells Cut Heart Attack Recurrence Risk

Stem cells injected into a heart artery after a heart attack cut the risk of heart attack recurrence in humans.

DALLAS, Dec. 8, 2009 — Cells from heart attack survivors’ own bone marrow reduced the risk of death or another heart attack when they were infused into the affected artery after successful stent placement, according to research reported in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Heart Failure.

Benefits found early in the Reinfusion of Enriched Progenitor Cells And Infarct Remodeling in Acute Myocardial Infarction (REPAIR-AMI) trial could last for at least two years, researchers said.

“More research is needed, but this gives us a hint of what might be possible with this new treatment — prevention of another heart attack and of rehospitalization for heart failure, both life-threatening complications,” said Birgit Assmus, M.D., first author of the study and assistant professor of cardiology at J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

We are still in the year 2009 and stem cell experiments for modest heart repair are yielding promising results. When will heart repair with stem cells after a heart attack become standard practice? 2020? 2025?

Stem cells and gene therapy can do limb repair in mice whose extremities lack sufficient oxygen.

Blood vessel blockage, a common condition in old age or diabetes, leads to low blood flow and results in low oxygen, which can kill cells and tissues. Such blockages can require amputation resulting in loss of limbs. Now, using mice as their model, researchers at Johns Hopkins have developed therapies that increase blood flow, improve movement and decrease tissue death and the need for amputation. The findings, published online last week in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hold promise for developing clinical therapies.

"In a young, healthy individual, hypoxia — low oxygen levels — triggers the body to make factors that help coordinate the growth of new blood vessels but this process doesn't work as well as we age," says Gregg Semenza, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and genetic medicine and director of the vascular biology program at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering. "Now, with the help of gene therapy and stem cells we can help reactivate the body's response to hypoxia and save limbs."

Injected stem cells and gene therapy partially restored blood flow in mice whose blood flow had been reduced.

Previously, Semenza's team generated a virus that carries the gene encoding an active form of the HIF-1 protein, which turns on genes necessary for building new blood vessels. When injected into the hind legs of otherwise healthy mice and rabbits that had been treated to reduce blood flow, the HIF-1 virus treatment partially restored blood flow.

We are starting to live in the science fiction future.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 08 10:10 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2009 December 07 Monday
Depression Drug Alters Personality

The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), drugs used to treat depression, make people less neurotic and more extraverted.

Individuals taking a medication to treat depression may experience changes in their personality separate from the alleviation of depressive symptoms, according to a report in the December issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Two personality traits, neuroticism and extraversion, have been related to depression risk, according to background information in the article. Individuals who are neurotic tend to experience negative emotions and emotional instability, whereas extraversion refers not only to socially outgoing behavior but also to dominance and a tendency to experience positive emotions. Both traits have been linked to the brain’s serotonin system, which is also targeted by the class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

I wonder whether other SSRI drugs have the same effects on personality and also whether some SSRIs cause more or less personality change as compared to depression change.

This effect isn't simply due to lifting of depression. People whose depression improved as much without SSRI usage did not experience as much personality change.

All participants experienced improvement in their symptoms of depression. However, even after controlling for these improvements, individuals taking paroxetine experienced a significantly greater decrease in neuroticism and increase in extraversion than those receiving cognitive therapy or placebo. “Patients taking paroxetine reported 6.8 times as much change on neuroticism and 3.5 times as much change on extraversion as placebo patients matched for depression improvement,” the authors write.

The ability to change one's personality would be handy. Become less extroverted when you want to sit home and write a book. Become more conscientious if you are disappointed by your own performance. Change our level of agreeableness depending on whether you need to stand up to someone treating you unfairly or perhaps get along better with someone you needlessly argue with. Got any personality changes you want to make? What are they?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 07 11:33 PM  Brain Emotion Alteration
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Angry Female Faces Look Less Female

Interesting results on how fast gender gets recognized.

Rockville, MD – "Why is it that men can be bastards and women must wear pearls and smile?" wrote author Lynn Hecht Schafran. The answer, according to an article in the Journal of Vision, may lie in our interpretation of facial expressions.

In two studies, researchers asked subjects to identify the sex of a series of faces. In the first study, androgynous faces with lowered eyebrows and tight lips (angry expressions) were more likely to be identified as male, and faces with smiles and raised eyebrows (expressions of happiness and fear) were often labeled feminine.

The second study used male and female faces wearing expressions of happiness, anger, sadness, fear or a neutral expression. Overall, subjects were able to identify male faces more quickly than female faces, and female faces that expressed anger took the longest to identify.

We are wired up to have different expectations for male and female faces and the emotions they express.

Hess said that the same cues that make a face appear male – a high forehead, a square jaw and thicker eyebrows – have been linked to perceptions of dominance. Likewise, features that make a face appear female – a rounded, baby face with large eyes – have been linked to perceptions of the individual being approachable and warm.

Male anger is seen as more intense than female anger while female happiness is seen as more intense than male happiness.

"This difference in how the emotions and social traits of the two sexes are perceived could have significant implications for social interactions in a number of settings. Our research demonstrates that equivalent levels of anger are perceived as more intense when shown by men rather than women, and happiness as more intense when shown by women rather than men. It also suggests that it is less likely for men to be perceived as warm and caring and for women to be perceived as dominant."

So angry girls and happy guys aren't taken seriously.

So what are the implications of these results for our daily lives? Should guys try harder to seem happy or not even bother to make the effort? Should women hold up cue cards saying things like "I am really angry now"? Or just start throwing dishes?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 07 07:13 AM  Brain Sex Differences
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Lymphoma Progression Linked To Low Vitamin D

Another reason to make sure you get enough vitamin D.

ROCHESTER, Minn. — A new study has found that the amount of vitamin D (http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2008-mchi/4904.html) in patients being treated for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (http://www.mayoclinic.org/non-hodgkins-lymphoma/)was strongly associated with cancer progression and overall survival. The results will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (http://www.hematology.org/) in New Orleans.

"These are some of the strongest findings yet between vitamin D and cancer outcome," says the study's lead investigator, Matthew Drake, M.D., Ph.D., (http://www.mayoclinic.org/bio/13726218.html) an endocrinologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. "While these findings are very provocative, they are preliminary and need to be validated in other studies. However, they raise the issue of whether vitamin D supplementation might aid in treatment for this malignancy, and thus should stimulate much more research."

The researchers' study of 374 newly diagnosed diffuse large B-cell lymphoma patients found that 50 percent had deficient vitamin D levels based on the commonly used clinical value of total serum 25(OH)D less than 25 ng/mL. Patients with deficient vitamin D levels had a 1.5-fold greater risk of disease progression and a twofold greater risk of dying, compared to patients with optimal vitamin D levels after accounting for other patient factors associated with worse outcomes.

It is winter time in the Northern Hemisphere. Your risk of vitamin D deficiency is greatest in the darker months. Many studies find a link between vitamin D deficiency and increased cancer risk. Here's another such study.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 07 05:55 AM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2009 December 06 Sunday
California Solar Power In Space By 2016?

30 years ago then California Governor Jerry Brown was called Governor Moon Beam in some quarters. The state's trying to live up to its reputation with state regulatory approval for the first satellite solar power installation which will beam energy down near Fresno.

California regulators went out of this world today and gave the go-ahead to a power-purchase agreement involving the nation’s first solar power plant in space.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, will proceed with a 15-year contract with Manhattan Beach start-up Solaren Corp., after receiving approval from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The project, which is expected to go live in 2016, will use solar cells from Solaren on orbiting satellites to convert energy from the sun into radio-frequency waves. The waves will be transmitted to a receiving station near Fresno and reverted back into electricity.

Satellite solar power in theory is a better use of photovoltaic solar cells for a couple of reasons. The satellites can get hit by the sun's radiation more hours of the day and sunlight in space is higher concentration than the sunlight that reaches down to the Earth's surface.

The problem of course is that space launch makes putting lots of PV satellites into orbit an expensive undertaking. Yet PG&E apparently thinks Solaren can pull off this project in a cost effective manner.

Anyone understand what has changed the economics of space solar power that makes it possible for Solaren to get a public utility and a utility regulator to take them seriously? Lighter weight PV? Higher conversion efficiency PV? Declines in costs of space launch? Other?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 06 06:27 PM  Energy Solar
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2009 December 03 Thursday
Stem Cells Restore Defective Rat Eyes

Pluripotent stem cells improved eyesight in rats.

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) –– An international team of scientists has rescued visual function in laboratory rats with eye disease by using cells similar to stem cells. The research shows the potential for stem cell-based therapies to treat age-related macular degeneration in humans.

A team led by Dennis Clegg, of UC Santa Barbara, and Pete Coffey, of University College London (UCL), published their work in two papers, including one published this week in the journal PloS One. The first paper was published in the October 27 issue of the journal Stem Cells.

The scientists worked with rats that have a mutation which causes a defect in retinal pigmented epithelial (RPE) cells and leads to photoreceptor death and subsequent blindness. Human RPE cells were derived from induced pluripotent stem cells –– embryonic stem cell-like cells that can be made from virtually any cell in the body, thus avoiding the controversy involved in using stem cells derived from embryos. Pluripotent means that the cells can become almost any cell in the body.

In experiments spearheaded by UCL's Amanda Carr, the team found that by surgically inserting stem cell-derived RPE into the retinas of the rats before photoreceptor degeneration, vision was retained. They found that the rats receiving the transplant tracked their visual focus in the direction of moving patterns more efficiently than control groups that did not receive a transplant.

Stem cell therapies are, for the most part, rejuvenation therapies. I say "for the most part" because stem cells will also repair damage due to trauma and malfunction due to congenital defects. But most uses of stem cells will be for repairing damage that accumulates with age.

While the idea of full body rejuvenation as a goal is still not mainstream the on-going development of stem cell therapies for aging-related diseases means that medical researchers are already developing many of the therapies we will need in order to be able to reverse the aging process.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 03 08:17 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2009 December 02 Wednesday
Desktop Drug Gene Tester For Hospitals

A start-up is aiming a genetic testing machine at hospitals and doctors offices.

A desktop instrument recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might finally bring pharmacogenomic testing--the use of a patient's genetic information for drug prescription decisions--to the mainstream. The device, made by Nanosphere, a startup based in Northbrook, IL, can, in a matter of hours, detect genetic variations in blood that modulate the effectiveness of some drugs. Dubbed Verigene, the technology employs a combination of microfluidics and nanotechnology, housed in a single plastic cartridge, to pull DNA from a blood sample and then screen it for the relevant sequences.

Microfluidics and nanotechnology moving into the marketplace.

Genetic variations affect how we respond to drugs in a number of ways. For example, genetic variants in liver enzymes determine the rate at which the liver will break down drugs and even how drugs will get broken down. Still more genetic variants influence whether the drugs will cause harmful side effects and how well or poorly drugs will work. The ability to test a patient in a matter of hours will allow a hospital's staff to decide which drugs to use, at which doses, and whether additional precautions are needed such as aggressive monitoring of heart, liver, and other organ functionality.

The value of genetic testing for drug compatibility is going to rise due to the torrent of genetic testing data getting generated by researchers who suddenly have much cheaper ways to do genetic testing and DNA sequencing.

In a way this is a transitional technology. In a few decades (if not sooner) most people will get their DNA sequenced at birth. Then either a big internet server databases will hold each person's DNA sequence for emergency hospital use or each person will have an implanted machine-readable record of their DNA sequence for fast scanning in an emergency ward.

But desktop DNA testing is also a step down the road toward personal surreptitious DNA testing and DNA sequencing. Bars, clubs, and other mating scenes will some day be big locations for stealing saliva and tissue samples to test someone's DNA to decide whether to pursue a relationship or steal some sperm in a one night stand for single motherhood.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 02 03:25 PM  Biotech Assay Tools
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Energy Efficient Light Bulb Manufacturing Energy Usage

German lighting company Osram finds that the energy used in making light bulbs is too little to affect total lifetime energy usage calculations. Compact fluorescents and LEDs really do save as much energy as their labeled wattages suggest.

The energy used during the manufacturing phase of all lamps is insignificant — less than 2 percent of the total. Given that both compact fluorescents and LEDs use about 20 percent of the electricity needed to create the same amount of light as a standard incandescent, both lighting technologies put incandescents to shame.

That's a great energy savings return on energy invested. Definitely low-lying fruit for anyone who wants to cut their energy bills who doesn't mind the light from CFLs or LEDs.

If you shop around on the internet you can find places that sell CFLs with different color distributions. Look for Kelvin numbers with lower numbers producing a yellower light and higher (4100K and up) producing a whiter light with more blue added. They also differ by Color Rendering Index. Perhaps a reader can describe better the differences to look for in CFLs?

Update: But a lot of CFLs do not perform as well as advertised.

Traditional incandescent bulbs, which are being phased out of British shops, lose just a fraction of their brightness by the time they stop working, but energy-saving ones lose 22 per cent of brightness.

The figures come from an in-depth report from E&T, the leading trade magazine published by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Buyer beware. Though I still expect CFLs to generate large net savings. Look for Energy Star rated bulbs as potentially higher quality.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 02 09:48 AM  Energy Lighting
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2009 December 01 Tuesday
Cities Pollute With Sewage

Hey, I do not want to write about sewage pollution. I'm sure most of my readers would rather be dreaming about space ships, genetically engineered pets, rejuvenation therapies with sexual performance enhancements, electric cars, or post-apocalyptic industrial civilization after a Carrington event. But water pollution is a serious problem that is going to get worse unless we fix the sources of pollution. First off, government-operated sewage plants get away with a whole lot of polluting.

One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nation’s sewer systems, many of them built more than a century ago, to handle growing populations and increasing runoff of rainwater and waste. During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress distributed more than $60 billion to cities to make sure that what goes into toilets, industrial drains and street grates would not endanger human health.

I know this might sound retro to some readers. But we need to finish what the early 1970s environmental pollution control laws set out to do: clean up all the sources of air and water pollution. The environmental movement has run out of steam and gotten distracted. Get back to the basics.

But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.

In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Modest proposal: privatize sewage treatment plants so that governments won't hold back on going after polluters. It is politically much more acceptable to go after profit-making private sector polluters. Look at the USSR. The state let itself pollute on a massive scale. When the government doesn't own the capital assets it has a much easier time imposing costs on the asset operators to make them clean up.

Opposed to privatization? Okay, gotta go weirder to solve this problem. Got another idea: install remote control devices on all toilets. Any time a city sewage processing plant starts backing up the plant operators could just flip a switch and turn off the ability of people to flush. Tell them the only way this flush interrupt can be ended is to pass a new bond measure and raise sewage utility rates.

I'm really opposed to pollution. I think we should fix our pollution sources so they stop polluting.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 01 08:41 PM  Pollution Policy
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Lonely People Reinforce Each Others' Feelings Of Loneliness

Lonely people intensify each others' feelings of loneliness and they become even more isolated as a consequence. Obviously what lonely people need are robot friends who tell them unlonely thoughts in response. Break the vicious cycle with artificial intelligence. Then the robots could connect up to social networks and connect the lonely people to happy chirpy people.

Loneliness, like a bad cold, can spread among groups of people, research at the University of Chicago, the University of California-San Diego and Harvard shows.

Using longitudinal data from a large-scale study that has been following health conditions for more than 60 years, a team of scholars found that lonely people tend to share their loneliness with others. Gradually over time, a group of lonely, disconnected people moves to the fringes of social networks.

“We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, one member of the study team and one of the nation’s leading scholars of loneliness. “On the periphery people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”

Other members of the study team were James Fowler, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California-San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Medicine and Professor of Medical Sociology in the Harvard Medical School.

Before relationships are severed, people on the periphery transmit feelings of loneliness to their remaining friends, who also become lonely. "These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater," said Cacioppo, the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.

Or how about a drug or gene therapy that blocks that feeling of loneliness? Anyone reading this done a recreational drug that makes them feel happy and highly connected to the world? Now, if a drug could be found that does that without frying your synapses it might treat loneliness and make people more out-going. Think this would work?

In the future will more or fewer people feel lonely?

By Randall Parker 2009 December 01 04:33 PM  Brain Society
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Human Genetic Revelations Coming In 2010

Writing in The Economist Geoffrey Miller says in 2010 human genetic research results will show some politically incorrect beliefs about human nature are correct. Looking ahead to 2010 and beyond I am reminded of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's 5 stages of death. I think these apply to beliefs as well.

Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races.

Miller says the political earth-shaking data has been collected and is in the publication pipeline for Nature Genetics and other leading research publications. This is a case where the future is happening faster than I expected. I've been writing posts filed under my Biotech Advance Rates chronicling the rapid decline in costs for genetic testing and DNA sequencing. The price drops have been in the orders of magnitude and were even faster than I was optimistically hoping for. With the cost of full genome sequencing below $10k and headed soon below $1k the amount of DNA sequencing data has turned into a flood. Hence the resulting flood of research papers.

DNA chips have enabled cheap comparison of lots of people for DNA sequence variations associated with physical and behavioral (e.g. criminal, personality types, behavioral problems) traits.

About five years ago, genetics researchers became excited about new methods for “genome-wide association studies” (GWAS). We already knew from twin, family and adoption studies that all human traits are heritable: genetic differences explain much of the variation between individuals. We knew the genes were there; we just had to find them. Companies such as Illumina and Affymetrix produced DNA chips that allowed researchers to test up to 1m genetic variants for their statistical association with specific traits. America’s National Institutes of Health and Britain’s Wellcome Trust gave huge research grants for gene-hunting. Thousands of researchers jumped on the GWAS bandwagon. Lab groups formed and international research consortia congealed. The quantity of published GWAS research has soared.

The DNA chips can only test for known variations and it is my impression (someone correct me if I'm wrong) that the DNA chips can only check for single letter differences - not large copy variations. But the plunging costs for full genome sequencing will enable pretty much all genetic differences to be compared and we can expect even bigger discoveries in 2011, 2012, and out years.

A lot of people are going to be upset by the truth about human nature and for a number of reasons. Certainly people who want others to think of all humans as equal aren't going to like seeing tons of details about our innate inequality reaching the mainstream. Also, the discovery of a long list of genetic differences that cause behavioral differences will reduce the extent to which we can think of ourselves as possessing free will. Implications for criminal justice arise. If some guy can be shown to be innately criminal then why let him free in civilization?

I expect cheap genetic testing to change mating practices in many ways. For example, someone who wants a faithful spouse could surreptitiously test a potential mate for genes that contribute to marital infidelity. The gene AVPR1a also influences altruism and monogamy. Mates might also be selected based on genes that influence trust-related behavior.

I expect online dating services will compare genetic profiles to allow people to find mates who have desired genes. I expect online dating services to start doing genetic comparisons by 2015 if not sooner. I also expect more women will opt to use sperm donors once they are in a position to compare the genetic profiles of guys who are willing to raise kids with them to the best genetic profiles for sperm bank donors. Already more single women are using sperm donors. Detailed information about the benefits and downsides of each man's DNA will heighten competition and, as a result, evolution will accelerate.

Parenthetically, Miller is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico and author of some useful and insightful books about human nature. I am currently reading his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior and can highly recommend it. The book will make you more aware of your own instinctive desires for higher status and help you restrain your desires to buy things to demonstrate higher status. As Miller reports, research into status signals finds that guys who buy Rolexes, fancy cars, and other status symbols overestimate the status-boosting effects these goods will have on others. My advice: Spend less on status symbols and save your money to spend on the first rejuvenation therapies. They aren't coming as soon as the genetic truth about human nature. But rejuvenation therapies are coming.

Update: What I want to know: Will Leftists once again embrace eugenics? Or perhaps will both the Left and Right split into new rival camps over selective breeding of future generations of humans? New moral issues (at least new to the larger public) can reveal differences within existing factions.

I expect eugenic breeding practices to widen the differences between nations and cultures as different groupings make different decisions on average about offspring genetic endowments. If for some reason we are not replaced by robots or nanobots I expect the human race to splinter into new and not entirely compatible species.

By Randall Parker 2009 December 01 08:49 AM  Brain Genetics
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