2010 April 30 Friday
BP Drilling Rig Accident Makes Peak Oil Harder

Robert Rapier expects the BP drilling rig accident with the Deepwater Horizon rig to set back the momentum that was building for more US offshore drilling.

So I believe the long term implications of this incident will be to exacerbate our slide down the backside of peak oil. Fields take a long time to develop, and fields being developed now may have been producing oil in 5 or 10 years. But I believe this window of opportunity has now closed, and it will be much more difficult to find broad support for expanded drilling.

Since Obama was going to open up pretty small offshore areas off of Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico the loss isn't that great in my view. Also, the delay might only last a few years until oil prices and get high enough to shift public sentiment toward favoring more drilling.

Rapier wants to use additional drilling to provide revenue to reduce our oil dependence. My guess is that by the time substantial production starts flowing from new offshore fields the world oil prices will be so high and economically damaging that industry, the public, and governments will already be taking lots of actions to reduce oil dependence.

I have explained my position on this in the past: I think we should drill and use the proceeds to fund programs for reducing our oil dependence. I am trying to think practically here, and I think what will happen if we don’t develop the oil we have will be more dependence on oil imports as opposed to a hastening of a transition to renewable fuels. There will be an element of the latter, but it won’t be enough.

Still, I agree with Rapier that this latest accident is going to make the adjustment to declining world oil production harder to handle. That decline might start soon.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 30 12:21 AM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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2010 April 29 Thursday
Competition Or Rewards More Important?

Does the possibility of winning and losing drive competitive people more than the rewards for winning?

Whether it’s for money, marbles or chalk, the brains of reward-driven people keep their game faces on, helping them win at every step of the way. Surprisingly, they win most often when there is no reward.

That’s the finding of neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis, who tested 31 randomly selected subjects with word games, some of which had monetary rewards of either 25 cents or 75 cents per correct answer, others of which had no money attached.

Personality tests were used to measure competitiveness and the degree to which each subject was driven by monetary rewards. But on trials where no rewards were offered the competitive personalities did even better than in trials where rewards were offered.

But the researchers found a paradoxical result: The performance of the most reward-driven individuals actually was most improved — relative to the less reward-driven — in the trials that paid nothing, not the ones in which there was money at stake.

Even more striking was that the brain scans taken using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) showed a change in the pattern of activity during the non-rewarded trials within the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), located right behind the outer corner of the eyebrow, an area that is strongly linked to intelligence, goal-driven behavior and cognitive strategies. The change in lateral PFC activity was statistically linked to the extra-behavioral benefits observed in the reward-driven individuals.

One explanation is that competing in trials where rewards were offered got the competitive people into a competitive mood that carried over to other trials.

The researchers suggest that this change in lateral PFC activity patterns represents a flexible shift in response to the motivational importance of the task, translating this into a superior task strategy that the researchers term “proactive cognitive control.”

In other words, once the rewarding motivational context is established in the brain indicating there is a goal-driven contest at hand, the brain actually rallies its neuronal troops and readies itself for the next trial, whether it’s for money or not.

What I wonder: How strong is the link between competitiveness and the desire for rewards? Perhaps competitiveness is most important as a characteristic that drives people to succeed.

Highly competitive people who do not have jobs that allow them to compete probably do not work as effectively as they otherwise would. For someone who gets thrill from winning against others what's needed is an environment where most tasks are competitions, where lots of wins and losses happen every day.

Does a different subset of people feel driven to achieve goals without the need to feel like they are competing against others? Is there a winning orientation separate from a goal achievement orientation?

By Randall Parker 2010 April 29 11:56 PM  Brain Economics
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2010 April 28 Wednesday
Fewer Dopamine Receptors In Drug Addict Brains

Fewer dopamine receptors in drug addict brains probably means they experience less from the same sources of stimulus.

To get a real-time sense of dopamine activity, Joanna Fowler and her colleague Gene-Jack Wang at Brookhaven, along with Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, combined positron emission tomography (PET), a medical imaging technology useful for identifying brain diseases, with special radioactive tracers that bind to dopamine receptors. The PET scan highlights the movement of the tracers in the brain, and can be used to reconstruct real-time 3D images of the dopamine system in action.

The scientists tested this procedure on several drug-addicted volunteers as well as age-matched healthy control subjects and found that people with addictions in general have 15-20 percent fewer dopamine receptors than normal and thus cannot bind to a lot of the dopamine released in response to the drugs or natural reinforcers like food.

A treatment that boosts dopamine receptor count would probably make it easier to kick drugs.

Addicts probably do not experience as much pleasure.

"These addicted individuals all had a blunted dopamine response," noted Fowler, a senior scientist in Brookhaven's medical department. "This reinforces the idea that drug addicts experience diminished feelings of pleasure, which drives their continual drug use."

Fowler added that the study looked at multiple recreational drugs and found similar results. "So, while various drugs operate by unique mechanisms, they all share a commonality in that the dopamine receptors in the brains of addicted individuals show an under-stimulated reward system."

How fast do dopamine receptor levels rise after an addict stops using? My guess is that the rate of dopamine receptor recovery is inversely correlated with relapse back into drug use.

This report has important cultural implications as well. So then drug addict "Towelie" has fewer dopamine receptors in his towel brain? Great South Park episode btw. Also, what about Tiger Woods' sex addiction? Does the guy suffer from low dopamine receptor levels? If so, how can he be condemned for medical self treatment?

By Randall Parker 2010 April 28 11:35 PM  Brain Addiction
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2010 April 27 Tuesday
Cherries Reduce Inflammation In Obese Rats

While some rats might want to opt for the health promoting benefits of grape in rat chow another study finds that the overweight rat should give serious consideration to cherry in the diet. Anthocyanins in cherries are suspected by the scientists as the causative agents for the measured benefits.

ANAHEIM, CA, April 27, 2010 – There's more evidence of tart cherries' powerful anti-inflammatory benefits, according to a new study presented by a team of Michigan researchers today at the Experimental Biology annual meeting. Using a "whole food" approach, researchers found that a cherry-enriched diet not only reduced overall body inflammation, but also reduced inflammation at key sites (belly fat, heart) known to affect heart disease risk in obese, at-risk rats.

At-risk obese rats were fed a cherry-enriched "Western Diet," characterized by high fat and moderate carbohydrate – in line with the typical American diet – for 90 days. Cherry-enriched diets, which consisted of whole tart cherry powder as 1 percent of the diet, reduced risk factors for heart disease including cholesterol, body weight, fat mass and known markers of inflammation. While inflammation is a normal process the body uses to fight off infection or injury, according to recent science, a chronic state of inflammation increases the risk for diseases.

"Chronic inflammation is a whole body condition that can affect overall health, especially when it comes to the heart," said study co-author Mitch Seymour, PhD, at the University of Michigan. "This study offers further promise that foods rich in antioxidants, such as cherries, could potentially reduce inflammation and have the potential to lower disease risk."

Rats have very short lives compared to humans. I'm sure many rats will be excited by this result.

Even humans appear to derive a similar benefit from drinking tart cherry juice.

A second pilot study found similar results in humans. Ten overweight or obese adults drank eight ounces of tart cherry juice daily for four weeks. At the end of the trial, there were significant reductions in several markers of inflammation, in addition to lower levels of triglycerides, another key risk factors for heart disease.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 27 11:05 PM  Aging Diet Metabolism
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Anabolic Steroid Use Impairs Heart?

A dozen anabolic steroid using weight lifters, average age 40, were found to have heart function that is not so good.

DALLAS, April 27, 2010 — Long-term anabolic steroid use may weaken the heart more than previously thought and may increase the risk of heart failure, according to research reported in Circulation: Heart Failure, an American Heart Association journal.

Anabolic-androgenic steroids mimic the naturally occurring testosterone, a muscle-building hormone that promotes male sexual characteristics.

“Anabolic steroids, in addition to being illegal, have important health consequences,” said Aaron L. Baggish, M.D., lead author of the study and instructor in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “I think for the first time we’re starting to realize that the heart is one of the organs that is negatively impacted by long-term steroid use.”

In the small study, investigators found that the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, was significantly weaker during contraction (systolic function) in participants who had taken steroids compared to a group of similar non-steroid users.

Any readers long time users of anabolic steroids? Gotten your heart function measured lately?

Lower left ventricle ejection fraction, impaired diastolic function. Not good.

A healthy left ventricle pumps out 55 percent to 70 percent of the blood that fills the heart (a measurement known as ejection fraction). Eighty-three percent of steroid users in the 12-person study had a low pumping capacity (ejection fraction less than 55 percent) that previous studies have linked to increased risk of heart failure and sudden cardiac death. In contrast, only one of the non-steroid users had a low ejection fraction.

Steroid users also exhibited impaired diastolic function, which is when the left ventricle relaxes and fills with blood. The researchers showed that ventricle relaxation among steroid users, as demonstrated by the left ventricle’s ratio of early-to-late blood filling, was reduced by almost half (0.93 compared with 1.80 among non-users). The left ventricle’s structure was similar in both steroid-users and non-users.

Click thru for some more details. I'm already scared to use anabolic steroids. So this article doesn't change my mind. If you are thinking about using then think again. Your heart is a handy thing to have working correctly.

What's needed: studies comparing long term effects of assorted drugs for enhancing athletic performance. Do any drugs exist that boost athletic performance while not creating long term health problems?

In the longer run I expect stem cell and gene therapies to provide not just safe athletic enhancement but life extending athletic enhancement. Then I expect to see a split between sports that feature only "wild type" natural humans and sports that allow enhanced athletes to perform. In the long run the "wild type" sports will go into decline because humans will be enhanced with gene therapy and other techniques started from conception. Biologically natural humans will become the exception and enhancement will become widely accepted and fully legitimized.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 27 10:28 PM  Bodies Perfected Athletics
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Rats On Grapes Have Better Blood Chemistry

Grapes help rats in the rat race of life. Powdered grapes made up 3% of their diets.

Researchers studied the effect of regular table grapes (a blend of green, red and black grapes) that were mixed into a powdered form and integrated into the diets of laboratory rats as part of a high-fat, American style diet. All of the rats used were from a research breed that is prone to being overweight.

They performed many comparisons between the rats consuming a grape-enriched diet and the control rats receiving no grape powder. Researchers added calories and sugars to the control group to balance the extra calories and sugars gained from getting the grape powder.

Lower blood pressure and improved glucose tolerance were among the indicators pointing at benefits from eating grapes.

After three months, the rats that received the grape-enriched diet had lower blood pressure, better heart function, and reduced indicators of inflammation in the heart and the blood than rats who received no grape powder. Rats also had lower triglycerides and improved glucose tolerance.

The effects were seen even though the grape-fed animals had no change in body weight.

So there you have it. Eat some grapes or raisins. My guess is that assorted berries rich in phytonutrients will deliver many of the same benefits. Try to get the various types of phytonutrients in your diet.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 27 12:37 AM  Aging Diet Metabolism
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2010 April 26 Monday
Stephen Hawking Cautions Against Alien Contact

Physicist Stephen Hawking says aliens who detect us might have hostile intentions.

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach,” he said. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the native Americans.”

Here's a video of Hawking making these comments.

Richard Carrigan thinks we should look for artifacts of alien civilizations that are large enough to be detected at a distance.

A recent interesting paper from a scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory suggested an alternative to conventional SETI called “interstellar archeology.”

In essence, this involves passively scanning the cosmos for the equivalent of earth’s Egyptian pyramids, or the Great Wall of China – obvious signs of intelligent life that can be seen from space.

“Uncovering such an artifact does not require the intentional transmission of a signal on the part of the original civilization,” writes Fermi scientist Richard Carrigan.

Perhaps we could detect, for example, a Dyson sphere under construction. It would only partially block the light from a star.

If there are aliens out there then where are their space probes? One idea I've had about that is that long lived aliens might be really risk averse. They probably think like Hawking: Best to hide from possibly dangerous other species. In fact, the longest lived species probably are either invaders or hiders.

Even if most alien species are not hostile it would only take one species more advanced than us to detect us and send something to wipe us out.

Update: One might imagine that most intelligent species will be like us and dream of peaceful First Contact and mutually beneficial friendly relations between species. That might even be true. But it only takes one species that derives enormous pleasure from hunting that sees all other species as total outsiders for the rest of the intelligent species to be faced with a big problem.

Either extreme xenophobia or a great love of hunting combined with total disregard for others would be enough to drive a species to want to wipe out other intelligent species. Can we rule out the emergence of a species that would have a combination of characteristics that would lead to launching of planet killer probes? I would hesitate to rule out that possibility.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 26 11:58 PM  Space Alien Intelligence
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Phosphates In Sodas Accelerate Aging?

Phosphates in sodas and processed foods speed aging in genetically engineered mice.

Here's another reason to kick the soda habit. New research published online in the FASEB Journal (http://www.fasebj.org) shows that high levels of phosphates may add more "pop" to sodas and processed foods than once thought. That's because researchers found that the high levels of phosphates accelerate signs of aging. High phosphate levels may also increase the prevalence and severity of age-related complications, such as chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular calcification, and can also induce severe muscle and skin atrophy.

"Humans need a healthy diet and keeping the balance of phosphate in the diet may be important for a healthy life and longevity," said M. Shawkat Razzaque, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Medicine, Infection and Immunity at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. "Avoid phosphate toxicity and enjoy a healthy life."

This study does not indicate just how much phosphate is too much for humans. What's a reasonable amount of phosphate to consume per day?

Here are the details. Note how they used two different genetic modifications. The first group of mice only had the klotho knock-out which caused high phosphate in the bodies of the mice and shorter life. You might might that the klotho shortened life by some other mechanism. But a second group had both klotho and a second knock-out for the NaPi2a gene which lowered phosphate. Those mice lived longer. But then when mice with both knock-outs were fed a high phosphate diet they also lived only 15 weeks, just like the first group.

To make this discovery, Razzaque and colleague examined the effects of high phosphate levels in three groups of mice. The first group of mice was missing a gene (klotho), which when absent, causes mice to have toxic levels of phosphate in their bodies. These mice lived 8 to 15 weeks. The second group of mice was missing the klotho gene and a second gene (NaPi2a), which when absent at the same time, substantially lowered the amount of phosphate in their bodies. These mice lived to 20 weeks. The third group of mice was like the second group (missing both the klotho and NaPi2a genes), except they were fed a high-phosphate diet. All of these mice died by 15 weeks, like those in the first group. This suggests that phosphate has toxic effects in mice, and may have a similar effect in other mammals, including humans.

Here's a table of phosphate in common foods. That list doesn't have much in the way of processed foods though. Here's a table of phosphorus in dairy products. The recommended daily allowance of phosphorus for adults is 700 mg. Anyone know a link to a good list of phosphates in processed foods?

By Randall Parker 2010 April 26 11:53 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Big Growth In Geothermal Energy

Utilities in states with regulatory renewable energy mandates are suddenly turning to geothermal power to comply with mandated goals for renewables usage.

Washington, D.C. (April 13, 2010) – The US geothermal power industry continued strong growth in 2009, according to a new report by the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA). The April 2010 US Geothermal Power Production and Development Update showed 26% growth in new projects under development in the United States in the past year, with 188 projects underway in 15 states which could produce as much as 7,875 MW of new electric power.

When completed, these projects will add over 7,000 MW of baseload power capacity; enough to provide electricity for 7.6 million people, or 20% of California’s total power needs, and roughly equivalent to the total power used in California from coal-fired power plants. "Geothermal power can be a critical part of the answer to global warming," according to GEA's Executive Director, Karl Gawell. "For example, California could achieve its 2020 goal for global warming emissions reductions just by keeping energy demand level and replacing its coal-fired generation with geothermal," he asserted.

Nevada continued to be the leading state for new geothermal energy, with over 3,000 MW under development. The fastest growing geothermal power states were Utah which quadrupled its geothermal power under development, New Mexico which tripled, Idaho which doubled, and Oregon which reported a 50% increase. In addition, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas all reported their first geothermal projects compared with a year earlier.

For states that do not have good geothermal or wind fulfillment of renewables mandates has got to be tough (meaning expensive). I am wondering what the costs for these geothermal plants turn out to be. One can't predict the costs just from initial construction costs because the drilled pipes to the deep hot areas can clog up and also the heat can not last. So redrilling can become necessary and so geothermal's cost can vary.

Geothermal has one big advantage over solar and wind: 24x7 operation.

Update: The costs of renewables are endlessly debated. But how the market responds to the state renewables requirements gives us a window into their relative costs. From the sizes of these projects it looks like geothermal is cheaper than wind and solar in some areas. As near as I can tell all renewables in the United States are eligible for the same 2.1 cents/kwh production tax credit. So geothermal, wind, and solar are competing on a level playing field - at least at the federal level.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 26 12:44 AM  Energy Geothermal
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Internet Addiction Found In Students

Imagine what would happen if the whole internet went down.

Researchers at the University of Maryland who asked 200 students to give up all media for one full day found that after 24 hours many showed signs of withdrawal, craving and anxiety along with an inability to function well without their media and social links.

There are two ways to react to this report. Most obviously people could try to kick their internet addiction. But another possible approach is to accept the addiction reshape our society around it. Avoid withdrawal by building a more secure and more widely accessible internet. Internet connectivity devices could be embedded in our brains (kind of like the embedded telephones in The President's Analyst). We need robotic cars that can drive for us so that we do not have to distract ourselves away from the internet in order to drive. We could all have dogs for the handicapped that would guide us when we walk while we do text messaging.

This reminds me of the great South Park internet episode. What happens when the internet goes down in South Park? The result is not pretty. Got to head out to California just like the Okies in the Dust Bowl era.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 26 12:16 AM  Brain Addiction
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2010 April 24 Saturday
Peers Do Not Like Your Possessions

Hide your stuff if you want to be well liked. Or hang out with people even richer than you are. Of course, then you might not like your rich friends with all their expensive gadgets, luxury goods, and big houses.

People who pursue happiness through material possessions are liked less by their peers than people who pursue happiness through life experiences, according to a new study led by University of Colorado at Boulder psychology Professor Leaf Van Boven.

Van Boven has spent a decade studying the social costs and benefits of pursuing happiness through the acquisition of life experiences such as traveling and going to concerts versus the purchase of material possessions like fancy cars and jewelry.

"We have found that material possessions don't provide as much enduring happiness as the pursuit of life experiences," Van Boven said.

The "take home" message in his most recent study, which appears in this month's edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is that not only will investing in material possessions make us less happy than investing in life experiences, but that it often makes us less popular among our peers as well.

This all reminds me of Geoffrey Miller's book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. People who buy high status goods overestimate the benefits these goods have on their status. Either people don't even notice the expensive watch or they resent you for owning it.

Take home lesson: Emphasize the trips you've been on in conversations. Or talk about near accidents or fist fights in bars or how you almost got mauled by a bear (one almost got me once btw). Stay away from talk about your second home or that 50 foot boat you've got parked down in Florida or the house boat on Lake Mead. Definitely absolutely do not mention your private island. We do not want to hear about it. Besides, I'll just tell you it is going to get wiped out by rising seas.

Okay, in the comments do you want to list some expensive possessions and make people hate you like you condescend and look down on their poor inferior asses? Or do you want to regale them with tales of how you almost died in the Kalahari desert or maybe in the Serengeti? Or maybe you escaped from kidnappers in Rio? If you bribed your way out of a prison in Mexico it implies you had the money need to do the bribery. So that's somewhat of a mixed bag.

War stories about Iraq or Afghanistan are better if a government sent you there at low pay as an enlisted man. If you went to the same area on your own dime it implies more wealth. Though if you are poor today that's probably okay to talk about.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 24 05:05 PM  Brain Economics
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Ethical Problems With Climate Engineering

At a conference on the ethical, political, and scientific issues surrounding climate engineering Princeton University climate researcher Robert Socolow laid out a variety of scenarios in which countries decide to do climate engineering unilaterally.

In one, a single country unilaterally pumps aerosols into the stratosphere to block the Sun's rays and preserve — or perhaps create — a climate of its own liking. In another, climate policies result in a world full of forest plantations that are created solely to store the greatest possible amount of carbon, with no regard for preserving biodiversity. Or what if the very possibility of using geoengineering to mitigate climate change gives political leaders cover to say that greenhouse gases aren't a problem?

The morning after Socolow's sobering talk, the conference's scientific organizing committee released a summary statement, based on attendees' comments, that endorsed geoengineering research as a viable way of avoiding possibly catastrophic global warming. But participants came up short on their stated goal of formulating a set of guidelines and principles for scientists working in the field, and conference organizers promised further work on these in the coming weeks. Instead, it was Socolow's cautionary note that resonated as participants departed the beachside Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey, California. "We're scared, and nothing brings people together like fear," says Jane Long, associate director for energy and environment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Climate engineering is cheap enough that many countries could carry it out on their own. Low lying Bangladesh with a GDP of about $80 billion could afford a few hundred million dollars worth of climate engineering to prevent the melting of Greenland and resulting flooding of much of Bangladesh. Only a large trade embargo or military attack could stop Bangladesh.

There is climate engineering as an accidental side effect and climate engineering done on purpose to do climate engineering. Currently we are getting climate engineering as a side effect. Is it ethical? Well, we've already decide to do it? Should it be approved by the UN? Well, again, we've already decided to do it. So why shouldn't a country do it on purpose if the goal is to neutralize what we are doing as a side effect?

As our understanding of how we impact climate becomes understood in greater detail the most compelling argument for intentional climate engineering is going to be that we need to counteract climate engineering we are already doing by accident. Those most motivated to do intentional climate engineering will be those most harmed by changes in climate. Looking at losing your city to rising waters? Time to start pumping silicon dioxide into the atmosphere. I'm thinking coastal nuclear power plants that would otherwise be submerged by rising water could be used for this purpose.

Now I hear some of you saying "but global warming is a fraud" and other phrases to that effect. But since climate engineering can be done quickly there'll be no need to start doing it until the evidence (e.g. rapid measurable melting in Greenland) becomes so compelling that the vast bulk of the population agree it is happening.

We ought to study climate engineering in advance to understand the trade-offs and risks of the various choices. We've got plenty of time sitting in 2010 to do that research. Best to understand this when we aren't yet in full panic mode.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 24 04:56 PM  Climate Engineering
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Energy Research Spending Seen As Chump Change

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former Dupont CEO Chad Holliday say we spend too little on energy R&D and energy is a big problem.

But our country is neglecting a field central to our national prospect and security: energy. Although the information technology and pharmaceutical industries spend 5 to 15 percent of their revenue on research and development each year, U.S. companies' spending on energy R&D has averaged only about one-quarter of 1 percent of revenue over the past 15 years.

And despite talk about the need for "21st-century" energy sources, federal spending on clean energy research -- less than $3 billion -- is also relatively small. Compare that with roughly $30 billion that the U.S. government annually spends on health research and $80 billion on defense research and development.

There are two problems here. One problem is the approach of Peak Oil, exacerbated by rapid industrialization in high population countries. The amount of extractable oil in the ground is finite and most oil producing countries have already peaked in production. Oil is hard to substitute for in transportation. I expect Peak Oil to cause an economic contraction that will last for several years until substitutes start to make a substantial difference.

The other potential problem is global warming. The time line for that is longer. In the next 20 years we'll feel the effects of Peak Oil much more severely than changes in climate. If Peak Coal comes sooner than expected (see Richard Heinberg's Blackout for an overview of pessimistic views on coal reserves) then global warming isn't going to become as important a political issue as Peak Oil. Though if James Hansen's more bleak assessment of climate sensitivity to CO2 levels (i.e. 350 ppm is allowable max) even the coal reserve estimates reported by Heinberg end up being too much if we want to avoid a big sea level rise.

I am more worried about Peak Oil. If push comes to shove we can always do climate engineering to cool the planet (admittedly that doesn't stop ocean acidification). But our dependence on oil amounts to an Achilles Heel for industrialized nations. Kicking that dependence is going to be painful.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 24 11:31 AM  Energy Policy
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2010 April 23 Friday
Soy Biodiesel Worse For Global Warming?

This is funny. Maybe politicos should do more research before imposing half-baked energy mandates?

BRUSSELS, April 21 (Reuters) - Biofuels such as biodiesel from soy beans can create up to four times more climate-warming emissions than standard diesel or petrol, according to an EU document released under freedom of information laws.

Okay, I know some of you might be angry at the thought that good intentions are resulting in a bad outcome. But it is kinda hard to see biomass energy as a matter of good intentions even before considering the report above. The problems with it have been evident for quite a while, so much so I've gotten bored of the topic.

Still, once more into the breach. The idea that crop residues (e.g. corn stover) would make good sources of biomass energy material is quested in this study that finds loss of precious topsoil from removing crop residues.

MADISON, WI, April 5, 2010 -- Crop residues, perennial warm season grasses, and short-rotation woody crops are potential biomass sources for cellulosic ethanol production. While most research is focused on the conversion of cellulosic feeedstocks into ethanol and increasing production of biomass, the impacts of growing energy crops and the removal of crop residue on soil and environmental quality have received less attention. Moreover, effects of crop residue removal on soil and environmental quality have not been compared against those of dedicated energy crops.

In the March-April 2010 issue of Agronomy Journal, published by the American Society of Agronomy, Dr. Humberto Blanco reviewed the impacts of crop residue removal, warm season grasses, and short-rotation woody crops on critical soil properties, carbon sequestration, and water quality as well as the performance of energy crops in marginal lands. The review found that crop residue removal from corn, wheat,and grain sorghumcan adversely impact soil and environmental quality. Removal of more than 50% of crop residue can have negative consequences for soil structure, reduce soil organic carbon sequestration, increase water erosion, and reduce nutrient cycling and crop production, particularly in erodible and sloping soils.

"Crop residue removal can make no-till soils a source rather than a sink of atmospheric carbon," says Blanco, even at rates lower than 50%. Residue removal at rates of less than 25% can cause loss of sediment in runoff relative to soils without residue removal. To avoid the negative impacts on soil, perhaps only a small fraction of residue might be available for removal. This small amount of crop residues is not economically feasible nor logistically possible. Blanco recomends developing other alternative biomass feedstock sources for cellulosic ethanol production.

My worry is that advances in biomass energy technology will so improve the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) that biomass energy become far more cost effective. Then it'll take off, driving food prices much higher while also speeding soil depletion. Since I think Peak Oil is coming in the 2010s I expect really strong economic incentives to make biomass energy more viable. The environmental consequences (loss of rain forests, soil depletion, more fertilizer run-off) will cause all sorts of problems down the line.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 23 07:39 PM  Energy Biomass
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2010 April 22 Thursday
Energy Efficiency Offers Profitable Returns

Bigger investments in energy efficiency in the southern US would pay back more than twice the amount invested.

DURHAM, N.C. – Energy-efficiency measures in the southern U.S. could save consumers $41 billion on their energy bills, open 380,000 new jobs, and save 8.6 billion gallons of water by 2020, according to a new study from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The study concludes that investing $200 billion in energy efficiency programs by 2030 could return $448 billion in savings.

The researchers modeled how implementation of nine policies across the residential, commercial and industrial sectors might play out over 20 years in the District of Columbia and 16 southern states.

"We looked at how these policies might interact, not just single programs," said Etan Gumerman of the Nicholas Institute and co-lead researcher of the study. "The interplay between policies compounds the savings. And it's all cost-effective. On average, each dollar invested in energy efficiency over the next 20 years will reap $2.25 in benefits."

It says something about the inefficiency of the market that the potential for such large savings exists.

The South uses a disproportionate fraction of total US energy consumption. This is curious because the South has much less need for heating. How much of this energy is going to air conditioning?

The South is rich terrain for efficiency improvements. Without them, the region might expect 15 percent growth in energy demand by 2030. Thirty-six percent of Americans live in the study region. The region consumes an outsized portion of American energy, 44 percent, but it also supplies 48 percent of the nation's power.

Greater energy efficiency will reduce the demand for coal and therefore also reduce the number of deaths and injuries due to slack attitudes toward coal mine safety where top management puts production first.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 22 11:00 PM  Energy Conservation
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2010 April 21 Wednesday
Statin Cancer Risk Reduction Depends On Gene Variants

While one study casts doubt on use of cholesterol-lowering statins to lower colorectal cancer risk another study finds that genetic variants are key to whether statins will cut cancer risk.

In this study, the research team genotyped 40 candidate genes known to be important for synthesis and metabolism of cholesterol in people who participated in a population case-control study of colorectal cancer in northern Israel. Included were 1,780 colon cancer patients and 1,863 people who did not have colorectal cancer, and many of the participants, who were predominantly Caucasian, had used statins for a long time. In the initial study, statin use was associated with a 50 percent relative risk of developing colorectal cancer in this population.

Included in the 40 genes were six SNPs, or DNA sequences, within the HMGCR gene, which produces a critical enzyme involved in formation of cholesterol.

They found one SNP within HMGCR that was associated with statin protection against colorectal cancer. A follow-up pharmacogenetic analysis showed that the protective association was significantly stronger among individuals with what they dubbed the "A" SNP allele, or variant, compared with people who had a "T" variant. Because a person inherits two variants, one from each parent, the stronger colorectal cancer protection came from individuals with the A/A HMGCR genotype, compared with those with the T/T genotype. Individuals with an A/T genotype had intermediate protection against colorectal cancer -- levels that varied between that seen for A/A and T/T genotypes.

Since genetic variants occur in different frequencies in different populations a lot of medical research that does not control for genetic variants ends up producing conflicting results depending on the genetic endowment of experimental subjects.

A gene test might eventually make the taking of statins more compelling for those with the right genetic variants.

“It’s the exact same mechanism for lowering cholesterol as it is for lowering colon cancer risk. This is true only for those people who are actually taking statins. The gene test by itself doesn’t predict whether you’re at an increased risk of colon cancer; it predicts only how well statins lower the risk,” Gruber says.

The researchers point out that it’s easy to know if statins are successfully lowering cholesterol, but their effect on colorectal cancer prevention is not as apparent. That’s where a gene test would come in.

Statins also cause harmful side effects in some users. If genetic testing can flag who will have bad reactions to statins and also who will have the most cancer reduction benefits then the argument for taking statins will become stronger for some while at the same time becoming much weaker for others.

This is part of a larger pattern in increased value from genetic testing. In just 5 years I expect the number of potential benefits from genetic testing to become very compelling.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 21 11:38 PM  Aging Genetics
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COMT Gene Influences Brain Aging

A gene that breaks down degrade catecholamines such as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (all neurotransmitters) has variants that influence brain aging and brain performance. The variants come with trade-offs.

For the study, researchers followed 2,858 African-American and Caucasian people between the ages of 70 and 79 for eight years. Participants’ DNA was analyzed for the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene, a gene shown in studies to affect thinking skills. The allelic variants associated with this gene are the Val and Met variants.

The group was also given two types of thinking tests. One test measured skills such as language, concentration and memory. The other test measured response time, attention and judging sights and objects.

The study found that the Met variant of the COMT gene was linked to a greater decline in thinking skills over the years, while the Val variant had a protective effect on thinking skills, with lower declines over the years. In Caucasians, those with the Val variant scored 33 percent better over time than those without the variant. Among African-Americans, people with the Val allele gene variant scored 45 percent better over time than those who did not have the variant.

Slower aging makes the Val variant sound appealing, right? But the Met variant seems better at younger ages. So then is the Val variant keeping the brain younger longer by lowering brain performance at earlier stages in life?

“This finding is interesting because in younger people, the Val genotype has been shown to have a detrimental effect,” Fiocco said. “But in our study of older people, the reverse was true. Finding connections between this gene, its variants and cognitive function may help scientists find new treatments for the prevention of cognitive decline.” Fiocco added, however, that the results need to be replicated by others before the field can be confident that the Met variant of the COMT gene plays a role in late life cognitive decline.

These results underscore the trade-offs in genetic variants. Beneficial mutations often don't just boost functions. They provide benefits at a cost. Whether the benefits outweighed the costs in the past does not determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs today. Many humans have mutations (e.g. sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia against malaria) that beneficial in the past but only harmful in their present circumstances. Still other genetic variants of other genes still provide both benefits and costs today.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 21 11:21 PM  Aging Brain Genetic Studies
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2010 April 20 Tuesday
No IQ Boost From Brain Training

A paper published in Nature finds that brain training games do not boost general problem solving abilities.

In the study of more than 11,400 healthy adults, those who played brain-training games did get better at the specific tasks involved in the games, such as solving mathematical problems, but these improvements did not transfer into any other general mental abilities.

You have to be born smart - at least until gene therapies and cell therapies enable you to boost your general intelligence.

A review of the research literature also didn't find a big benefit.

Peter Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and vice president of research at Lifespan Hospitals in Rhode Island, published a review last year of the existing literature on brain training games, concluding it was both sparse and inconsistent, as this Globe story said.

Snyder makes some salient comments about this latest study. Click thru and read his critical points. One point: The brain training study was rather short. A more intensive brain training program would be needed to try to detect general improvements in intelligence.

A lot of people want to think of the brain as akin to a muscle which you can make stronger by exercising it. Brains can learn and develop useful skills for processing information. But brains can't exercise there way to greater intellectual capacity.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 20 10:58 PM  Brain Performance
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Chocolate For Your Heart

Surely some of my readers must react to my posts about healthful foods with the thought "Oh no, not another food I've got to eat or avoid". Gets to be a burden, doesn't it? Well, sorry, but time for another burden of healthful eating: Chocolate for your heart.

Easter eggs and other chocolate may be good for you – at least in small quantities and preferably if it's dark chocolate – according to research that shows just one small square of chocolate a day can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease. The study is published online today (Wednesday 31 March) in the European Heart Journal [1].

Researchers in Germany followed 19,357 people, aged between 35 and 65, for at least ten years and found that those who ate the most amount of chocolate – an average of 7.5 grams a day – had lower blood pressure and a 39% lower risk of having a heart attack or stroke compared to those who ate the least amount of chocolate – an average of 1.7 grams a day. The difference between the two groups amounts to six grams of chocolate: the equivalent of less than one small square of a 100g bar.

Dr Brian Buijsse, a nutritional epidemiologist at the German Institute of Human Nutrition, Nuthetal, Germany, who led the research said: "People who ate the most amount of chocolate were at a 39% lower risk than those with the lowest chocolate intakes. To put it in terms of absolute risk, if people in the group eating the least amount of chocolate (of whom 219 per 10,000 had a heart attack or stroke) increased their chocolate intake by six grams a day, 85 fewer heart attacks and strokes per 10,000 people could be expected to occur over a period of about ten years. If the 39% lower risk is generalised to the general population, the number of avoidable heart attacks and strokes could be higher because the absolute risk in the general population is higher."[2]

I keep dark chocolate in the house just because I know I'll come across research reports reporting benefits. Every time I write a post about the benefits of chocolate I eat some. Sometimes I eat chocolate because I figure somewhere out there some scientists published a report about it but I missed it. Other times I eat chocolate because I figure there are lots of old scientific reports about the benefits of chocolate that came out before I started paying attention.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 20 09:48 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Gene Patents Slow Progress

Gene patents do more to slow progress - especially in this emerging era of full genome sequencing.

DURHAM, N.C. –Exclusive licenses to gene patents, most of which are held by academic institutions and based on taxpayer-funded research, do more to block competition in the gene testing market than to spur the development of new technologies for gauging disease risk, say researchers at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP).

As single-gene tests give way to multi-gene or even whole-genome scans, exclusive patent rights could slow promising new technologies and business models for genetic testing even further, the Duke researchers say.

The findings emerge from a series of case studies that examined genetic risk testing for 10 clinical conditions, including breast and colon cancer, cystic fibrosis, and hearing loss. The studies appear April 14 in a special issue of Genetics in Medicine.

In seven of the conditions, exclusive licenses have been a source of controversy. But in no case was the holder of exclusive patent rights the first to market with a test.

DNA sequencing costs are getting so cheap that the rate of discovery of meaning for genetic differences is going up by orders of magnitude. The DNA data has become an enormous flood. A single study can find many genetic variants associated with a disease or metabolic difference.

Patents on genes have never made sense to me because they amount to discovering what already is happening. This isn't development of a new technique. There's no novelty of thought.

When full genome sequencing becomes cheap are genome sequencing services going to be required to hold back information about select sections of DNA that have patents on them? Will we have to pay extra to learn our full sequences? If so, that would be an outrage.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 20 07:26 PM  Policy Science
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2010 April 19 Monday
Good Or Evil Ups Willpower

People who act morally ambivalent have less willpower. Use the force Luke. The dark side works too.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 19, 2010 -- New research from Harvard University suggests that moral actions may increase our capacity for willpower and physical endurance. Study participants who did good deeds -- or even just imagined themselves helping others -- were better able to perform a subsequent task of physical endurance.

The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows a similar or even greater boost in physical strength following dastardly deeds.

Researcher Kurt Gray, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard, explains these effects as a self-fulfilling prophecy in morality.

"People perceive those who do good and evil to have more efficacy, more willpower, and less sensitivity to discomfort," Gray says. "By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance."

The world is a battle between good and evil because the morally neutral just do not have the get up and go.

There's a cool part of this: It is enough to just imagine yourself helping others to boost your willpower. No need for real altruism. You can just pretend to be good. Is that cool or what? Explains so much moral posturing. Next time you see someone flashing symbols of taking the moral high road you can be sure they are just trying to build up their willpower to do what they really want to do.

So I'm imagining a superhero who doesn't have enough willpower to fly thru the air. Suddenly a thought bubble pops up over their head showing them saving babies and mothers from, say, an evil biker gang. Suddenly the superhero can fly off and he flies to a tropical beach to hang out and pick up surfer girls while drinking margaritas. Make your moral battle fantasies big enough and who knows what great feat you'll be able to pull off.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 19 11:49 PM  Brain Performance
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Vitamin K Cuts Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Risk?

A reason to eat green leafies.

WASHINGTON — In the first study of vitamin K and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk, researchers at the Mayo Clinic campus in Minnesota have found that people who have higher intakes of vitamin K from their diet have a lower risk of developing Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system and is the most common hematologic malignancy in the United States.

At the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the researchers report that the risk of developing Non-Hodgkin lymphoma was approximately 45 percent lower for participants who had vitamin K intakes in the top quartile of intake in the study (>108 ug/day), compared to participants who had intakes in the bottom quartile (<39 ug/day). This association remained after accounting for other factors such as age, sex, education, obesity, smoking, alcohol use and intake of foods with high amounts of antioxidants.

I happen to take a 2400 ug vitamin K pill (a mix of K1 and K2 forms) about once every 2 weeks. The study finds that supplemental vitamin K delivers some protective benefit as well but tops out. The press release doesn't report what level of supplementation maxes out the benefit.

Here's a good list of high vitamin K foods. Eat your kale or collard greens.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 19 11:38 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Gene Boosts Obesity And Alzheimer's Risk

A variant of the fat mass and obesity associated (FTO) gene causes both weight gain and brain tissue loss.

Three years ago, geneticists reported the startling discovery that nearly half of all people in the U.S. with European ancestry carry a variant of the fat mass and obesity associated (FTO) gene, which causes them to gain weight — from three to seven pounds, on average — but worse, puts them at risk for obesity.

Now, UCLA researchers have found that the same gene allele, which is also carried by roughly one-quarter of U.S. Hispanics, 15 percent of African Americans and 15 percent of Asian Americans, may have another deleterious effect.

Reporting in the early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, senior study author Paul Thompson, a UCLA professor of neurology; lead authors April Ho and Jason Stein, graduate students in Thompson's lab; and colleagues found that the FTO variant is also associated with a loss of brain tissue. This puts more than a third of the U.S. population at risk for a variety of diseases, such as Alzheimer's.

What I wonder: If weight gain can be avoided does the brain tissue loss still happen? In other words, what's the mechanism of action for the brain loss?

If you could get yourself tested for FTO gene variants would you want to know which variant you have? It isn't clear to me what you could do with the results.

The really appealing genetic tests will be the ones that give you actionable information. For example, what's your ideal personal diet? Which foods are you at greater risk from? Knowing that you had genetic variants of enzymes for processing heterocyclic amines that put you at higher risk for cancer would let you know to not cook your meat at high temperatures. Also, not everyone gets much of a blood pressure risk from eating a lot of salt. It would be helpful to know if one should avoid salt or not. Why deprive yourself of something if deprivation isn't beneficial?

By Randall Parker 2010 April 19 11:11 PM  Aging Genetics
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Well Done Meats Boost Bladder Cancer Risk

Consumption of red meats and well done meats boost bladder cancer risk.

The group with the highest red-meat consumption had almost one-and-a-half times the risk of developing bladder cancer as those who ate little red meat.

Specifically, consumption of beef steaks, pork chops and bacon raised bladder cancer risk significantly. Even chicken and fish - when fried - significantly raised the odds of cancer.

The level of doneness of the meat also had a marked impact. People whose diets included well-done meats were almost twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who preferred meats rare.

Eat it medium rare. Do not cook at high temperatures.

People who consume the highest concentration of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) from cooking at higher temperature had even greatest risk of bladder cancer.

Further questioning of a subset of 177 people with bladder cancer and 306 people without bladder cancer showed that people with the highest estimated intake of three specific HCAs were more than two-and-a-half times more likely to develop bladder cancer than those with low estimated HCA intake.

It also helps to have the right genes. Combine high concentrations of HCAs with risky genetic variants in HCA metabolism and the result is another doubling of bladder cancer risk.

To take the investigation a step further, researchers analyzed each participant's DNA to find if it contained genetic variants in the HCA metabolism pathways that may interact with red meat intake to increase the risk of cancer.

People with seven or more unfavorable genotypes as well as high red-meat intake were at almost five times the risk of bladder cancer.

Avoiding carcinogenic foods is a more sure fire way to cut cancer risk than eating really good foods. Even with of antioxidants in your body from diet some carcinogens will slam into DNA and cause damage. Better to not eat the carcinogens in the first place.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 19 09:58 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Eggs Made With DNA From 3 People

Researchers at Newcastle University in England have moved the nucleus of a fertilized egg to a different egg in order to avoid mitochondrial DNA diseases.

Researchers have successfully transplanted the genetic material in the nucleus of a fertilized human egg into another fertilized egg, without carrying over mitochondria, the energy-producing structures of the cell. The technique could be used to prevent babies from inheriting diseases caused by mutations in the DNA of mitochondria, which are present in the cytoplasm of the egg.

The researchers haven't yet been given permission to try this procedure to start a real pregnancy. Would US fertility clinics need to ask permission to try this technique to start a pregnancy? Reproductive technologies are much less regulated in the United States.

The mitochondria are sort of like cells within our cells which specialize in generationg energy. Mitochondria have their own small piece of DNA (less than 15,000 DNA letters) that code for several genes involved in breaking down sugar to create chemical energy. Some people carry harmful mutations in their mitochondrial DNA.

A baby created by this technique would end up with DNA from 3 different people. The nuclear DNA would come from the two parents, But the mitochondrial DNA would come from an egg donor.

Things will start to get really interesting when it becomes possible to choose individual chromosomes to put into an egg. Combine that capability with cheap DNA sequencing and suddenly a huge leap in parental control over offspring genetic inheritance will cause an amazing acceleration in the rate of human evolution.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 19 12:19 AM  Biotech Reproduction
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2010 April 18 Sunday
Half Of Earth Heat Build Up In Unknown Locations

Where' the heat? Some scientists want to know.

Current observational tools cannot account for roughly half of the heat that is believed to have built up on Earth in recent years, according to a "Perspectives" article in this week's issue of the journal Science.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., warn that satellite sensors, ocean floats, and other instruments are inadequate to track this "missing" heat, which may be building up in the deep oceans or elsewhere in the climate system.

"The heat will come back to haunt us sooner or later," says NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth, the article's lead author.

"The reprieve we've had from warming temperatures in the last few years will not continue. It is critical to track the build-up of energy in our climate system so we can understand what is happening and predict our future climate."

My reaction: So what system of satellites, temperature buoys, and other sensors would be needed to accurately measure the heat flow of the Earth? Why have to speculate about it when the stakes are so high? What's the price for sufficiently accurate measurements?

In the climate and global warming debate air temperatures end up being the main thing that most of the public thinks about. But the oceans have much more mass, cover most of the surface of the planet, and absorb most of the heat.

The oceans absorb about 90 percent of the solar energy that is trapped by greenhouse gases. Additional amounts of heat go toward melting glaciers and sea ice, as well as warming the land and parts of the atmosphere.

Only a tiny fraction warms the air at the planet's surface.

The heat might be in the deeper parts of the oceans.

Much of the missing heat may be in the ocean. Some heat increase can be detected between depths of 3,000 and 6,500 feet (about 1,000 to 2,000 meters), but more heat may be deeper still beyond the reach of ocean sensors.

Trenberth and Fasullo call for additional ocean sensors, along with more systematic data analysis and new approaches to calibrating satellite instruments, to help resolve the mystery.

Deeper measurements are planned.

The Argo profiling floats that researchers began deploying in 2000 to measure ocean temperatures, for example, are separated by about 185 miles (300 kilometers) and take readings only about once every 10 days from a depth of about 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) up to the surface.

Plans are underway to have a subset of these floats go to greater depths.

Given the economic impacts of restrictions in carbon dioxide emissions it would seem that much bigger efforts should be made to figure out what's really happening with heat flows.

The oceans, lakes, and rivers have total mass of 1.4×1021 kg versus the atmosphere's total mass of 5.3 × 1018 kg or about 264 times more ocean mass than atmospheric mass. I expected a bigger multiple for the difference.

I am slowly reading climate scientist James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. One of the issues he brings up is the need for a satellite design that can measure net radiation into and out of the Earth's atmosphere. It is possible to put a few sensors on satellites that can measure all the frequencies of light entering the atmosphere and leaving it. We need this sort of measurement of infrared thru ultraviolet both entering and leaving the planet. This could prove whether the planet is in thermal balance and by how much it is out of balance.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 18 03:25 PM  Climate Trends
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Trend Toward Working More Years

RAND Corporation researchers predict the trend toward delayed retirement will accelerate.

After more than a century of decline, the number of older American men and women in the workforce began to rise modestly during the 1990s. While about 17 percent of Americans aged 65 to 75 were employed in 1990, the proportion is expected to rise to 25 percent in 2010. A jump in employment among those aged 75 and older also has been seen.

Despite the steady increase in employment among older Americans, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the trend will begin to flatten this year for men aged 65 to 74 and by 2020 for men age 75 and older. The agency predicts a similar plateau for women beginning in 2020.

But RAND researchers say the forces that are causing people to delay retirement or reenter the workforce are strong enough to propel the current trend forward until at least 2030.

The impetus to work longer is going to grow because governments have overpromised on old age benefits and are going to be too poor to deliver. The tax increases needed to make good on all those promises would be too large and would elicit too much opposition among those still working. So I expect retirement ages to be raised and benefits cut. My advice: plan your career so that you have a path that'll allow you to keep working at a bearable job until you are 70 or older.

Office jobs are easier for aging bodies and since more people are doing office jobs more can keep working. Working in one's 60s is a lot harder to do in construction. I know guys having a hard time with construction in their 50s due to work injuries.

A principal reason why retirement rates have dropped is because of an evolution in the skill composition of the nation's workforce, according to the study. As American workers have gained more education, they have achieved jobs that are more fulfilling, they face fewer physical demands in the workplace and they are paid more for their efforts.

Adding to this phenomenon is the rise in the number of dual-earner families. Since couples tend to retire together and men often are older than their spouse, men may stay in the work force longer to accommodate their wives' work lives, according to the study.

Once stem cell therapies, gene therapies, routine growth of replacement organs, and other rejuvenation therapies hit the market the resulting increase in life expectancy will require much longer participation in the workforce. I expect many such therapies to hit the market in the next 20 years. Therefore current projections for life expectancies strike me as overly pessimistic. Time to start planning for a longer life.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 18 09:44 AM  Aging Trends
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2010 April 15 Thursday
Natural Gas Worse Than Diesel On Global Warming?

Vehicles powered by natural gas would leak methane that would warm the planet way more than CO2.

In fact, using natural gas rather than diesel in vehicles could actually increase climate change, says Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. "You're aggravating global warming more if you switch," he says.

Howarth is basing his conclusion on a preliminary analysis that includes not only the amount of carbon dioxide that comes out of a tailpipe when you burn diesel and natural gas, but also the impact of natural gas leaks. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is much more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, so even small amounts of it contribute significantly to global warming. When you factor this in, natural gas could be significantly worse than diesel, he says. Using natural gas would emit the equivalent of 33 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule. Using petroleum fuels would emit the equivalent of just 20 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule.

The problem with natural gas is that if it leaks before it is burned it is a far more potent warmer than if it is first burned and converted into carbon dioxide and water. Better to burn it in large electric power generator plants where it is burned with tight emissions controls in highly efficient furnaces.

Hydrogen is a bad idea for a similar reason (in addition to other reasons). Hydrogen leaks would damage the ozone layer. Hydrogen as a fuel storage medium is a bad idea.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 15 11:06 PM  Climate Policy
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2010 April 14 Wednesday
Brain Circuit Resists Instant Gratification

There are at least two parts of the brain that influence whether you go for instant gratification.

New research reveals a brain circuit that seems to underlie the ability of humans to resist instant gratification and delay reward for months, or even years, in order to earn a better payoff. The study, published by Cell Press in the April 15 issue of the journal Neuron, provides insight into the capacity for "mental time travel," also known as episodic future thought, that enables humans to make choices with high long-term benefits.

If the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) influences how we trade off between instant gratification and larger long term reward then will offspring be genetically engineered in the future to make future generations more future oriented and with larger instinctive desires to save and accumulate wealth? Will you opt for a treatment that increases the link between your ACC and hippocampus in a way that increases your motive to save?

Imagining the future causes a shift in emphasis away from immediate gratification and toward longer term bigger rewards. So it stands to reason that reading and writing FuturePundit makes us all more prone to save.

Human subjects had to make a series of choices between smaller immediate and larger delayed rewards while brain activity was measured with fMRI. Importantly, in addition to this standard control condition, the participants were presented with "cues" that referred to real subject-specific future events planned for the respective day of reward delivery. The researchers observed that the more the cues induced spontaneous episodic imagery, the more subjects changed their preferences toward patient, future-minded choice behavior.

Further, the neuroimaging data revealed that signals in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain implicated in reward-based decision making, and functional coupling of this region with the hippocampus, linked with imagining the future, predicted the degree to which forward thinking modulated individual preference functions.

"Taken together, our results reveal that vividly imagining the future reduced impulsive choice," concludes Dr. Peters. "Our data suggest that the ACC, based on episodic predictions involving the hippocampus, supports the dynamic adjustment of preference functions that enable us to make choices that maximize future payoffs."

I'm changing your time preference.

For example: If you spend less and save lots of money every year for rejuvenation therapies you'll be able to afford to buy the earliest life extending and rejuvenating therapies. You might need to travel to China or perhaps a Caribbean country to buy new treatments before they are approved in more developed and regulated countries. So think more about your future sexy, smarter, rejuvenated self and spend less today.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 14 10:52 PM  Brain Economics
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Artificial Pancreas Controls Insulin

We move ever closer to human-machine hybrids.

An artificial pancreas system that closely mimics the body's blood sugar control mechanism was able to maintain near-normal glucose levels without causing hypoglycemia in a small group of patients. The system, combining a blood glucose monitor and insulin pump technology with software that directs administration of insulin and the blood-sugar-raising hormone glucagon, was developed at Boston University (BU). The first clinical trial of the system was conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and confirmed the feasibility of an approach utilizing doses of both hormones. In their report, appearing in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers also found unexpectedly large differences in insulin absorption rates between study participants, differences they were able to account for by adjustments to the system.

"This is the first study to test an artificial pancreas using both insulin and glucagon in people with type 1 diabetes. It showed that, by delivering both hormones in response to frequent blood sugar tests, it is possible to control blood sugar levels without hypoglycemia, even after high-carbohydrate meals," says Steven Russell, MD, PhD, of the MGH Diabetes Unit, who co-led the research team with Edward Damiano, PhD, of the BU Department of Biomedical Engineering.

This isn't the full-on miniaturized, implanted insulin-making device that would provide full freedom of movement. That's a much tougher challenge.

One can imagine the use of an artificial pancreas for someone when they sleep or eat meals at home long before such a device becomes small enough to allow full mobile use. Think external artificial kidneys as a precedent. Also, an initial mobile device could be externally worn.

Artificial pancreases seem like a stop-gap in any case. Fixing the immune system to allow real pancreatic cells to once again regulate insulin seems the better solution. I see the biggest future for artificial organs as a way to deal with trauma and other causes of sudden organ failure. Hook up artificial organs until replacement organs can be grown or existing natural organs can be repaired with stem cell and gene therapy.

I also wonder if there's a future for artificial organs as special high performance enhancement parts. For example, look at the potential for artificial eyes to increase the viewable light spectrum. See into the infrared at any time by thinking a thought at your artificial eyes.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 14 10:34 PM  Biotech Organ Artificial
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Gene Activation Removes Alzheimer's Protein In Mice

Turning on a blood-brain barrier protein known as P-glycoprotein lowers the level of beta amyloid of Alzheimer's mice to levels seen in normal mouse brains. Could avoidance of Alzheimer's be avoided just by turning on a gene to make a protein that transports beta amyloid protein out of the brain?

"What we've shown in our mouse models is that we can reduce the accumulation of beta-amyloid protein in the brain by targeting a certain receptor in the brain known as the pregnane X receptor, or PXR," said Miller.

The researchers from NIEHS and the University of Minnesota Duluth demonstrated that when 12-week-old genetically modified mice expressing human beta-amyloid protein are treated with a steroid-like chemical that activates PXR, the amount of beta-amyloid protein in the brain is reduced. The activation of the PXR was found to increase the expression of a blood-brain barrier protein known as P-glycoprotein. This protein transports beta-amyloid out of the brain.

"Our results show several new findings. We now know that P-glycoprotein plays a pivotal role in clearing beta-amyloid from the brain. Secondly, we know P-glycoprotein levels are reduced in the blood-brain barrier, and that the Alzheimer's mice treated with the chemical to activate PXR were able to reduce their beta-amyloid levels to that of mice without Alzheimer's," said Bjorn Bauer, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and senior author on the paper.

Alzheimer's disease sits at the top of my list of diseases I do not want to get. It amounts to slow motion brain death. All of your accumulated knowledge, wisdom, experience, learning, and relationships just gradually disappear. It amounts to the destruction of self.

Measurement of P-glycoprotein levels in the blood-brain barrier might provide a much earlier indicator that Alzheimer's is starting to develop. More time to launch a pharmacological counter-attack before you lose too many brain cells and memories.

Anika Hartz, Ph.D., lead author on the study, added that it is also likely that reduced P-glycoprotein expression at the blood-brain barrier may be an early indicator of Alzheimer's disease, even before the cognitive symptoms appear.

Aging is not dignified. Aging is not sacred or exalted. Aging is not pretty or nice. Aging is destruction. Aging of the brain is destruction of the brain.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 14 10:10 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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2010 April 13 Tuesday
Mass Market Survival Shelters

Too poor to afford to build a survival shelter for 2012's Mayan calendar ending? Worry that an asteroid will show up to blast everyone on the Earth's surface? Or maybe you just fear a total societal collapse due to the bursting of the latest financial bubble. Finally deep underground condo shelters are coming to market.

In what may strike some as an idea taken from Dr. Strangelove, Del Mar, California-based company Vivos (company’s motto: “You can’t predict, but you can prepare”) is providing you and about 4,000 other people the chance to survive the end of the world. The company plans to build a network of 20 shelters near most major cities of the United States. Each 20,000-square-foot shelter, which can hold up to 200 people, would be located about five stories underground with walls two to three feet thick. The shelters would be stocked with a year’s supply of “gourmet foods,” as well as medical and dental centers and flat-screen TVs.

Each shelter costs about $10 million to build, and Vivos is selling space in the price range of about $50,000 per person. So far, about 1,000 applications have been received for space in the shelters.

I wonder what they do about oxygen. A disaster scenario that would require living underground for a year might involve serious problems with air quality.

The biggest problem I can see with such a shelter is that its location will be very well known. How to keep out would-be squatters who want to shoot their way in and force you out or kill you?

Another problem with extreme disasters: You've got to be able to reach your shelter once the severity of a disaster becomes known. If you get a couple days notice of a big asteroid strike and the asteroid doesn't happen to be aimed at a target near your shelter you'll have the time. But not all disasters are known about in advance.

If one is going to spend as much as $50k per person I would supply a shelter with more than 1 year's worth of food. The yearly cost of food (at least if bought before, say, a VEI 9 volcano halts most photosynthesis) is much lower than shelter cost. So why not store 3 or 4 years worth of food?

Another approach for those with more money would be to build a smaller and more secret hide-away. Use a small number of construction workers and pay them to work longer so that few people need be involved. That way fewer will know about the existence of the shelter WTSHTF. Though word still might get around. The biggest problem with a survival shelter is keeping it for your own once people are desperate to survive.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 13 10:35 PM  Disaster Survival
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2010 April 12 Monday
Foods For Lower Alzheimer's Disease Risk

The list is pretty predictable: Mediterranean diet foods good, red meats and dairy bad.

Individuals whose diet includes more salad dressing, nuts, fish, poultry and certain fruits and vegetables and fewer high-fat dairy products, red meats, organ meats and butter appear less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, according to a report posted online today that will appear in the June print issue of Archives of Neurology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Don't want to lose your brain in your final years of life? Eat the good stuff, avoid the bad stuff.

"Epidemiological evidence linking diet, one of the most important modifiable environmental factors, and risk of Alzheimer's disease is rapidly increasing," the authors write as background information in the article. "However, current literature regarding the impact of individual nutrients or food items on Alzheimer's disease risk is inconsistent, partly because humans eat meals with complex combinations of nutrients or food items that are likely to be synergistic."

Yian Gu, Ph.D., of Columbia University Medical Center, New York, and colleagues studied 2,148 older adults (age 65 and older) without dementia living in New York. Participants provided information about their diets and were assessed for the development of dementia every 1.5 years for an average of four years. Several dietary patterns were identified with varying levels of seven nutrients previously shown to be associated with Alzheimer's disease risk: saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, vitamin E, vitamin B12 and folate.

The way I'd really like to avoid Alzheimer's and other diseases of old age: Get in a time machine and pop out 50 years from now when rejuvenation therapies will be able to turn back the clock and make us young again.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 12 10:56 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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Genetic Engineering Could End Racial Fears

Of course my more astute readers already knew the subject title to be true. Turns out children with the mutation that causes Williams Syndrome do not fear people based on their race. The conclusion is obvious: idealistic social engineers should become idealistic genetic engineers. Why use exhortation and teaching when gene therapy done on embryos can accomplish so much more?

Children with the genetic condition known as Williams syndrome have unusually friendly natures because they lack the sense of fear that the rest of us feel in many social situations. Now, a study reported in the April 13th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, suggests that children with Williams Syndrome are missing something else the rest of us have from a very tender age: the proclivity to stereotype others based on their race.

The findings support the notion that social fear is at the root of racial stereotypes. The researchers say the results might also aid in the development of interventions designed to reduce discriminatory attitudes and behavior towards vulnerable or marginalized groups of society.

"This is the first study to report the absence of racial stereotypes in any human population," said Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim/University of Heidelberg, who coauthored the paper with Andreia Santos and Christine Deruelle of the Mediterranean Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in Marseille.

Take away the ability to feel fear and you won't feel fear? Who needs it? It is a pretty negative emotion. Isn't negativity destructive? (can some literalists please get indignant in the comments?)

Everyone can be friends.

"The unique hypersociable profile of individuals with Williams syndrome often leads them to consider that everybody in the world is their friend," Meyer-Lindenberg said. "In previous work, we have shown that processing of social threat is deficient in people with the syndrome. Based on this, we suspected that they would not show a particular preference for own-race versus other-race characters. The finding that racial stereotypes in children with Williams syndrome were completely absent was nevertheless surprising in its degree."

Of course we'll have to genetically re-engineer everyone so that everyone wants to be friends. Thrilled at the prospect of gaining so many friends I can't imagine many opposing the gene therapy treatment that'll erase their fears.

In all seriousness, I expect future political conflicts will be fought over what types of personalities and other cognitive qualities should be genetically engineered into offspring. As soon as it becomes possible to alter offspring cognitive tendencies and abilities at the embryonic stage a battle (quite possibly violent) will rage over what should be put in or taken out of future human brain designs.

We'll face the same problem with artificial intelligences. The stakes will be even higher for AI.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 12 10:48 PM  Brain Society
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The Roots of Energy Efficiency: SUVs and Refrigerators

David Goldstein of the National Resources Defense Council, gave a good talk at the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center in April 2009 as part of a presentation The Roots of Energy Efficiency: SUVs and Refrigerators. Takes 55 minutes. He argues convincingly that energy efficiency has fast paybacks and large strides are possible to make in improving energy efficiency of appliances and homes.

Goldstein explains how California state policy created market incentives for manufacturers to gradually improve efficiency. The gradual aspect is important. Continuous improvement (as the Japanese have demonstrated) can achieve much bigger advances than attempts at occasional leaps. The tortoise beats the hare.

Check out his historical graphs of appliance energy efficiency improvements. These graphs demonstrate what is possible. My sense of it is that appliance efficiency has improved more than

He also says there's evidence that energy efficient homes default less as do location efficient homes. Though I would expect location efficient home prices will rise to the poitn where they will have equal default rates over the long run. Though rising energy prices will delay the reaching that equilibrium.

The talk is followed by a talk by David Greene of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory about SUV and car efficiency. Greene thinks fuel economy efficiency could increase by 100% by 2030 if manufacturers were required to improve. My take: Peak Oil will force much larger improvements including a very big shift to electric cars.

In the Q&A Goldstein makes the point that the limits of efficiency improvement are in part dependent on how you define the goal. For example, much greater improvements are possible if you define a goal of how to keep your food fresh rather than how do you keep your food cold. Similarly, greater lighting efficiency improvements are possible if you define the goal as providing enough light to perform tasks rather than a goal of providing some number of lumens in a room.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 12 06:42 PM  Energy Conservation
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2010 April 11 Sunday
New US Record For Wind Power Growth

Another stellar year. Victory is inevitable.

The U.S. wind energy industry installed over 10,000 MW of new wind power generating capacity in 2009, the largest year in U.S. history, and enough to power the equivalent of 2.4 million homes or generate as much electricity as three large nuclear power plants.

At this rate it would take wind about 33 years to equal nuclear power in the total amount of electric power generated. This assumes nuclear power stands still in the mean time.

That 10 GW added capacity is on top of an existing 25 GW of existing wind capacity. So about 40% growth. But since wind grew by 8366 MW in 2008 but 10010 MW in 2009 wind's installation rate grew only 20% from 2008 to 2009. That's partly a reflection of the effects of the financial crisis. In order to become a much bigger player wind needs to grow at a much faster rate.

America’s wind power fleet of 35,000 MW will avoid an estimated 62 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to taking 10.5 million cars off the road.

Wind provided 39% of new generating capacity installed in the United States in 2009 (see page 5). But it is not clear to me whether the comparison was made using nameplate capacity or capacity weighted for average output. Typically wind farms operate an average of 20-35% of nameplate capacity. Also, on page 6 you can see that wind provides 1.8% of total US electric power.

You might think that surely by now given all the press attention for solar power and the number of publically traded solar power companies that solar too has started to show up as a significant electric power source. But no. In 2009 in the United States wind provided 70,761 thousand megawatt hours of electric power versus solar with 808. So wind is about 87 times bigger a power source than solar. One caveat: those figures are for utility-installed wind and solar. A larger portion of solar gets installed on houses and other buildings, bypassing utilities (except when sold to utilities). Some of the solar power does not show up in that table. Anyone have a good source for what percentage of solar panel sales is retail versus utility?

Wind grew by 15,398 thousand megawatt-hours of actual output in 2009 or 28% (as distinct from the capacity numbers that the AWEA reports above). So nameplate capacity grew by more than actual output. You might think that the lower growth in absolute output as compared to potential output was due to installations happening late in the year. But here's what's odd: The absolute amount of electric power generated from wind in December 2009 (6,270 thousand megawatt-hours) is less than the amount for December 2008 (6,616). Was December 2009 a weak month for wind? How can output go down 5% while nameplate capacity goes up 40%? Wind has reliability problems.

So how does that absolute increase in output compare to other power sources? Natural gas electric power output grew from 882,981 thousand megawatt-hours in 2008 to 920,378 thousand megawatt-hours in 2009 for a difference of 37397. So natural gas electric power output grew in absolute terms by almost double wind's absolute power output growth. Hydro grew by 17300 in 2009 and again beat wind's growth. Maybe rains were favorable to higher hydro output? Coal, nuclear, and petroleum all registered declines in production. Cheap natural gas outcompeted coal for electric power generation on the margin. In a weak economy total electric power output declined in the United States in 2009.

We should expect wind's costs to rise as more wind power gets installed at less ideal wind farm sites. But with many states enacting renewable energy mandates where a percentage of all electric power must come from renewable sources wind looks set for continued growth. Solar costs too much and geothermal isn't taking off at the rate that wind is growing.

What I want to know about wind power:

  • How much potential does offshore wind have for cost declines?
  • As wind gets further built out and lower quality sites get used how fast will costs rise?
  • At what rate will innovations in propeller design, turbine design, and other engineering improvements lower the cost of wind power installations?
  • Have propellers maxed out on size for land-based installations? Is there a solution for the problem of how to deliver much larger propellers to land-based wind farms?
  • Does improved reliability have the potential to substantially lower the cost of wind farms?
By Randall Parker 2010 April 11 03:40 PM  Energy Wind
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2010 April 08 Thursday
Magnets Guide Stem Cells To Damaged Heart

Scientists put particles of iron in stem cells and then used magnets to increase the concentration of stem cells where they were most needed.

LOS ANGELES –Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute have found in animals that infusing cardiac-derived stem cells with micro-size particles of iron and then using a magnet to guide those stem cells to the area of the heart damaged in a heart attack boosts the heart's retention of those cells and could increase the therapeutic benefit of stem cell therapy for heart disease.

The study is published today online by Circulation Research, a scientific journal of the American Heart Association. The study also will appear in the journal's May 28th printed edition.

"Stem cell therapies show great promise as a treatment for heart injuries, but 24 hours after infusion, we found that less than 10 percent of the stem cells remain in the injured area," said Eduardo Marbán, M.D., director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. "Once injected into a patient's artery, many stem cells are lost due to the combination of tissue blood flow, which can wash out stem cells, and cardiac contraction, which can squeeze out stem cells. We needed to find a way to guide more of the cells directly to the area of the heart that we want to heal."

It isn't enough to be able to grow up the desired type of stem cells in sufficient quantity. The stem cells still need to go to wherever they are most needed. Once the cells are where tissue needs replacement the stem cells still must integrate themselves into existing tissue properly in 3 dimensions and then divide to produce the needed local cell types. Not an easy proposition.

One can imagine other strategies for guiding stem cells to desired destinations. For example, for areas without the heavy blood flow of the heart just injection of the cells into the desired area might be enough in some cases. Or possibly implant something that secretes a hormone or other compound that guides stem cells to that locatio.

The rate of progress in stem cell research objectively matters more to most of us in the long run than debates about health insurance coverage. We are all going to get some disease that would be fatal if it befalls us now. But each of those disease will become curable at some point in the future. If we are lucky we will not get each of these diseases until after they become curable. Many of those diseases will become curable with stem cells.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 08 11:40 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2010 April 07 Wednesday
Carbon Dioxide Causes Near Death Experiences?

If CO2 opens the gates to the afterlife then will rising atmospheric CO2 cause some people pass over to the other side? I'm just asking.

Near death experiences (NDEs), reported to include sensations such as life flashing before the eyes, feelings of peace and joy, and apparent encounters with mystical entities, may be caused by raised levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Researchers writing in BioMed Central's open access journal Critical Care investigated the unexplained events in 52 cardiac arrest patients.

Zalika Klemenc-Ketis worked with a team of researchers from the University of Maribor, Slovenia, to examine patients who reported NDEs. She said, "Several theories explaining the mechanisms of NDEs exist. We found that in those patients who experienced the phenomenon, blood carbon dioxide levels were significantly higher than in those who did not".

Of the 52 patients, 11 reported NDEs. Their occurrence did not correlate with patients' sex, age, level of education, religious belief, fear of death, time to recovery or drugs given during resuscitation. They were more common in people who had previously experienced NDEs. According to Klemenc-Ketis, "Our study adds new and important information to the field of NDE phenomena. The association with carbon dioxide has never been reported before, and deserves further study".

Now, I just know some of you reductionist scientific rationalists are going to say that CO2 causes hallucinations. But what's the fun in that? If CO2 causes the mind to merge with the spirit realm then burning coal could be the path to spiritual enlightenment. Think about it.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 07 11:07 PM  Brain Spirituality
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Dutasteride Cuts Prostate Cancer Risk?

Do drugs that block the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone reduce the risk of prostate cancer?

Results from a large, randomized clinical trial indicate that men at an increased risk for prostate cancer reduced their risk with regular use of the drug dutasteride (Avodart). The results came from the REDUCE trial, which is the second largest clinical trial to demonstrate a decreased risk of prostate cancer in men taking an agent from the class of drugs known as 5-α reductase inhibitors (5-αRIs). Previously, the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial (PCPT) showed that the drug finasteride had a risk reduction similar to what has now been seen in REDUCE.

These drugs also slow or stop male pattern baldness as well as controlling benign prostate hyperplasia. So one could take them for one of the certain benefits with the hopes of getting an additional anti-cancer benefit.

The study included 4 years of follow-up. So it doesn't tell a guy who is, say, 40 whether it is worth taking dutasteride for decades in order to cut long term risk. Does dutasteride reduce the conversion of prostate cancer cells into cancerous cells? Or does it just slow the growth rate of cells that are already abnormal and cancerous?

The international trial involved more than 6,700 men between ages 50 and 75 who, at enrollment, had a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test score between 2.5 and 10 and a negative biopsy in the prior 6 months. Participants, the large majority of who were white, also received biopsies 2 and 4 years after enrollment. After 4 years of follow up, there was a nearly 23 percent reduction in the relative risk of prostate cancer in men who took dutasteride compared with those who took a placebo (659 cancers versus 858 cancers).

I'm mildly tempted to start taking dutasteride or finasteride and keep taking it for decades. Maybe it'll cut the risk of prostate cancer. But read the debate on finasteride and dutasteride versus prostate cancer if you are thinking about taking one of them.

I really wish there were more drugs worth taking for long term risk reduction. For example, daily statin drug usage might also deliver a long term benefit even for some with low cholesterol. Again, I read such reports but am reluctant to take drugs and so I hold back. As the link about statins shows, they have their own risks including elevated risk of type II insulin-resistant diabetes. Here is a a New York Times article on statin risks for healthy people.

I wish genetic tests for drug side effect prediction were already mature and widely available. I'd like to know my own specific risks for muscle or memory side effects from statins or other side effects from dutasteride. The trade-offs from long term drug use for risk reduction will become clearer for individuals once genetic markers for drug side effects become known for the major drugs.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 07 10:18 PM  Aging Drugs
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Small Cancer Protection From Fruits And Vegetables?

People who hate vegetables will be happy about this report.

An analysis of dietary data from more than 400,000 men and women found only a weak association between high fruit and vegetable intake and reduced overall cancer risk, according to a study published online April 6, 2010 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

It is widely believed that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cancer. In 1990, the World Health Association recommended eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day to prevent cancer and other diseases. But many studies since then have not been able to confirm a definitive association between fruit and vegetable intake and cancer risk.

To address the issue, Paolo Boffetta, M.D., M.P.H., of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and colleagues analyzed data from the EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition), which included 142,605 men and 335,873 women recruited for the study between 1992 and 2000. The participants were from 23 centers in ten Western European countries--Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Detailed information on their dietary habit and lifestyle variables was obtained. After a median follow-up of 8.7 years, over 30,000 participants were diagnosed with cancer.

The authors found a small inverse association between high intake of fruits and vegetables and reduced overall cancer risk. Vegetable consumption also afforded a modest benefit but was restricted to women. Heavy drinkers who ate many fruits and vegetables had a somewhat reduced risk, but only for cancers caused by smoking and alcohol.

Other studies have found the same results. But you can still eat fruits and vegetables for your heart and arteries.

In an accompanying editorial, Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., of the Harvard School of Public Health, notes that "this study strongly confirms" the findings of other prospective studies that high intake of fruits and vegetables has little or no effect in reducing the incidence of cancer, although it has been shown to affect the risk of cardiovascular disease. He suggests that future research investigate the potential cancer-reducing benefits of specific fruits and vegetables and also study the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption at earlier periods of life.

It is a lot easier you reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease than to reduce your risk of cancer. We need effective cancer cures with very low side effects.

Coincidentally, another recent report finds Vitamin K as K1 found in green leafy vegetables does not cut cancer risk but Vitamin K as K2 found in cheese does cut cancer risk.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 07 12:43 AM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Our Universe In A Wormhole Of A Bigger Universe?

Do you feel like you might be in a wormhole inside a black hole?

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Could our universe be located within the interior of a wormhole which itself is part of a black hole that lies within a much larger universe?

If this is true then we are isolated from a much larger universe. Do you feel the estrangement from the larger universe? Or the sense of abandonment? Maybe we were tossed into the black hole by some group in the larger universe just throwing out the trash.

On the bright side. we might all be standing on an Einstein-Rosen Bridge.

Such a scenario in which the universe is born from inside a wormhole (also called an Einstein-Rosen Bridge) is suggested in a paper from Indiana University theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski in Physics Letters B. The final version of the paper was available online March 29 and will be published in the journal edition April 12.

If we could figure out how to get off the bleeding bridge we could step up into a far larger universe. Got that to look forward to.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 07 12:04 AM  Reality Universe
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2010 April 06 Tuesday
Connecticut Peak Electric Power Pricing

Pricing electric power dynamically in respond to demand would incentivize users to shift their demand toward off hours. This would reduce the amount of less efficient peaking electric generation plants used and should overall lower the cost of electricity. But at least in Connecticut the highest price for electric power would be quite steep.

The proposal, based on their Plan-it Wise Energy pilot program, calls for a 10 to one ratio in off-peak to critical peak pricing. In the pilot, participants were paying up to $1.60 per kilowatt hour (kwh) during critical peak time, which totaled 40 hours over 10 different days.

40 hours over 10 days is 40 out of 240 hours or about one sixth of the time. Anyone would could avoid much electric power usage during peak times would save a lot of money on their electric bill.

Customers would be able to opt in to either peak-time pricing or four-hour time of use rates. Rebates will be provided for low-income customers who reduce their energy during peak hours.

Pricing electricity based on demand makes economic sense. But $1.60 per kilowatt hour is a shockingly high price. By contrast the US retail residential average cost for 2009 is 11.55 cents per kilowatt-hour . Though Connecticut also already has some of the most expensive electricity in the United States (why?) at about 19-20 cents per kwh.

Many of us are going to face dynamic electric power pricing in coming years. If you are looking at a big remodeling or new home construction think about how to store heat or cold in sold masses in your house so that you can avoid running the air conditioner or electrically driven heater during peak demand afternoons. Also, appliances that can take instructions from a home network to power up and down at different times of the day could save a lot of money once dynamic pricing is implemented. Becoming a night owl and working when rates are low will also save money on electric bills.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 06 12:26 AM  Energy Electric Users
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2010 April 05 Monday
Shy And Introverted Process The World Differently

Maybe shyness and neuroticism are the result of a cognitive difference in how people process stimuli.

People who are shy or introverted may actually process their world differently than others, leading to differences in how they respond to stimuli, according to Stony Brook researchers and collaborators in China.

About twenty percent of people are born with this “highly sensitive” trait, which may also manifest itself as inhibitedness, or even neuroticism. The trait can be seen in some children who are “slow to warm up” in a situation but eventually join in, need little punishment, cry easily, ask unusual questions or have especially deep thoughts.

Are you more bothered by noise and crowds? Do you warm up to situations slowly?

Stony Brook researchers Elaine and Arthur Aron had already found that those with a highly sensitive temperament are, compared to others, more bothered by noise and crowds, more affected by caffeine, and more easily startled. That is, the trait is about sensitivity. Further, they proposed that this is all part of a “sensory processing sensitivity.” In other words, the simple sensory sensitivity to noise, pain, or caffeine is a side effect of an inborn preference to pay more attention to experiences.

So it isn't simply higher sensitivity to stimuli. It is the tendency to pay more attention to stimuli and to spend more time thinking about stimuli that makes people more likely ot by shy or neurotic?

Do you take longer to make decisions? Are you more conscientious? Do you need more time alone to think about things?

Hints of this processing sensitivity were found in the observation that, compared to the majority of people, the sensitive ones among us tend to prefer to take longer to make decisions, are more conscientious, need more time to themselves in order to reflect, and are more easily bored with small talk. However, the theory that what created the difference was processing rather than mere sensitivity needed to be validated.

Brain scans showed more activity in areas for processing visual input in people who were tested as more sensitive.

The investigators had 16 participants compare a photograph of a visual scene with a preceding scene, and asked them to indicate with a button press whether or not the scene had changed. Scenes differed in whether the changes were obvious or subtle, and in how quickly they were presented. Sensitive persons looked at the scenes that had the subtle differences for a longer time than did non-sensitive persons, and showed significantly greater activation in brain areas involved in associating visual input with other input to the brain and with visual attention (i.e., right claustrum; left occipito-temporal; bilateral temporal, medial, and posterior parietal regions). These areas are not simply used for vision itself, but for a deeper processing of input.

I would like to know whether, adjusted for IQ, whether the sensitives are more productive as scientists, engineers, or other types of knowledge workers. Are there types of jobs they are well suited for given their cognitive tendencies?

By Randall Parker 2010 April 05 12:16 AM  Brain Creativity
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2010 April 04 Sunday
Mental Ilness In Offspring Of Mentally Ill

Choose your parents carefully. High rates of schizophrenia and bipolar among the offspring in Denmark.

Rates of schizophrenia were highest among offspring of two parents with schizophrenia. Of the 196 couples who both had schizophrenia, 27.3 percent of their 270 children were admitted to a psychiatric facility, increasing to 39.2 percent when schizophrenia-related disorders were included. This compared with a rate of 7 percent among 13,878 offspring of 8,006 couples in which one parent had schizophrenia and 0.86 percent in 2.2 million offspring of 1 million couples in which neither parent was admitted for schizophrenia.

Similarly, the risk of bipolar disorder was 24.9 percent in 146 offspring of 83 parent couples who were both admitted for bipolar disorder (increasing to 36 percent when unipolar depressive disorder was also included). This compared to a risk of 4.4 percent among 23,152 offspring of 11,995 couples with only one parent ever admitted for bipolar disorder and 0.48 percent in 2.2 million children of 1 million couples with neither parent ever admitted.

When one parent had bipolar disorder and the other had schizophrenia, offspring had a 15.6 percent risk of schizophrenia and an 11.7 percent risk of bipolar disorder.

Identification of all the genetic variants that cause schizophrenia and bipolar will open up the possibility of the mentally ill using in vitro fertilization, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and embryo selection to avoid passing along some of their genetic variants that cause mental illness. However, since some of those genetic variants might boost some forms of mental creativity we might collectively lose something. Perhaps genes that boost creativity without boosting mental illness will be found. Or perhaps some genetic variants stabilize personality in the presence of other genes that boost mental illness risks and creativity.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 04 06:21 PM  Brain Disorders
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Electric Power Costs For Electric Cars

An article on the Technology News World site puts expected electric power demand of electric cars in perspective.

Owners are likely to pay a premium to purchase electric cars, and they will immediately become one of the top electricity consumers in their homes -- in some cases, more than the summertime power draw of the air conditioner and water heater combined, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-funded organization.

The upcoming Chevy Volt, for instance, is expected to increase the energy draw of the average U.S. home by 13 percent. The Nissan Leaf comes in at 19 percent, according to EPRI, which didn't provide figures for the Focus.

That would come to an annual cost of between US$190 and $278 to consumers. That compares to $151 to run a refrigerator for the year or $228 to run the air conditioner, according to EPRI figures.

Owners are likely to pay a premium to purchase electric cars, and they will immediately become one of the top electricity consumers in their homes -- in some cases, more than the summertime power draw of the air conditioner and water heater combined, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-funded organization.

The upcoming Chevy Volt, for instance, is expected to increase the energy draw of the average U.S. home by 13 percent. The Nissan Leaf comes in at 19 percent, according to EPRI, which didn't provide figures for the Focus.

That would come to an annual cost of between US$190 and $278 to consumers. That compares to $151 to run a refrigerator for the year or $228 to run the air conditioner, according to EPRI figures.

An electric cars is comparable to an air conditioner for annual costs? I wouldn't have expected that. A boost in home electric power demand by 13% to 19% seems manageable.

Are the numbers above realistic? Lets check. Suppose an EV uses 250 watt-hours per mile (equivalent to 25 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles for the Chevy Volt). Also suppose the electricity costs 11.55 cents per kilowatt-hour (US retail residential average cost for 2009). That's a cost of about $28.88 per 1000 miles. If you drive 12,000 miles per year on electric power then your yearly cost would be $346.50. That's certainly in the ballpark. Affordable too. All we need are cheaper batteries and the suburban lifestyle can survive Peak Oil (much to the chagrin of those who hate suburbs and want us all to crowd into city apartment high rises - ugh).

I see EVs as especially practical for couples who have 2 or 3 cars. One of them can use an EV for commuting and still have a longer range, larger, and more flexible gasoline-powered pick-up or SUV for longer trips or when hauling stuff from a hardware store. Or one can get a pluggable hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) like the Chevy Volt. Then shorter distance trips will use electric power and longer distance trips will use gasoline.

If you happen to live in a high electric price area like Connecticut (20.36 cents per kwh) then your costs will be over $600 per year to power your electric car. Not such a good deal.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 04 02:13 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2010 April 02 Friday
Brain Damage Prevents Moral Judgment Of Intent

As recently discussed here, transcranial Magnetic Stimulation of a spot behind the right ear hinders moral reasoning. Another report finds that a very specific form of brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) prevents people from morally condemning attempts at murder.

A new study from MIT neuroscientists suggests that our ability to respond appropriately to intended harms — that is, with outrage toward the perpetrator — is seated in a brain region associated with regulating emotions.

Patients with damage to this brain area, known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), are unable to conjure a normal emotional response to hypothetical situations in which a person tries, but fails, to kill another person. Therefore, they judge the situation based only on the outcome, and do not hold the attempted murderer morally responsible.

The finding offers a new piece to the puzzle of how the human brain constructs morality, says Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and lead author of a paper describing the findings in the March 25 issue of the journal Neuron.

Researchers in cognitive sciences do not approach the brain as a vessel connected to a loftier spiritual realm. They approach it as a very complicated machine and try to reverse engineer it.

The structure of human reality is being broken down into its pieces by reductionist brain scientists.

"We're slowly chipping away at the structure of morality," says Young. "We're not the first to show that emotions matter for morality, but this is a more precise look at how emotions matter."

Subjects who had a damaged VMPC did not consider intent when formulating moral judgments. Only outcomes mattered. The obvious problem with this approach is that those with malicious intent will try again (of course, so will socialists who think their policies are beneficial - so intent isn't the only thing that matters).

The researchers gave the subjects a series of 24 hypothetical scenarios and asked for their reactions. The scenarios of most interest to the researchers were ones featuring a mismatch between the person's intention and the outcome — either failed attempts to harm or accidental harms.

When confronted with failed attempts to harm, the patients had no problems understanding the perpetrator's intentions, but they failed to hold them morally responsible. The patients even judged attempted harms as more permissible than accidental harms (such as accidentally poisoning someone) — a reversal of the pattern seen in normal adults.

"They can process what people are thinking and their intentions, but they just don't respond emotionally to that information," says Young. "They can read about a murder attempt and judge it as morally permissible because no harm was done."

Parenthetically, this result illustrates why I react with thoughts like "you naive fool" when I read someone assert that sentient robots will respect human rights and be be morally compatible with human society. Our morality is not simply a product of reason. Our morality is not the result of a series of logical deductions any sentient being will agree to. Oh no. People who think their morality is the result of rational deliberation are deluding themselves and flattering themselves as well.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 02 07:42 PM  Brain Ethics Law
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2010 April 01 Thursday
Self Esteem Peaks At Age 60

Self esteem rises for years until peaking around age 60. Our bodies start decaying before our self esteem does. But eventually aging makes loss of self esteem hard to avoid.

WASHINGTON – Self-esteem rises steadily as people age but starts declining around the time of retirement, according to a longitudinal study of men and women ranging in age from 25 to 104.

"Self-esteem is related to better health, less criminal behavior, lower levels of depression and, overall, greater success in life," said the study's lead author, Ulrich Orth, PhD. "Therefore, it's important to learn more about how the average person's self-esteem changes over time."

Self-esteem was lowest among young adults but increased throughout adulthood, peaking at age 60, before it started to decline. These results are reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.

You ascend in life until you start descending.

There are numerous theories as to why self-esteem peaks in middle age and then drops after retirement, said the researchers. "Midlife is a time of highly stable work, family and romantic relationships. People increasingly occupy positions of power and status, which might promote feelings of self-esteem," said co-author Richard Robins, PhD, of the University of California, Davis. "In contrast, older adults may be experiencing a change in roles such as an empty nest, retirement and obsolete work skills in addition to declining health."

What's the solution to this problem of declining self esteem? Cure aging. If we didn't grow old we wouldn't experience declining self esteem, declining health, declining intellectual abilities, and declining physical abilities. Full body rejuvenation is the solution. No need to retire. No chronic pain from arthritis, cartilage decay, and inflamed tissues. No disabilities, no difficulty seeing. No spontaneous fractures.

We should seek to avoid our fate as decaying, unhealthy elderly.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 01 11:15 PM  Aging Studies
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Cost Of Nissan Leaf Battery

Michael Kanellos of GreenTechMedia.com reports on the price of batteries in the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

Right now, lithium ion batteries for cars cost around $900 per kilowatt hour. The Leaf has a 24 kilowatt hour battery. Under that math, a Leaf battery--if it were more like a regular electric car battery--should cost around $21,000. A battery is a third of the price of an electric car. Thus, the Leaf, if it had an ordinary battery, should cost closer to $60,000.

However, if Nissan has dropped the price to $500 a kilowatt hour, and rumors say the company is already close to that, the battery pack only costs about $12,000.

Regular readers will recall that in January Boston Consulting Group estimated current battery costs at $1100 to $1200 per kwh. BCG didn't sound optimistic about getting the costs down to $250 per kwh by 2020. But Nissan and NEC, with a lithium manganese chemistry, might be making fastes progress in cutting costs.

The Nissan Leaf has a US price before tax credits of $32,780. Will Nissan initially take a loss on the Leaf? Do Nissan and NEC have a battery cost advantage over GM, Ford, and other car makers who are bringing out PHEV and EV cars in 2010, 2011, and 2012?

Our ability to cut our reliance on oil depends very heavily on the development of technologies for powering cars that do not rely on oil. So far biomass energy approaches aren't viable substitutes. Corn ethanol has too low an Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI), it doesn't scale due to lack of farm land, and serves mainly to enrich corn farmers. Hydrogen has far too many serious problems. Advances in battery technology look to have the best prospects for cutting dependence on oil.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 01 10:15 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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With More Information People Make Worse Choices?

The better the trade-offs of smaller short term versus bigger long term gain were explained the more the experimental subjects preferred the short term immediate but smaller rewards.

When faced with a choice that could yield either short-term satisfaction or longer-term benefits, people with complete information about the options generally go for the quick reward, according to new research from University of Texas at Austin psychologists.

The findings, available online in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, could help better explain the decisions people make on everything from eating right and exercising to spending more on environmentally friendly products.

"You'd think that with more information about your options, a person would make a better decision. Our study suggests the opposite," says Associate Professor Bradley Love, who conducted the research with graduate student Ross Otto. "To fully appreciate a long-term option, you have to choose it repeatedly and begin to feel the benefits."

Humans apply too large a discount rate to the future. We are in an environment where a smaller discount rate would work better for us. But we evolved in environments where higher discount rates were adaptive. What I'd like to know: which genetic variants influence discount rates humans use when making various types of decisions. When offspring genetic engineering becomes possible will people decide to give their children stronger preferences for deferred consumption?

With better understanding of the choices the experimental subjects went for the immediate reward.

As part of the study, 78 subjects were repeatedly given two options through a computer program that allowed them to accumulate points. For each choice, one option offered the subject more points. But choosing the other option could lead to more points further along in the experiment.

A small cash bonus was tied to the subjects' performance, providing an incentive to rack up more points during the 250 trial questions.

However, subjects who were given full and accurate information about what they would have to give up in the short term to rack up points in the long term, chose the quick payoff more than twice as often as those who were given false information or no information about the rewards they would be giving up.

By Randall Parker 2010 April 01 12:10 AM  Brain Economics
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