2010 May 31 Monday
Electric Energy Conservation Cost Effective

It is cheaper to cut demand for electric power than to generate more electric power.

PORTLAND, Ore., May 4 /PRNewswire/ -- Today the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) announced that 13 regional energy organizations have pledged to renew their investment in NEEA with $192 million for the 2010-2014 period. NEEA's funding backs an aggressive plan to save the region 200 average megawatts (aMW) of power by 2014 at a projected cost of under 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour, enough energy to power 138,000 homes for a year, and at a cost less than any other type of generation source. NEEA's funding organizations are based in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington and represent about 130 regional public utilities on behalf of Northwest energy consumers.

"Investments in energy efficiency are helping to lay the groundwork for a new energy future for America," said U.S. Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Cathy Zoi. "By continuing to promote energy-efficient technologies, the Northwest is helping to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, while creating green jobs and driving our economy forward."

Working through NEEA, the region has already saved a substantial amount of energy. From 1997 through 2008, the Northwest achieved 264 aMW of energy savings through its regional efforts, which is enough energy to power the cities of Spokane and Tacoma, Washington or 182,000 homes each year. These energy savings were achieved at a cost of about two cents per kilowatt-hour. Including the investment in NEEA, the region as a whole is expected to spend roughly $2 billion on new energy efficiency programs by 2014.

One wonders just how much electric power can be saved before the cost of additional demand reduction equals the marginal cost of more electric power generation. Demand reduction at lower cost effectively raises living standards.

That electric power saved at a cost of 3.5 cents per kwh compares with a US average national residental electric power cost of about 11 cents per kwh. Cutting electric power usage costs much less than generating more electric power.

You too can cost effectively lower your electric power demand. For example, choose from a list of the most efficient US EPA Energy Star rated refrigerators or other types of highly efficient appliances.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 31 11:56 PM  Energy Appliances
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2010 May 30 Sunday
Human Brains Not Wired For Consumer Credit

An article in the The Star of Toronto about Canadian debt quotes CalTech behavioral economics researcher Colin Camerer on how we just aren't adapted to modern consumer credit and humans clearly can't handle it. Governments, also made up of humans, similarly can't handle debt rationally either.

How were consumers expected to fare in, if not a free-money environment, certainly an easy-money environment here at home? “The idea that you can walk into a store with a piece of plastic — you may even be a college student with no income — and buy $5,000 worth of stuff is unbelievable,” Camerer continues. “Thinking like a neuroscientist, nothing in our brain evolution has equipped us to make the right decision in that case.”

When we buy on credit the part of our brain that registers that we are acquiring some good experiences a stronger stimulus than the part of our brain that registers that we are taking on a debt or future obligation.

The brain, in other words, isn’t really up to the task. “We’re not well equipped to say if I give this piece of plastic to this person and scribble my name, 10 years from now I might owe $67,000. It’s sort of a battle between this highly evolved acquisitive nature and the ability to imagine owing a lot of money years from now. The acquisitive nature part of the brain wins.”

When he says “imagine owing,” Camerer is referring to the magic of compound interest. “We’re pretty good intuitively at linear extrapolation,” he says — if you pay $100 each year for 10 years how much will you have paid at the end of that period? “But we’re not very good at the numeracy of compound interest.”

From an evolutionary perspective this is not surprising. For only a very very small portion of our evolutionary history did most goods and services come to us as a result of market transactions. Middle Ages subsistence farmers did not have bank accounts or credit cards.

The article quotes another researcher who argues that humans tend to overestimate good things happening to them and underestimate bad things happening to them. That sounds about right. For that reason humans have failed to prepare one of the worst coming developments of the next 20 years. How can things possibly go that bad? There's the expectation of continuity in a good way.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 30 06:15 PM  Brain Economics
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2010 May 29 Saturday
Latest College Students Have Less Empathy

In the last 10 years the kids have shown a declining ability to understand the emotional state and viewpoint of others. The researchers for this study want to run down the causes of this trend in personality development.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Today's college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and '90s, a University of Michigan study shows.

The study, presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, analyzes data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years.

"We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000," said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."

Video games might be the cause.

"The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor," Konrath said. "Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others."

Social media Facebook and online discussion forums also might be a contributing factor.

The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O'Brien.

"The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems, a behavior that could carry over offline," he said.

Why hang out with people in real life who are less like you when you can hang out only with online people where you can be much more selective about what aspects of their lives you have to contend with?

Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity "reality shows," and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he says.

A large fraction of all video game playing doesn't even involve another human. The video game playing that does involve humans does so only in very abstracted fantasy contexts. Does online life allow us to escape from the suffering of others?

Will the kids with lower empathy eventually develop more empathy when they get out into the working world and are forced to spend less time playing video games and posting on Facebook?

This reminds me: Sometimes when I write posts about things going wrong with the world (e.g. habitat destruction, more species becoming endangered, pollution from developing countries) I've gotten complaints from a few commenters about how they didn't come to this site to read such news. They want and expect happy news about technological advance and a utopian future. Their ability to construct their own private internet channel of sites that fulfill their desires about the present and future seems like another aspect of how computer and communications technologies are allowing people to create personal micro-environments that isolate them.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 29 05:00 PM  Comm Tech Society
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2010 May 27 Thursday
Low Muscle Mass Linked To Type 2 Diabetes

Even skinnier old people with low muscle mass are at greater risk of type 2 (insulin resistant) diabetes. The risks do not just come from fat.

Sarcopenia — low skeletal muscle mass and strength — is often found in obese people and older adults; it has been hypothesized that sarcopenia puts individuals at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

To gauge the effect of sarcopenia on insulin resistance (the root cause of Type 2 diabetes) and blood glucose levels in both obese and non-obese people, UCLA researchers performed a cross-sectional analysis of data on 14,528 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III.

They found that sarcopenia was associated with insulin resistance in both obese and non-obese individuals. It was also associated with high blood-sugar levels in obese people but not in thin people. These associations were stronger in people under age 60, in whom sarcopenia was associated with high levels of blood sugar in both obese and thin people, and with diabetes in obese individuals.

Dieting to be thin is on its own not enough to stave off diabetes. It is also important to be fit and, in particular, to have good muscle mass and strength.

I think arrows of causation on this one might be complex. Does the muscle loss directly contribute to the type II diabetes? Or do problems with the vascular system cause the muscle loss and the diabetes as well? Or does the vascular system first become unresponsive to insulin and does this then reduce food supplies to muscles, leading to sarcopenia? See my recent posts Aging Blood Vessels Cause Muscle Loss and Insulin Resisant Arteries Accelerate Atherosclerosis. The problem with teasing out the mechanisms of causation is that failing subsystems get into a vicious cycle of causing each other to fail even worse.

You can read the full paper for free at Plos One.

Sarcopenia was associated with insulin resistance in non-obese (HOMA IR ratio 1.39, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.26 to 1.52) and obese individuals (HOMA-IR ratio 1.16, 95% CI 1.12 to 1.18). Sarcopenia was associated with dysglycemia in obese individuals (HbA1C ratio 1.021, 95% CI 1.011 to 1.043) but not in non-obese individuals. Associations were stronger in those under 60 years of age. We acknowledge that the cross-sectional study design limits our ability to draw causal inferences.

What I'd like to know: Does resistance weight training reverse the development of insulin resistant diabetes? Could weight training combined with dietary change reverse the disease development and restore muscle mass in old people?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 27 10:00 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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Toothbrushing Good For The Heart

Brush away some of your risks of heart disease.

Individuals who have poor oral hygiene have an increased risk of heart disease compared to those who brush their teeth twice a day, finds research published today on BMJ.com.

In the last twenty years there has been increased interest in links between heart problems and gum disease. While it has been established that inflammation in the body (including mouth and gums) plays an important role in the build up of clogged arteries, this is the first study to investigate whether the number of times individuals brush their teeth has any bearing on the risk of developing heart disease, says the research.

Toothbrushing isn't just about cavities and breath smell.

Once the data were adjusted for established cardio risk factors such as social class, obesity, smoking and family history of heart disease, the researchers found that participants who reported less frequent toothbrushing had a 70% extra risk of heart disease compared to individuals who brushed their teeth twice a day, although the overall risk remained quite low. Particpants who had poor oral hygiene also tested positive for inflammatory markers such as the C-reactive protein and fibrinogen.

Chronic bacterial infection can cause chronic inflammation which sets in motion processes that lead to clogged arteries, heart attacks, and stroke.

Flossing will probably help even more than brushing. Regular teeth cleaning appointments will help too.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 27 09:49 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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Better Place Swappable Batteries Make Sense?

Michael Kanellos takes a look at the obstacles to the Project Better Place proposal to use swappable leased batteries in electric cars.

This is America, after all. We hate renting. Graduating from renting an apartment to buying a home has become enshrined as hallmark of adulthood. And if there's one thing we hate more than renting, it's sharing stuff with strangers. Who had this battery before me? Is that smoke coming from the hood? The first time someone gets in a bad accident or the car conks, watch them blame it on some stranger's battery.

He lists 5 obstacles, including resistance of car companies to standardize on a single battery factor. I see this as a very big obstacle for a number of reasons. The sizes and shapes of cars differ so much. The car companies developing pluggable hybrids and pure electric cars are using different battery suppliers who are using different lithium chemistries and fabrication techniques. The car companies are also competing on how they package the battery cells. They are looking for competitive advantages in their battery choices.

One of the big differences we can see now between electric vehicle (EV) and pluggable hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) makers is how much they allow their batteries to be discharged. GM, trying to assure very long battery life and satisfied customers, is basically using only half the capacity of the batteries they are putting in the Chevy Volt. By contrast, Tesla, Nissan, and some of the other EV makers are going for various deeper discharge cycles. You can find a wide spectrum of trade-offs on battery life being made by different PHEV and EV makers. They do not want to give up their individual trade-off decisions to unite around a single trade-off choice that won't be optimized for all market segments.

Another problem with the leased approach that he doesn't mention is ease of removal and insertion. A car has to be designed for ease swapping. Yet engineering is all about trade-offs. An easily swappable design rules out many storage locations for the batteries and even adds weight to make the packages easy to swap.

It is noteworthy that the two governments that have embraced this approach so far, Israel and Denmark, both have geographically small and fairly densely populated countries that do not have a lot of car traffic flowing in and out of them. Maybe leased swappable batteries would have a better chance in Hawaii than in mainland US states.

For pluggable hybrids (e.g. the Chevy Volt due out late 2010) battery swapping doesn't make sense. Since pluggables really fit well with America's lower population density I see a smaller role for pure electrics here than in smaller denser populated countries.

A substantial portion of the people in the US whose car usage patterns map well to a pure electric car probably will always recharge at home or at destinations (e.g. drive to visit family or friends and recharge at their house or recharge at the office while at work). The ubiquitous availability of electricity is a fundamental difference compared to gasoline and diesel fuel. No special stations with special refueling tansk needed. If, due to declining oil supplies, we some day drive most of our miles under electric power then the number of gasoline and electric fueling stations will be far fewer than the number of gas stations that exist today.

Finally, if I was going to drive an electric car I'd want to own the battery. I'm not arguing that's the best use of my money. I just like fewer bills and to be in fewer contracts in my personal life. Keep It Simple Stupid.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 27 09:06 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2010 May 26 Wednesday
Capillaries Eject Trash In Brain

Capillaries have the ability to coat clots and plaque with a membrane and then expel the trash in order to clear blockages.

CHICAGO --- Spitting can be a good thing when it comes to blood vessels.

Scientists at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have discovered capillaries have a unique method of expelling debris, such as blood clots, cholesterol or calcium plaque, that blocks the flow of essential nutrients to brain cells. The capillaries spit out the blockage by growing a membrane that envelopes the obstruction and then shoves it out of the blood vessel.

Note that the shoving out of the trash is in the direction of space between the brain cells. The capillaries place the fast restoration of blood flow over getting rid of debris. That makes sense in order ot protect starving cells from death. But it sets up the brain to accumulate extra-cellular junk over the long term.

Very importantly this capability declines with age. Add this to the list of essential functions that go wrong as we age.

Scientists also found this critical process is 30 to 50 percent slower in an aging brain and likely results in the death of more capillaries.

We need cell therapies that can deliver youthful progenitor cells that can create new capillary wall material.

This work was done using microdots and live mice.

"So what happens to the blood vessels that that aren't cleared out?" asked Grutzendler and colleagues. "Do they die, or does some other mechanism take over?"

To find out, they created micro-clots, tagged them with a red fluorescent substance and infused them into the carotid arteries of mice. Using a multiphoton microscope, the team examined the brains of live mice at various time intervals as clots traveled into the capillaries. Surprisingly, they discovered that the blood vessel cells next to the blockage grew a membrane that completely enveloped the debris. Then the original wall of the blood vessel opened up and spit the debris into the brain tissue, rendering it harmless. The envelope covering the clot became the new vessel wall. This resulted in complete restoration of blood flow and salvaging of the tiny vessel and surrounding brain cells.

This is not the ideal way for the body to solve the trash clump problem. We need gene therapy or nanobot enhancements that will break down accumulated debris.

The research was made possibe by advances in techniques to image small blood vessels.

The researchers used a newly developed imaging technique that can view the smallest blood vessels, known as microvessels, in the brains of living mice. They found that two to seven days after a blockage in brain microvessels, the cells lining the blood vessel wall engulf the remaining portion of the blockage, encapsulate it, seal it off from the interior of the blood vessel and finally expel the blocking material outside of the vessel. As a result of this process, blood flow is restored to the affected area. (See graphic below.)

Lack of ability to rapidly more clumps of junk out of capillaries led to tissue oxygen shortages and cellular death. So we really need cell therapies that will restore the ability of capillary cells to cover up and move junk out of the capillaries.

The researchers also found that the ability to move the blockage out of the blood vessel diminished with age. Young mice (age 4 months) were able to clear blockages more quickly and thoroughly than older mice (age 22 months). The incomplete removal of blockages in the brains of older mice led to a prolonged shortage of oxygen to the surrounding nerve cells and damaged the connections between nerve cells in the vicinity of the obstructed blood vessels.

Vascular system rejuvenation is at the top of my list for wanted rejuvenation therapies. Declining insulin sensitivity including declining dilation response to insulin are among the damaging changes that our blood vessels undergo as we age. We need to replace the old vascular cells with newer and younger cells that can feed our tissues well fed and free of trash.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 26 11:43 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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Retina Grown From Stem Cells

Only an early stage retina but still a good step in the right direction.

UC Irvine scientists have created an eight-layer, early stage retina from human embryonic stem cells, the first three-dimensional tissue structure to be made from stem cells.

It also marks the first step toward the development of transplant-ready retinas to treat eye disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration that affect millions.

"We made a complex structure consisting of many cell types," said study leader Hans Keirstead of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center and the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UCI. "This is a major advance in our quest to treat retinal disease."

One of the things I wonder about future rejuvenation therapies is how much of the repair and replacement will be done by swapping out bigger parts like, say, a retina or a whole organ. Will stem cells and gene therapy be able to repair most existing parts in place? Or will we need to have replacements for most of our organs grown in vats and then swapped into our bodies with surgery? I'd prefer repair in place in order to avoid large numbers of risky surgeries. But replacement of whole organs will be called for due to either urgency of the need or because it will be hard to get stem cells to correctly fill in gaps in structure that are too large and complex for cell therapies to target.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 26 11:28 PM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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2010 May 25 Tuesday
Insulin Resisant Arteries Accelerate Atherosclerosis

Insulin resistance of arteries of mice appears to accelerate atherosclerosis.

Earlier studies showed that in the context of systemic insulin resistance, blood vessels become resistant, too. Doctors also knew that insulin resistance and the high insulin levels to which it leads are independent risk factors for vascular disease. But it wasn't clear if arteries become diseased because they can't respond to insulin or because they get exposed to too much of it.

Now comes evidence in favor of the former explanation. Rask-Madsen along with George King and their colleagues find that mice prone to atherosclerosis fare much worse when the linings of their arteries can't respond to insulin. The animals' insulin-resistant arteries develop plaques that are twice the size of those on normal arteries.

Insulin-resistant blood vessels don't open up as well, and levels of a protein known as VCAM-1 go up in them, too.

VCAM-1 belongs to a family of adhesion molecules, Rask-Madsen explained. "It sits on the endothelium and binds white blood cells." Those cells can enter the artery wall, where they start taking up cholesterol, and an early plaque is born.

"The results provide definitive evidence that loss of insulin signaling in the endothelium, in the absence of competing systemic risk factors, accelerates atherosclerosis," the researchers conclude.

Take a glance at the risk factors for type II insulin-resistant diabetes and consider steps you can take to reduce your risks. The risk factors are very similar to the risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Also seem my recent related post on how aging blood vessels lose the ability to dilate in response to increased insulin and how that probably causes elderly muscle loss.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 25 10:54 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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Testosterone Makes Naive Women Less Trusting

Only the most socially naive women were made less trusting by 0.5 milligrams of testosterone.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asked adult women to rate the trustworthiness of photos of strangers' faces.

The hormone testosterone, normally linked to competition and dominance, made the most socially naive women more vigilant.

If these results are significant then would lowering testosterone make women more trusting? Also, what about men?

Here's an excerpt from the abstract.

Testosterone, a steroid hormone associated with competition and dominance, is often viewed as an inhibitor of sociality, and may have antagonistic properties with oxytocin. The following experiment tests this possibility in a placebo-controlled, within-subjects design involving the administration of testosterone to 24 female subjects. We show that compared with the placebo, testosterone significantly decreases interpersonal trust, and, as further analyses established, this effect is determined by those who give trust easily. We suggest that testosterone adaptively increases social vigilance in these trusting individuals to better prepare them for competition over status and valued resources. In conclusion, our data provide unique insights into the hormonal regulation of human sociality by showing that testosterone downregulates interpersonal trust in an adaptive manner.

I would like to know whether women who are more inclined to feel trust have lower blood testosterone. Ditto for more trusting men.

The researchers above mention oxytocin's role in making people more social. Well, other research finds that oxytocin makes men more empathic. I hear Ray Davies of the Kinks singing "Lola": "Girls will be boys and boys will be girls". This is possible to achieve with copious use of hormones.

48 healthy males participated in the experiment. Half received an oxytocin nose spray at the start of the experiment, the other half a placebo. The researchers then showed their test subjects photos of emotionally charged situations in the form of a crying child, a girl hugging her cat, and a grieving man. The test subjects were then invited to express the depth of feeling they experienced for the persons shown.

In summary, Dr. René Hurlemann of Bonn University´s Clinic for Psychiatry was able to state that "significantly higher emotional empathy levels were recorded for the oxytocin group than for the placebo group", despite the fact that the participants in the placebo group were perfectly able to provide rational interpretations of the facial expressions displayed. The administration of oxytocin simply had the effect of enhancing the ability to experience fellow-feeling. The males under test achieved levels which would normally only be expected in women. Under normal circumstances, the "weak" sex enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to the subject of "empathy".

By Randall Parker 2010 May 25 09:53 PM  Brain Sex Differences
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2010 May 24 Monday
Sugary Drinks Raise Blood Pressure?

Drink less sugar to keep your blood pressure down.

New Orleans, LA – Research led by Liwei Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Public Health at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans, has found that there is an association between sugary drinks and blood pressure and that by cutting daily consumption of sugary drinks by just one serving a day, people can lower their blood pressure. The research is published online in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

"We found no association for diet beverage consumption or caffeine intake and blood pressure," notes Dr. Chen, "suggesting that sugar may actually be the nutrient that is associated with blood pressure and not caffeine which many people would suspect."

The research, which was supported by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, analyzed dietary intake and blood pressure of 810 adults measured at baseline, 6 and 18 months. After known risk factors of high blood pressure were controlled for, a reduction in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption of one serving per day was associated with a drop of 1.8 mm Hg in systolic pressure and 1.1 mm Hg in diastolic blood pressure over 18 months.

Is it the sugar or the resulting insulin surge that causes the damage?

Both heart disease and stroke risks are lowered by keeping blood pressure down. Eat less sugar to avoid blowing out a gasket.

“Our findings suggest that reducing sugar-sweetened beverages and sugar consumption may be an important dietary strategy to lower blood pressure and further reduce other blood pressure-related diseases,” Chen said. “It has been estimated that a 3-millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) reduction in systolic blood pressure should reduce stroke mortality by 8 percent and coronary heart disease mortality by 5 percent. Such reductions in systolic blood pressure would be anticipated by reducing sugar-sweetened beverages consumption by an average of 2 servings per day.”

When people drink sweetened tea or coffee they usually use table sugar to sweeten it .That might not be as bad as the high fructose corn syrup found in most sodas. Plus, some of the harm from soda might be due to high phosphate. So soda seems like the worst form of sweetened beverage to drink.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 24 11:06 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Earthquake Risk Calculated For US Northwest

Move over California. Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia might have a far more devastating earthquake.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The major earthquakes that devastated Chile earlier this year and which triggered the catastrophic Indonesian tsunami of 2004 are more than just a distinct possibility to strike the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States, scientists say.

There is more than a one-in-three chance that it will happen within the next 50 years.

New analyses by Oregon State University marine geologist Chris Goldfinger and his colleagues have provided fresh insights into the Northwest’s turbulent seismic history – where magnitude 8.2 (or higher) earthquakes have occurred 41 times during the past 10,000 years. Those earthquakes were thought to generally occur every 500 years, but as scientists delve more deeply into the offshore sediments and other evidence, they have discovered a great deal more complexity to the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Lots of disasters are just waiting to happen. Earthquakes, large volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, and even another Carrington Event could cause massive disruptions. Earthquakes are the least of the 4 listed disasters in terms of potential for lives lost and disruption.

Watch out for a mega-quake.

Based on historical averages, Goldfinger says the southern end of the fault – from about Newport, Ore., to northern California – has a 37 percent chance of producing a major earthquake in the next 50 years. The odds that a mega-quake will hit the northern segment, from Seaside, Ore., to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, are more like 10 to 15 percent.

A magnitude 9 earthquake would tear highways to pieces. Imagine trying to bring in help afterward. Rail lines and highways would be impassable. My guess is the rail lines could be restored to working order much faster.

The OSU professor is convinced that the Pacific Northwest is at risk for an earthquake that could meet – or exceed – the power of seismic events that took place in Chile, as well as Haiti. If a magnitude-9 earthquake does strike Cascadia, he says, the ground could shake for several minutes. Highways could be torn to pieces, bridges may collapse, and buildings would be damaged or even crumble. If the epicenter is just offshore, coastal residents could have as little as 15 minutes of warning before a tsunami could strike.

Anyone who lives in the northwest made any special preparations for an earthquake? Ready to survive for weeks without electric power or city water?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 24 10:34 PM  Dangers Natural Geological
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2010 May 23 Sunday
30 Year CO2 Payback For Miscanthus Energy Source

The carbon dioxide released to create farm fields to grow a perennial grass as a biomass energy source won't get paid back in avoided CO2 emissions from fossil fuels until the field has been used to grow miscanthus as an energy source for 30 years. That seems like a long time.

Champaign, Il – May 3, 2010 - An article in the current issue of Global Change Biology Bioenergy reveals that Miscanthus x giganteus, a perennial grass, could effectively reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, while lowering atmospheric CO2.

Using a simulation tool that models the future global climate, researchers predict that the carbon that is released into the atmosphere from the loss of natural vegetation will be paid back by Miscanthus within 30 years. Previous estimates for other liquid biofuels, such as corn ethanol, were estimated to take 167-420 years to pay back their carbon debt.

Miscanthus is better than corn ethanol only because corn ethanol is such a bad idea in the first place. Corn ethanol economic viability was made possible by government subsidies put in place at the behest of the farm and agricultural industry lobbies.

Miscanthus isn't economically viable yet and it is not clear when it might become economically viable as an energy source. But if it takes off then the result will be a spike in CO2 emissions as more land gets cleared for its growth.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 23 10:22 PM  Energy Biomass
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Pollutants Risk Factors For Type 2 Diabetes

Two pollutants and two nutrients influence the risk of getting insulin resistant type 2 diabetes.

By comparing the blood or urine concentrations of each factor between the case group and the control group, Butte and Patel identified four factors linked to the disorder. Their analysis confirmed previous findings that high blood levels of industrial pollutants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were highly associated with the disease. The prevalence of Type 2 diabetes was two to three times higher for those with the higher levels of the pollutant compared to those with the lowest. Type 2 diabetes prevalence among those with high levels of heptachlor epoxide, a break down product of a previously common pesticide, was at about two times higher than those with low levels of the compound. (The United States banned the manufacture of PCBs in the United States in 1979 and banned heptachlor for most uses in 1988, but the compounds persist in the environment, especially near former industrial sites or contaminated soil.)

Type 2 diabetes typically develops in late middle age. Obesity, lack of exercise, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides are among the risk factors for it. Type 2 diabetes increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and 24 types of cancer.

Surprisingly, consumption of the gamma tocopherol form of vitamin E is positively associated with type 2 diabetes risk.

The analysis also indentified a factor never before linked to type 2 diabetes: a form of vitamin E called gamma-tocopherol. Vitamin E appears in eight different molecular forms; gamma-tocopherol is the most common form in the American diet. Prevalence of type 2 diabetes among study participants with high blood levels of gamma-tocopherol—which, like other forms of vitamin E, is an antioxidant—was two times greater compared to people with low levels of the nutrient. Butte says that much additional research is needed to sort out how this form of vitamin E is related to type 2 diabetes. “This finding, in particular, shows the value of surveying across as broad a range of environmental factors as possible,” Butte says.

On the bright side, carrots and other sources of beta carotene probably will cut your risks of type 2 diabetes by 40%.

There was also good news. Butte and his colleagues confirmed previous studies showing the protective association of the vitamin beta-carotene. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes among people with high amounts of beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A, was about 40% lower than those with lowest amounts of the vitamin.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 23 10:16 PM  Aging Pollution Studies
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2010 May 20 Thursday
Aging Blood Vessels Cause Muscle Loss

Those shriveled muscles are the result of blood vessels that no longer dilate after a meal.

GALVESTON, Texas — Why do people become physically weaker as they age? And is there any way to slow, stop, or even reverse this process, breaking the link between increasing age and frailty?

In a paper published online this Wednesday in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston researchers present evidence that answers to both those questions can be found in the way the network of blood vessels that threads through muscles responds to the hormone insulin.

Normally, these tiny tubes are closed, but when a young person eats a meal and insulin is released into the bloodstream, they open wide to allow nutrients to reach muscle cells. In elderly people, however, insulin has no such "vasodilating" effect.

The researchers administered insulin to young people with and without a drug that blocks vasodilation. When administered with a drug that blocks vasodilation then a boost in muscle protein synthesis was blocked. This suggests that muscle wasting with old age is due to increasing rigidity of blood vessels.

We obviously need rejuvenation therapies that will make our blood vessels supple again. Youthful blood vessel stem cells are an obvious candidate therapy. But we also need therapies that will clean out accumulated plaque and other therapies that can reverse protein cross-linkages that reduce flexibility. I also wonder whether receptors for insulin binding decline with age.

Bottom line: Aging of subsystems of the body cause other subsystems to age as well. The ability to rejuvenate key subsystems (e.g. the cardiovascular system) will improve the performance of many other subsystems.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 20 11:22 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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Small Nuclear Reactors Under Development

Several start-up and existing companies are developing smaller sized nuclear reactors.

While utility-scale reactors cost about $2.3 billion apiece and produce 1.2 gigawatts of power, Hyperion’s price tag is $50 million for a 25-megawatt reactor more comparable to a diesel generators or wind farms.

Transportable by truck, the units would come in a sealed box and work around the clock, requiring less maintenance than a fossil fuel plant, the developers say. They’d cost 15 percent less per megawatt of capacity than the average full-scale atomic reactors now in on the drawing board, according to World Nuclear Association data.

“A 25-megawatt plant would put electricity into 20,000 homes, and it would fit inside this room,” James Kohlhaas, vice president at a Lockheed Martin Corp. unit that builds power systems for remote military bases, said in an interview. “It’s a pretty elegant micro-grid solution.”

Smaller nukes lend themselves better to mass production techniques. Another big advantage is that they are easier to cost estimate with precision. The biggest risk in developing new big nuclear reactors is cost overruns during construction. Utilities are afraid to build reactors given a history of multi-billion dollar construction cost overruns. Small reactors both lower the amount of money at risk and reduce the absolute risk by making reactor construction more routine and done at much fewer sites.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 20 11:13 PM  Energy Nuclear
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Optical Nanopore DNA Sequencer

Faster DNA sequencing by feeding single DNA strands at a time thru nanopores.

BOSTON (5-19-10) -- Sequencing DNA could get a lot faster and cheaper – and thus closer to routine use in clinical diagnostics – thanks to a new method developed by a research team based at Boston University. The team has demonstrated the first use of solid state nanopores — tiny holes in silicon chips that detect DNA molecules as they pass through the pore — to read the identity of the four nucleotides that encode each DNA molecule. In addition, the researchers have shown the viability of a novel, more efficient method to detect single DNA molecules in nanopores.

"We have employed, for the first time, an optically-based method for DNA sequence readout combined with the nanopore system," said Boston University biomedical engineer Amit Meller, who collaborated with other researchers at Boston University, and at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. "This allows us to probe multiple pores simultaneously using a single fast digital camera. Thus our method can be scaled up vastly, allowing us to obtain unprecedented DNA sequencing throughput."

The cost of DNA sequencing has fallen by orders of magnitude and the cost hits new lows followed quickly by still more lows. Nanopore sequencers are going to send costs still lower. The $1000 genome is on the horizon as a stepping stone to the $500 genome. Smaller stuff costs less. This is the same pattern of advance that makes semiconductor computer chips so cheap.

But what to do with this sequencing capability? If you get yourself sequenced in 2010 the number of genetic variants that you have which have well understood effects are few and far between. Costs have fallen far enough that we now have to wait for scientists to use these lower costs (which they are) to figure out what all the differences mean. In a few years the argument for getting yourself sequenced will be stronger more due to better understanding of what all the genetic differences mean than due the further drops in costs.

Cheap genetic sequencing isn't just about knowing what foods are best suited for your metabolism or whether your prospective spouse is likely to cheat on you (though it will get used for those purposes). Accelerated human evolution is likely to be the biggest impact in the long term. Detailed knowledge of genes that influence intelligence, beauty, athletic performance, and other characteristics will be used in selecting embryos to implant when doing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Babies born from IVF 10 years from now will be smarter, better looking, healthier, and possessed of other advantages over the average baby born from old style sex.

The biggest way that cheap genome sequencing will lengthen our lives might turn out to be by sequencing cancer cells in order to figure out which mutations drive the development of cancer. Detailed knowledge of cancer-causing mutations will enable scientists to develop gene therapies and RNA interference drugs that turn cancer cells back to normal or that very selectively kill cancer cells. Cheap DNA sequencing therefore might save your life.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 20 11:08 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Rail Freight Highly Energy Efficient

An announcement from the Association of American Railroads from last month reports the very high fuel efficiency of rail for moving freight.

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 22, 2010 — The Association of American Railroads today announced that the nation’s freight railroads in 2009 averaged 480 ton-miles to the gallon when moving a ton of freight. Ton-miles-per-gallon is the railroad measurement for fuel efficiency, like autos use miles-per-gallon. Overall, freight rail fuel efficiency is up 104 percent since 1980. In 2009, railroads generated 67 percent more ton-miles than in 1980, while using 18 percent less fuel.

To give you a sense of just how efficient that is imagine you drive a 2 ton SUV. It wold have to get 240 miles per gallon to be as efficient - and it would not be carrying a load. The load would be the SUV itself. Or imagine you drive a half ton pick-up with a half ton load. It would have to get 960 miles per gallon to be as efficient. Railroads are incredibly efficient at moving freight.

"I’m pleased to report on Earth Day that the nation’s freight railroads not only haul the goods that America depends on every day, but they do so while benefiting the environment and reducing our dependence on foreign oil," said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger.

While there are many environmental benefits from moving more people and goods by rail, fuel efficiency is where it all starts, Hamberger noted citing the federal government’s finding that railroads are four times more fuel efficient than trucks. "Railroads are moving more while consuming less fuel, which means we’re emitting fewer greenhouse gases and easing highway congestion."

When world oil production starts declining more freight will move by rail. The cost of living will be lower near freight rail facilities where rail freight gets transferred to trucks. However, if the rate of decline in oil production is steep enough the total volume of freight moved by rail will probably decline due to overall economic contraction.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 20 10:28 PM  Energy Transportation
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2010 May 18 Tuesday
Hormone Could Cut Heart Disease Risk?

Pregnenolone sulphate reduces production of inflammatory cytokines.

A natural defence mechanism against heart disease could be switched on by steroids sold as health supplements, according to researchers at the University of Leeds.

The University of Leeds biologists have identified a previously-unknown ion channel in human blood vessels that can limit the production of inflammatory cytokines – proteins that drive the early stages of heart disease.

They found that this protective effect can be triggered by pregnenolone sulphate - a molecule that is part of a family of 'fountain-of-youth' steroids. These steroids are so-called because of their apparent ability to improve energy, vision and memory.

Importantly, collaborative studies with surgeons at Leeds General infirmary have shown that this defence mechanism can be switched on in diseased blood vessels as well as in healthy vessels.

Surely this hormone causes side effects if taken for a long time. Surely a substantial fraction (likely well over half) of the population should not take it as a disease preventative. But for some number of people (if we could only identify who they are) this drug might lower overall risk of disease and death.

I expect a combination of genetic testing and blood testing will become sensitive enough to predict very high risk for heart disease and other diseases. Once a small fraction of the population can be identified as having a special very high risk of a disease then it will become easier to decide that the side effects of a hormone therapy or other drug therapy really are worth it.

The problem with a lot of disease preventing drugs (e.g. statins) that people take for many years is that inevitably a substantial fraction of the people taking such preventative drugs were never going to get whatever disease was meant to avoid. We need far greater predictive power in medical tests so that we can know when treatments will deliver a net benefit for each person.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 18 10:59 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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Lithium Air Batteries Still A Distant Prospect

Lithium air batteries are one of the great hopes for high energy density batteries that would enable long range driving under electric power. MIT battery researcher Yang Shao-Horn thinks lithium air batteries aren't coming to market in the next 10 years.

But before the technology goes commercial, researchers have to pass a gantlet of scientific challenges. A material may "breathe" oxygen into the battery excellently, but it has little commercial potential if it's platinum or gold. Lithium in the anode reacts explosively with even a little water, so it must be sheltered with a stable and, yes, cheap substance.

Argonne guesses lithium-air could be 10 to 20 years from commercial readiness; Shao-Horn of MIT has said 10 years is probably too optimistic.

The battery range problem effectively means that Peak Oil will cause a big relative increase in the cost of long range driving as compared to shorter trips. If you can get by with 10 or 20 mile range for work and shopping then future high gasoline prices won't hit you hard. But 400 mile trips will require an internal combustion engine and expense diesel or gasoline fuel.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 18 10:46 PM  Energy Batteries
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2010 May 17 Monday
Wind Turbine Arrangement Boosts Efficiencies

Turbulence caused by wind turbines forces large gaps between turbines and therefore lowers efficiency and raises the cost of wind farms. Some Caltech researchers got inspired by patterns of swimming by schools of fish that suggested smaller gaps should be possible. Vertical turbines combined with alternating rotation patterns should allow much closer turbine placement.

Vertical turbines—which are relatively new additions to the wind-energy landscape—have no propellers; instead, they use a vertical rotor. Because of this, the devices can be placed on smaller plots of land in a denser pattern. Caltech graduate students Robert Whittlesey and Sebastian Liska researched the use of vertical-axis turbines on small plots during a class research project supervised by Dabiri. Their results suggest that there may be substantial benefits to placing vertical-axis turbines in a strategic array, and that some configurations may allow the turbines to work more efficiently as a result of their relationship to others around them—a concept first triggered by examining schools of fish.

In current wind farms, all of the turbines rotate in the same direction. But while studying the vortices left behind by fish swimming in a school, Dabiri noticed that some vortices rotated clockwise, while others rotated counter-clockwise. Dabiri therefore wants to examine whether alternating the rotation of vertical-axis turbines in close proximity will help improve efficiency. The second observation he made studying fish—and seen in Whittlesey and Liska's simulation—was that the vortices formed a "staircase" pattern, which contrasts with current wind farms that place turbines neatly in rows.

The researchers expect to be able to increase wind energy extraction in an area by several times.

Whittlesey and Liska's computer models predicted that the wind energy extracted from a parcel of land using this staggered placement approach would be several times that of conventional wind farms using horizontal-axis turbines. Once they've identified the optimal placement, Dabiri believes it may be possible to produce more than 10 times the amount of energy currently provided by a farm of horizontal turbines. The results are sufficiently compelling that the Caltech group is pursuing a field demonstration of the idea.

Looks like wind power costs have the potential to fall considerably.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 17 10:23 PM  Energy Wind
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Only Processed Meat Boosts Diabetes And Heart Disease?

Don't blame it on the fat. Diane Keaton in Sleeper was right after all: "Deep fat".

Boston, MA – In a new study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) have found that eating processed meat, such as bacon, sausage or processed deli meats, was associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes. In contrast, the researchers did not find any higher risk of heart disease or diabetes among individuals eating unprocessed red meat, such as from beef, pork, or lamb. This work is the first systematic review and meta-analysis of the worldwide evidence for how eating unprocessed red meat and processed meat relates to risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

"Although most dietary guidelines recommend reducing meat consumption, prior individual studies have shown mixed results for relationships between meat consumption and cardiovascular diseases and diabetes," said Renata Micha, a research fellow in the department of epidemiology at HSPH and lead author of the study. "Most prior studies also did not separately consider the health effects of eating unprocessed red versus processed meats."

Hot dogs and deli meats are the culprits. What the world needs: healthy deli meats.

The results showed that, on average, each 50 gram (1.8 oz) daily serving of processed meat (about 1-2 slices of deli meats or 1 hot dog) was associated with a 42% higher risk of developing heart disease and a 19% higher risk of developing diabetes. In contrast, eating unprocessed red meat was not associated with risk of developing heart disease or diabetes. Too few studies evaluated the relationship between eating meat and risk of stroke to enable the researchers to draw any conclusions.

Nitrates or salt or both could be the culprits.

"When we looked at average nutrients in unprocessed red and processed meats eaten in the United States, we found that they contained similar average amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. In contrast, processed meats contained, on average, 4 times more sodium and 50% more nitrate preservatives," said Micha. "This suggests that differences in salt and preservatives, rather than fats, might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats, but not with unprocessed red meats."

Dietary sodium (salt) is known to increase blood pressure, a strong risk factor for heart disease. In animal experiments, nitrate preservatives can promote atherosclerosis and reduce glucose tolerance, effects which could increase risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Excited? Gonna make a hamburger to celebrate? Beware of the sodium in ketchup. Oh, and beware the high fructose corn syrup in the ketchup too.

Update: What else to avoid? City air pollution raises blood pressure. So a hot dog in a city baseball park is much worse than venison out in the country.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 17 08:16 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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2010 May 15 Saturday
Oil Industry Veterans On Peak Oil

Wondering about what sorts of people think Peak Oil is a real problem? Watch this video.

Then watch this video.

Check out more videos at aspo.tv (Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas).

Also, listen to this interview with retired petroleum geologist Colin Campbell. Also, read former ConocoPhillips engineer Robert Rapier on the latest US Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Outlook for 2010. The EIA took away the scary unidentified projects graph from last year.

People in the International Energy Agency want to tell you about Peak Oil but the Obama Administration silenced them.

Update: Here's Colin Campbell in 2005 predicting a financial crisis due to Peak Oil.

Here are Colin Campbell, former British Cabinet minister Michael Meacher, Richard Heinberg, and others on Peak Oil.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 15 06:20 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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Require Use Of Experts To Get Genetic Tests?

Let me go on record as disagreeing with the Association for Molecular Pathology. Genetic testing should be available without consent of a medical doctor.

In response to recent announcements about consumer genetic tests being made available in retail drugstores, the Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP) today reiterated its position that these tests should be provided to the public only through the services of appropriate health care professionals that order tests from laboratories that are certified by CLIA for highcomplexity testing.

More generally, I'd really like to see wider availability of medical tests without a visit to a doctor's office.

Think about the general trend with information: more, direct and easier access, greater availability. Microfluidic devices that serve as labs on a chip are going to be the next big thing in medical testing. No need to have your blood sent to a lab when you can literally carry the lab in your pocket. No need to go to a drug store or a doctor's office to get a test done.

Eventually we'll have medical testing devices embedded in our bodies doing real time monitoring to detect problems as soon as they happen. You'll wave a smart phone over your body to read your embedded test lab, the phone will analyze the results, and then it'll pass the results up to a diagnostic server on the web to get run thru expert systems to do difficult diagnoses.

Regulations that keep visits to a doctor's office in the loop block the sorts of innovative real time diagnostics that should be the future of medicine.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 15 05:37 PM  Policy Medical
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Testosterone Decline Reduces Sleep Quality?

Do guys get poorer sleep with age due to declining testosterone?

Montreal, May 14, 2010 – At 30 years old, male testosterone levels drop by one to two percent annually. By age 40, men's quality of sleep begins to diminish. Could there be a link between decreased testosterone and reduced sleep? Absolutely according to Zoran Sekerovic, a graduate student from the University of Montreal Department of Psychology, who presented his findings at the annual conference of the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS).

Sekerovic discovered a link between testosterone levels in men over 50 and their quality of sleep – specifically less deep sleep i.e. Phases III and IV of the slumber cycle. "Deep sleep is when the recuperation of body and mind is optimal," says Sekerovic, adding his is the first study to find this correlation.

Anyone know ways to increase the amount of deep sleep? You get less deep sleep as you age. That seems like a change we should want to avoid.

In young men, deep sleep represents 10 to 20 percent of total sleep. By age 50, it decreases to five to seven percent. For men over 60, it can disappear altogether. The study didn't find any correlation with other parts of the sleep cycle: falling asleep, Phases I and II, or paradoxical sleep, when most of dreaming occurs.

Other changes to the brain decrease sleep quality and even these researchers find only 20% of reduced deep sleep is down to lower testosterone.

The University of Montreal researcher explains that men in their 20s don't have such a correlation because their neuronal circuits are intact. "With age, there is neuronal loss and the synchronization of cerebral activity isn't as good, which is why there is a loss of deep sleep. Because deep sleep requires great synchronization," says Sekerovic. "Low levels of testosterone intensify the lack of synchronization and can explain 20 percent of men's inability to experience deep sleep."

So how to increase the amount of deep sleep one gets?

Update: The study above is in need of an obvious follow-up: an interventional trial that tests whether testosterone injections improve quantity of deep sleep. What I also wonder: Is it the testosterone or the dihydrotestosterone that boosts deep sleep? To put it another way: Do dutasteride and finasteride (which block the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone) boost or lower the amount of deep sleep that guys get?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 15 05:11 PM  Aging Brain Studies
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Weightlessness Messes Up Immune Genes?

Weightlessness (or higher background radiation) in space messed up genes that control stress and immune response. Yet another example of how we need to be able to genetically reengineer ourselves in order to move off-planet. We evolved on this planet and are adapted to a pretty narrow range of conditions.

Tucson, Ariz. -- Astronauts are known to have a higher risk of getting sick compared to their Earth-bound peers. The stresses that go with weightlessness, confined crew quarters, being away from family and friends and a busy work schedule - all the while not getting enough sleep - are known to wreak havoc on the immune system.

A research group led by immunobiologist Ty Lebsack at the University of Arizona has discovered that spaceflight changes the activity of genes controlling immune and stress response, perhaps leading to more sickness.

Shooting humans up into space on current generation (or even next generation) chemical rockets is just a show. It accomplishes extremely little. That we even do it demonstrates the excessively high discount rate of most humans. Said discount rate a product of an evolutionary past which required much more shorter term planning than today). If we really wanted to go move off world we would need to spend decades developing a wide range of really advanced technologies needed to make the move. We need nanotech, genetic engineering of food and fiber crops, genetic engineering of plants organisms that would clean our environment. robots, AI, and fusion energy for starters.

Just 13 days riding on the (obsolete and bad design) Space Shuttle was enough to wack out gene expression in mouse thymus tissue.

Lebsack and his colleagues focused their study on the thymus gland, the organ that serves as a "factory" and "training academy" for T-cells that are key players of the immune system. They compared gene-expression patterns in thymuses from four healthy mice that had spent 13 days aboard NASA's STS-118 Endeavor Space Shuttle to those from an equal number of control mice on the ground.

Their finding: 970 individual genes in the thymus of space-flown mice were up or down-regulated by a 1.5 fold change or greater. When these changes were averaged, 12 genes in the thymus tissue of all four space-flown mice were significantly up or down-regulated. "The altered genes we observed were found to primarily affect signaling molecules that play roles in programmed cell death and regulate how the body responds to stress," Lebsack said.

We also need genetic engineering for maintaining bone mass, muscle mass, and joint mass among other things. The higher level of radition we'd experience on a trip to Mars argues for waiting for cures for cancer before trying to colonize Mars.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 15 04:34 PM  Space Exploration
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2010 May 13 Thursday
Obedient Dog Breeds Live Longer

But do obedient humans live longer?

A team led by Vincent Careau, a PhD student at University of Sherbrooke, gathered data on many aspects of dog biology published in disparate fields of study such as psychology, longevity, and veterinary research. The information was well known in the respective research domains, yet they were never put together. By doing so, the authors show that obedient breeds - on average - live longer than disobedient breeds. They also show that aggressive breeds have higher energy expenditure. The late Don Thomas said, "It is hard to imagine how an aggressive personality could be adaptive if it lacked the energetic and metabolic machinery to back up the threats. Simply put, 100 pound weaklings don't kick sand in weight-lifters' faces and survive in nature."

Do calm people live longer than high energy people? Anyone know of studies that compare personality traits and longevity?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 13 11:45 PM  Aging Studies
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Tibetans Genetically Adapted To High Altitude

Tibetans carry several genetic variants that adapt them better to high altitude living.

SALT LAKE CITY—Researchers have long wondered why the people of the Tibetan Highlands can live at elevations that cause some humans to become life-threateningly ill – and a new study answers that mystery, in part, by showing that through thousands of years of natural selection, those hardy inhabitants of south-central Asia evolved 10 unique oxygen-processing genes that help them live in higher climes.

In a study published May 13 in Science Express, researchers from the University of Utah School of Medicine and Qinghai University Medical School in the People's Republic of China report that thousands of years ago, Tibetan highlanders began to genetically adapt to prevent polycythemia (a process in which the body produces too many red blood cells in response to oxygen deprivation), as well as other health abnormalities such as swelling of the lungs and brain (edema) and hypertension of the lung vessels leading to eventual respiratory failure. Even at elevations of 14,000 feet above sea level or higher, where the atmosphere contains much less oxygen than at sea level, most Tibetans do not overproduce red blood cells and do not develop lung or brain complications. The Utah and Chinese researchers found evidence that this might be related to at least 10 genes, two of which are specific genes strongly associated with hemoglobin, a molecule that transports oxygen in the blood.

Tibetans have had more time to evolve for better fitness at hgh altitude than other groups that live at high altitude. For example, the Amerinds in high altitude areas of Peru have genetic adaptations to altitude but their adaptations aren't as sophisticated (sorry, no cite, read this a few years back). Evolutionary pressures haven't acted on them long enough to bring forth the best genetic variants for high altitude living.

Han Chinese are not genetically adapted well to high altitude. Tibetan women give birth to bigger babies than Han Chinese women at the same high altitudes. The Han Chinese women have more adverse pregnancy outcomes at high altitudes.

Various human populations around the world evolved to better adapt to local conditions. Immune systems, digestive tracts, skin color, height, and other physical attributes and functions evolved pretty rapidly once humans left Africa. This evolution was probably sped up by mating with Neandertals.

I am curious to learn which personality and other cognitive traits were seleced for to adapt humans to local environments. For example, did being a fisherman work better for certain personality types while other personality types worked well for crop farmers or herdsmen?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 13 05:52 PM  Evolution Human Nature
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Pluggable Prius Conversion

Dexter Ford drives a converted plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius.

Driving on the batteries alone requires a modicum of practice. I managed to run the rolling Pacific Coast Highway north of Malibu in the all-electric setting for about 35 miles, after burning a significant part of the auxiliary battery’s charge in blended mode on the way north from Los Angeles. The speed limitation of 52 m.p.h on battery power gave me just enough margin to stay with traffic.

The full 10-kilowatt-hour system in the car I tested costs $11,995 with the battery pack, or $6,995 without batteries. A 4-kilowatt-hour system is $6,995 with batteries, $3,200 without. Estimates for installation from several of the 20 dealer-installers around the country started at $1,000. The systems carry a three-year warranty, which does not cover the batteries (those are warranted by the battery maker).

You might get as much as 50 miles out of the bigger battery. About 750,000 Priuses are conceivable conversion candidates. 10 kwh for 50 miles works out to 200 watt-hours per mile. Plausible though a pretty low number. The Chevy Volt's 16 kwh has a usable 8.8 kwh (to lengthen battery life) which is good for 40 miles or 220 watt-hours per mile.

$5k for the 10 kwh battery works out to $500 per kwh. Anyone know if this conversion kit allows full discharge of the battery? Sounds like it. If so, that could lessen the battery life.

If the price of oil goes thru the roof a Prius is already pretty fuel efficient. So the amount of fuel burning you avoid from this upgrade is at most 1 gallon per recharge cycle. Even if gasoline got so expensive that you'd save $5 per recharge cycle (say $6.25 per gallon minus $1.25 for electricity to recharge) you'd save only $1000 per year if you did 200 full recharge cycles per year (about 10,000 miles). Hard to pay back the $11,995 in any amount of time worth thinking about.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 13 12:15 AM  Energy Electric Cars
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2010 May 12 Wednesday
Long Overtime Work Boosts Heart Risk?

Civil servants who work a lot of overtime suffer more heart disease.

Working overtime is bad for the heart according to results from a long-running study following more than 10,000 civil servants in London (UK): the Whitehall II study.

The research, which is published online today (Wednesday 12 May) in the European Heart Journal [1], found that, compared with people who did not work overtime, people who worked three or more hours longer than a normal, seven-hour day had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems such as death due to heart disease, non-fatal heart attacks and angina.

Dr Marianna Virtanen, an epidemiologist at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Helsinki (Finland) and University College London (UK), said: "The association between long hours and coronary heart disease was independent of a range of risk factors that we measured at the start of the study, such as smoking, being overweight, or having high cholesterol.

3 to 4 hours of overtime per day are associated with a 60% boost in coronary heart disease risk.

During the average 11.2 years of follow-up, Dr Virtanen and her colleagues in Finland, London and France, found that there had been 369 cases of fatal CHD, non-fatal heart attacks (myocardial infarctions) or angina. After adjusting for sociodemographic factors such as age, sex, marital status and occupational grade, they found that working three to four hours overtime (but not one to two hours) was associated with a 60% higher rate of CHD compared with no overtime work. Further adjustments for a total of 21 risk factors made little difference to these estimates.

Could be that sitting too much is part of the problem with overtime. If you are tied to your desk for long hours you aren't out getting needed exercise.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 12 12:48 AM  Aging Lifestyle Studies
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NASA Seen Spending Too Little On Science

the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council says NASA's budget is weighted too far toward human space flight and not enough toward basic research.

WASHINGTON — The decline of basic research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration jeopardizes the agency’s ability to study and explore the cosmos, a review panel of scientists and engineers said Tuesday.

The findings could bolster the arguments of the Obama administration that NASA’s current effort to send astronauts back to the Moon is too expensive and is siphoning too much money from other programs. The president’s $19 billion budget for NASA in the 2011 fiscal year would cancel the Moon program, known as Constellation, and replace it with the development of technologies intended to achieve a cheaper, more sustainable approach for sending people into space.

My take: Human space flight competes with science for money. Human space flight is done to give people a show (not that many people even watch). It is done so that Americans can say "See, we have people in space". It doesn't accomplish much per dollar spent. Robotic vehicles can explore many more places for a fraction of the price.

What we need: much cheaper ways to get into space and move around while there. Humans aren't going to do much in space as long as getting there costs hundreds of millions of dollars per launch. Incremental new designs of chemical rockets won't chagne that picture. We need advances in materials (e.g. to build a nanotube bean stalk elevator into space) that will enable development of much better ways of getting up there and moving around once there.

To go into space in substantial numbers we need far cheaper and safer ways to get into orbit, ways to propel spaceships between planets much more rapidly (to avoid humans getting fried by radiation in transit), and advances in biotechnology to adapt humans to zero gravity and to enable the growing of food, fiber, and drugs on moona and Mars colonies. Money spent on visits to the International Space Station does not address these needs.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 12 12:39 AM  Space Exploration
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2010 May 11 Tuesday
Bright Future For Natural Gas From Shale Rock?

Wiriting in the Wall Street Journal Amy Myers Jaffe of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University says technological advances that ease the extract of the huge quantities of natural gas in shale rock are a game changer that will make natural gas cheap and plentiful for decades to come.

Over the past decade, a wave of drilling around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in shale rock. By some estimates, there's 1,000 trillion cubic feet recoverable in North America alone—enough to supply the nation's natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200 trillion cubic feet of its own.

We've always known the potential of shale; we just didn't have the technology to get to it at a low enough cost. Now new techniques have driven down the price tag—and set the stage for shale gas to become what will be the game-changing resource of the decade.

I have been studying the energy markets for 30 years, and I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionize the industry—and change the world—in the coming decades. It will prevent the rise of any new cartels. It will alter geopolitics. And it will slow the transition to renewable energy.

Sounds really exciting, right? If you click thru and read the full article you'll see she raises nary a doubt about the prospects for shale gas - let alone raises concerns about CO2 emissions from burning it if it can all be extracted as easily as she claims. Ms. Jaffe argues the conventional wisdom on shale gas. But that conventional wisdom has some doubters.

Notably, long time oil industry analyst Henry Groppe (still going strong at 83) thinks the shale gas depletion rates are really high.

The reality, he argues, is that shale gas deposits are a tiny part of the North American production pool – and they are already depleting fast.

Mr. Groppe says that while the average depletion rate in conventional gas wells is about 25 per cent (in other words, if you didn't drill at all for new wells, production would decline by a quarter each year), shale gas shows even more rapid depletion – output tumbles, on average, 45 per cent in the first year for shale wells.

Depletion rates determine how long each well will produce natural gas that can pay off the cost of the well. Slow depletion rates (i.e. slow rates of decline in output) mean lower total cost per 1000 cubic feet or million BTUs. The sunny view of shale rock natural gas depends on the slow rates of depletion.

I was surprised (and not happy) to learn that Groppe's taking a position similar to that staked out by geologist Arthur Berman who also says the shale gas wells deplete rapidly. Natural gas industry pressure over his writing got Berman fired from the magazine Oil World. You can find rebuttals to Berman's argument on the web. Berman's response? Facts are stubborn things. You can read more about the controversy here.

With Peak Oil approaching our economic future is riding on the cost of substitutes. Natural gas could substitute for some current uses of oil directly and also indirectly by powering electric power plants to generate electricity for electric cars and electrified rail. Future prices of natural gas depend heavily on natural gas shale depletion rates.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 11 12:13 AM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2010 May 09 Sunday
More Walking Means Less Metabolic Syndrome

You've got to step it up for good health. 5 miles of walking per day will cut your risk of Metabolic Syndrome (high blood pressure, insulin-resistant diabetes, and other bad things) by about two thirds.

Using data from the U.S. NHANES 2005-06, a team of investigators from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, analyzed a total sample of 1446 subjects, 523 with MetS and 923 without MetS,. These subjects wore high-quality accelerometers and their activity levels placed them into three step-defined physical activity categories: sedentary (< 5000 steps/day), low-to-somewhat-active (5000-9999 steps/day) and active-to-highly-active (=10000 steps/day).

Some web sites say that an average person will cover a mile in 2000 steps. So the most active people are covering 5 miles on foot every day. I am curious to know how they do this. Walk to work? Or walk a great among while at work? Postal delivery people should have pretty low rates of Metabolic Syndrome.

"Even though public health recommendations focus primarily on the accumulation of time spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, the total volume of physical activity as measured by steps/day was shown to be related to positive health outcomes," lead investigator Peter T. Katzmarzyk, PhD, commented. "Adults who maintain an active lifestyle by accumulating more steps are likely to have a lower prevalence of MetS and its individual CVD risk factors. Although other concomitant lifestyle behaviors may influence this lower prevalence, the evidence presented here on steps/day and metabolic syndrome, and elsewhere on physical activity and other health and disease states, suggest that it is a fundamental component of daily living."

Compared to the sedentary group, odds of having MetS were lower for each higher category of daily steps. In the total sample, the odds of having MetS were 40% lower for the "low-to-somewhat-active" and 72% lower for the "active-to-highly-active" groups compared to the sedentary group. Among men, the odds of MetS were 24% lower in the "low-to-somewhat-active," although not significant, and it was 69% lower in those categorized in the "active-to-highly-active" compared to the sedentary group. For the women, those categorized as "low-to-somewhat-active" had 53% lower odds and those in the "active-to highly- active" group had 72% lower odds of having MetS compared to the sedentary group.

Stepping out makes you skinnier.

Higher levels of steps/day were associated with significantly lower odds of having at-risk CVD profiles for the total sample, and also separately for men, and women. In the total population, each additional 1000 steps/day was associated with an 8%-13% reduction in the odds of high waist circumference, a low level of HDL-cholesterol, and high levels of triglycerides. For men, each additional 1000 steps/day was associated with a 6%-11% reduction in odds of high waist circumference, a low level of HDL-cholesterol, and high levels of triglycerides. For women, each additional 1000 steps/day was associated with a 6%-17% reduction in the odds of high waist circumference, a low level of HDL-cholesterol, and high levels of triglycerides.

I walked to work for several months last year until the days got too short and my walks in both directions were in darkness. Haven't gotten back to walking to work yet this year. I find the walk to work less pleasant than the walk home because in the morning I'm in a rush and get to work later when walking.

Update: Since extended amounts of sitting harm one's health it could be that some of the benefit from taking many steps in the day is it means you spend less time sitting.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 09 11:35 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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Offshore Cape Wind Electric Power Expensive

While Cape Wind was fought against by rich and power people (can you say "Kennedy"? sure) who didn't want their views spoiled a more compelling argument against it is cost. (thanks "th" for the link)

Cape Wind, which wants to build 130 wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod, and National Grid announced yesterday that they’ve reached an agreement to start charging customers 20.7 cents per kilowatt hour in 2013 - more than double the current rate of electricity from conventional power plants and land-based wind farms.

I suspect it would be a lot cheaper to build more wind farms in the Dakotas and build an HVDC electric power line to transport the electricity to Massachusetts. The political fight about upgrading power grids might be more of a fight about keeping wind power out of existing electric power markets than about subsidizing wind electric power distribution. But either way, if the people of Massachusetts are going to be expected to pay a high price for wind electric power they could probably do better by getting their wind electric from the plains states.

The price of Cape Wind electric power is going to go up at a percentage rate that is probably faster than the overall rate of increase of electric power and from a much higher starting point. The end point is nosebleed level of expensive.

Under the 15-year National Grid contract, the price of Cape Wind’s electricity would increase 3.5 percent each year, pushing the kilowatt price to about 34.7 cents by the time the contract ends.

Note that these are wholesale prices. To put them into perspective, currently the residential customers in Massachusetts are paying about 15.56 cents/kwh and nationally the average is about 10.54 cents/kwh. Those are retail prices, not lower wholesale prices. So Cape Wind electric power seems very expensive to me.

If I was in Massachusetts I'd oppose Cape Wind just on economic grounds without getting into the aesthetic issue.

An HVDC project that runs up the middle of the plains states (and why not Alberta?) and then cuts across a few times to the East Coast would make a much bigger and presumably more efficient market for electric power. I'd provide a way to get much cheaper wind power to the East Coast. Why not do that instead of Cape Wind? That bigger and more efficient market would probably undermine the argument for offshore wind unti such a time that offshore wind costs come way down.

It is also worth noting there's another way that Massachusetts could get very low carbon electricity at a lower price than offshore wind: nuclear power. Even if a nuclear power plant goes way over budget and ends up costing 12 cents/kwh it'd still be much cheaper than offshore wind.

So in a nutshell: I'd prefer nukes or onshore wind with HVDC lines over offshore wind.

Update: Another indication that offshore wind is very expensive:

Costs to install a turbine at sea are about 4 million euros per megawatt of capacity, said Mortimer Menzel, a partner at the Augusta & Co., a merchant bank. A turbine on land is about 1.5 million euros.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 09 05:38 PM  Energy Wind
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Use Surplus Wind Electricity To Synthesize Methane?

Some German researchers are investigating the use of surplus wind electric power to generate natural gas.

With the rapid expansion of renewable energies, the need for new storage technologies grows massively. This is of special interest for energy utilities and power companies. "So far, we converted gas into electricity. Now we also think in the opposite direction, and convert electricity into ’real natural’ gas," explains Dr. Michael Sterner of Fraunhofer IWES, who is investigating engineering aspects and energy system analysis of the process. "Surplus wind and solar energy can be stored in this manner. During times of high wind speeds, wind turbines generate more power than is currently needed. This surplus energy is being more frequently reflected at the power exchange market through negative electricity prices." In such cases, the new technology could soon keep green electricity in stock as natural gas or renewable methane.

You might think wind power is too expensive to use to crack water to get hydrogen to bond to carbon to make methane. Normally that would be true. But tax incentives for wind electric power generation combined with strong winds at night when demand is low results in wind electric occasionally driving wholesale electric power prices negative. That's right, the wind farms pay to get their electricity used. They do that because as long as the negative price isn't bigger than the US wind production tax credit or equivalent tax credits in other countries the wind farm generates make money by paying people to take their electricity.

Now, you might argue as a taxpayer that you don't want your tax money going to subsidize negative prices and I'd agree. But even if the price of electric power sometimes went only to 0 (or even close to 0) the energy cost of generating synthetic hydrocarbons is low enough to make it worth considering.

To make the economics work the capital cost has to be low enough for the hydrocarbons synthesis plant to only operate part of the time. The lower the frequency of very low cost electricity the lower the capital cost needed for the hydrocarbons synthesis plant.

A hydrocarbons synthesis plant is probably not the only potential use for intermittently low cost electricity. Obviously, more long distance electric power grids would enable the wind electric power to be transported to places with higher electric power demand. How does the cost for the grid compare to the cost of a synthesis plant? Anyone have some good ideas on what to do with intermittently low cost electricity?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 09 04:13 PM  Energy Wind
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2010 May 06 Thursday
Big Truck Fuel Efficiency Improvements Possible

A report by the US National Research Council finds large truck fuel efficiency increases are technologically possible and cost effective.

The report also estimates the costs and maximum fuel savings that could be achieved for each type of vehicle by 2020 if a combination of technologies were used. The best cost-benefit ratio was offered by tractor-trailers, whose fuel use could be cut by about 50 percent for about $84,600 per truck; the improvements would be cost-effective over ten years provided gas prices are at least $1.10 per gallon. The fuel use of motor coaches could be lowered by 32 percent for an estimated $36,350 per bus, which would be cost-effective if the price of fuel is $1.70 per gallon or higher. For other vehicle classes, the financial investments in making improvements would be cost-effective at higher prices of fuel.

For tractor-trailers I am surprised such a large improvement in efficiency is possible. Unlike, say, a large SUV which includes lots of unused space a long distance truck and trailer are designed with cost effectiveness as a top priority. So I would expect new truck efficiency would be close to optimal for return on investment. Would a halving of fuel consumption be done mostly with new or existing technologies? Anyone know?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 06 11:23 PM  Energy Transportation
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Chocolate Compound Good Against Strokes?

Time for another post about the burden of healthy eating. You ought to eat chocolate in case you have a stroke. The chemical epicatechin in chocolate provides protection.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that a compound in dark chocolate may protect the brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals already known to shield nerve cells from damage.

Ninety minutes after feeding mice a single modest dose of epicatechin, a compound found naturally in dark chocolate, the scientists induced an ischemic stroke by essentially cutting off blood supply to the animals' brains. They found that the animals that had preventively ingested the epicatechin suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound.

Do not go too many hours without eating chocolate.

While most treatments against stroke in humans have to be given within a two- to three-hour time window to be effective, epicatechin appeared to limit further neuronal damage when given to mice 3.5 hours after a stroke. Given six hours after a stroke, however, the compound offered no protection to brain cells.

In many chocolates the epicatechin is destroyed by processing.

"The epicatechin found in dark chocolate is extremely sensitive to changes in heat and light" he says. "In the process of making chocolate, you have to make sure you don't destroy it. Only few chocolates have the active ingredient. The fact that it says 'dark chocolate' is not sufficient."

I've read that Mars retains more flavonoids in their Dove dark chocolate. I haven't found a good web source comparing flavonoids in different chocolates.

It is possible to mix that chocolate in with other foods high in epicatechin. Apples have 8 mg of epicatechin per 100 grams (3 and a half ounces) as do black grapes and raspberries. Blackberries have 18 mg. Broadbeans and cherries are also good sources. Most of the berries and cherries are good sources (so eat dark chocolate with cherry inside). But dark chocolate has 5 times as much as apples and grapes per 100 grams. Tea is a good source, especially green tea.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 06 10:22 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2010 May 05 Wednesday
The World Moving Into Cities

The future is bright lights and big cities.

In 1950, fewer than 30 percent of the world's 2.5 billion inhabitants lived in urban regions. By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world's estimated 10 billion inhabitants – or more than the number of people living today – will be part of massive urban networks, according to the Population Division of the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Part of this trend is due to massive migrations into cities. But another part of it is due to expansion of cities into surrounding areas as populations grow.

What amazes me about this trend is the fact it happens even among poor populations. My picture of cities is a relative degree of affluence. But the scale of the migration into cities is so large that it must include hundreds of millions of very poor people

Today, on average, 3 out of 4 people living in modern industrialized states are already building their lives within an urban area – a ratio that will jump to more than 5 in 6 by 2050. By contrast, today in the least-developed regions of the world, more than 2 out of 3 people still eke out a living in a rural area. For these people, even the slumdog existence in places like Dharavi can offer more opportunities than their villages ever could. And within these developing regions, according to UN-HABITAT, cities are gaining an average of 5 million new residents – per month.

Humanity is losing its experience and understanding of nature while at the same time humans reduce the amount of ground that is still in any sense wild.

Will this trend continue? Can the world really support 10 billion mostly urbanized people?

By Randall Parker 2010 May 05 11:43 PM  Trends Demographic
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2010 May 04 Tuesday
50% Amazon Shrinkage By 2050?

Will the Amazon hit a tipping point and turn into a desert?

In what could easily be considered a worst-case scenario for the fate of the world's largest rainforest, a study led by Brazil's National Institute of Special Research found that the size of the Amazon could be reduced 50 percent by 2050, the 'tipping point' for when it will slowly wither away entirely. Considering forest-threatening factors such as fires, deforestation, and the emission of greenhouse gases, the research found if the regions of the Amazon most crucial to maintaining the biome's climate are lost, large sections of the once lush rainforest may be reduced to a virtual desert.

While the Amazon might be more immune to drought than previously believed rain forest trees are getting ripped out for lumber and and to create farm land. That trend looks set to continue due to growing human populations and Asian industrialization. The demand for the food and lumber will grow and that demand will drive more deforestation.

To humans the world used to seem so large that we had little impact on it. But our reach keeps getting larger and we've really begun to cut into the biosphere to an extent that is worrisome.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 04 11:17 PM  Trends Habitat Loss
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Obesity Lowers Male Testosterone?

A connection exists between obesity and testosterone.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Obesity, a condition linked to heart disease and diabetes, now appears to be associated with another health problem, but one that affects men only -- low testosterone levels.

Results of a study published online ahead of print in the journal Diabetes Care, conducted by University at Buffalo endocrinologists, showed that 40 percent of obese participants involved in the Hypogonadism in Males (HIM) study had lower-than-normal testosterone readings.

The percentage rose to 50 percent among obese men with diabetes. Results also revealed that as body mass index (BMI) -- a relationship of weight–to-height -- increased, testosterone levels fell.

Longitudinal studies to show how testosterone varies with time as people diet and gain weight would help to sort out the direction of causation. Does obesity lower testosterone or does the causality flow from a testosterone drop causing a weight gain?

Diabetes also might lower testosterone.

"The effect of diabetes on lowering testosterone levels was similar to that of a weight gain of approximately 20 pounds," says Sandeep Dhindsa, MD, an endocrinology specialist in the UB Department of Medicine and first author on the study.

Obese men could try testosterone to see if it helped take the weight off.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 04 12:43 AM  Aging Weight Studies
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Growth Hormone Boosts Sprinting Speed

Growth hormone if you have the need for speed.

Injections of human growth hormone can improve sprint capacity enough to turn the last-place finisher in the Olympic 100-meter dash into a gold-medal winner, according to a study released Monday.

So says the LA Times. But no. The study participants were not fit enough to equal the last place finish in the Olympics.

The eight-week study, one of the most rigorous examinations of growth hormone and athletic performance to date, involved 96 healthy, recreationally trained athletes with an average age of 27.

The incorrect assumption of the reporter is that growth hormone will boost the performance of everyone equally. But the biological differences that separate top Olympic performers from each other might be very different in character than the biological differences that separate them from everyone else.

A study that measured performance boost from growth hormone in subjects with a wider starting range of abilities would tell us more about whether growth hormone level is a performance-limiting factor over the full range of human ability. Maybe it is. Maybe its not. If the last place and first place Olympics 100-meter dash runners took growth hormone would the gap between them narrow or widen or stay the same? It would be interesting to know.

What I'm really curious to know: Do genetic differences determine a substantial amount of the relative rankings of top athletics in major competitions like the Olympics? If so, then in the future surreptitious acquisition of genetic samples of top Olympic athletes could provide a big advantage in betting on competitions. Also, an athlete that wins with less than the best genetic profile will raise red flags with athletic competition officials to look for signs of doping.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 04 12:20 AM  Biotech Athletics
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2010 May 02 Sunday
Bob Lutz Foresees Automated Cars

Retiring (again) 78 year old GM executive Bob Lutz says cars in the future will be totally automated pods that form into chains. The romance of handling the thundering horsepower under the hood is going to come to an end.

Lutz has a vision for the future of transportation, and it's not necessarily a car guy's dream.

I say this without a great deal of joy, OK, but it's going to be individual transportation pods that are charging in your garage. You hit one of your normal programs, like your "go to work" program. And the thing goes out into the street--GPS-guided or wire-guided--blends into traffic, consolidates, goes to some sort of mass-transit station, converges onto a train and parks itself along with all the other little modules. At some station, your module gets off. There will be no driver involvement.

The automobile is a transient stage in the evolution of mankind's ability to transport oneself to any other place rapidly. And, ultimately, as we evolve, I think physical travel will become less and less important. Because if you can bring 95 percent of the experience in virtually--in, let's say, a 360-degree, full-screen, three-dimensional environment--you get 95 percent of the experience instantaneously. The need to travel goes down drastically. And ultimately I don't think humanity is going to be able to afford a situation where every citizen of the Earth has a car and is zooming around all over the place on concrete highways. It's just not going to work, and at some point it's going to stop.

The interview provides some insights into what went wrong with bureaucratic General Motors. Worth reading in full.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 02 11:20 PM  Robotics Cars
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US National Electric Power Grid Fight

Writing in the New York Times Matthew Wald reports that lots of interest groups are making common cause against a big US national electric power grid whose main purpose is to bring wind electric power from the plains states toward where the demand lies.

After several years of debate, a coalition has emerged around the idea of a strong national electric grid, centrally planned and broadly financed, that would promote renewable energy. The group includes giant investor-owned utilities, public power entities, influential elected officials of both parties and state energy officials, and they speak with a single voice.

And they oppose it.

I have been wondering if or when this was going to happen. Really big bucks are at stake. So interest groups have gotten together to respond to this proposal. In a nutshell: the builders and operators of big wind farms in the US plains states want big electric power transmission lines (probably HVDC) built from the plains toward the East Coast to carry the power from where the wind is to where the people and industry are located. Naturally, the wind industry doesn't want to pay for these transmission lines that will boost the demand (and therefore the price and ROI) of their electric power. Rather, they want to see the costs spread around. Privatize profits, socialize costs. It is the American Way.

Of course, wind power delivered on lines paid by others would lower the prices of electricity generated by local (local to the Midwest and East Coast) nuclear, coal, natural gas, and other power sources including local wind. The opponents also dress up their opposition in high moral principle.

But opponents of a national plan say that it would be biased toward wind on the Great Plains, possibly to the exclusion of renewable resources closer to load centers, including offshore wind.

Of course both sides are promoting positions that boost their financial bottom line. So what should the policy be for long range electric power transmission lines? I do not know. How to make the construction of the lines driven by market forces that best reflect relative costs and benefits of various competing electric power sources? Local electric power delivery companies are regulated utilities that need reliable suppliers. Transmission line construction requires regulatory approval of lots of jurisdictions. This is an inherently politicized and technically complex market.

A picture is worth a thousand words. The purple and red are where the wind is:

A wind resource map of the United States. Click on this map to go to more wind maps.

You can see that the US Southeast especially has weak winds. In my view that part of the country needs nuclear power.

In a recent thread about wind power's economic effects on The Oil Drum quite a few people (myself included) challenged the post's assertion that (government subsidized) wind power lowers electric power costs overall. Wind's reliability problems increase the need for load-following peaker electric power generators that can turn on quickly when the wind fails. Some of the issues raised overlap with this post's topic.

I think it is important not to romanticize any energy source. Wind has many advantages including less pollution and less dependence on dwindling fossil fuels supplies. But it has disadvantages too. There's no energy panacea.

By Randall Parker 2010 May 02 04:39 PM  Energy Electric Generators
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