2010 December 30 Thursday
More Genes For Height Identified

64 height-associated variants identified.

To search for genetic variants associated with adult height, researchers performed a complex genetic analysis of more than 100,000 individuals. "We set out to replicate previous genetic associations with height and to find relevant genomic locations not previously thought to underpin this complex trait" explains Dr. Brendan Keating, also from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The authors report that they identified 64 height-associated variants, two of which would not have been observed without such a large sample size and the inclusion of direct genotyping of uncommon single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). A SNP is a variation in just one nucleotide of a genetic sequence; think of it as a spelling change affecting just one letter in an uncommonly long word.

Note the number of height-associated variants. The reason it has taken so long to make use of genetic sequencing data is that many different variants each contribute to height, personality, disease incidence, and other attributes and risks. Since each variant contributes so little a large number of subjects must be used to detect the various small contributors.

I want the search for the meaning of genetic variants to go much faster. With prices for personal genetic testing getting pretty cheap I'm intrigued by the prospect that lots of individuals can pay affordable prices to get themselves tested and also enter health info onto a web form to participate in scientific research into the meaning of genetic variations. This holds the promise of greatly lowering the cost of research while speeding up the rate of discoveries.

The first phase of the study includes development and validation of web-based surveys to assess the drug side effects and drug effectiveness experienced directly by 23andMe's customers. During the second phase, the research team will determine whether this approach enables them to replicate previously known associations between response to these three classes of drugs and variation within two genes: CYP2C9 and CYP2C19. 23andMe's research team will also search for previously unknown genetic factors associated with response to these classes of drugs, taking into consideration a broad range of non-genetic factors such as age, sex, and body-mass index, among others.

In previous studies, 23andMe has demonstrated that self-reported information from customers yields data of quality comparable to that gathered using traditional research methods.

23andMe's new gene chip tests about 1 million locations on genes where variations occur. Suppose a few hundred thousand people sign up for their service and then also enter in lots of information (e.g. height, eye color, hair color, weight, assorted other physical measurements, history of allergies, asthma, injuries, drug reactions, and other events and maladies). The influences of large numbers of genetic variants could be discovered.

Lots of discoveries are waiting to be made using cheap gene chips to collect data on lots of known single letter genetic variants. After that flood of genetic data comes an even bigger flood. While sequencing the first complete genome took years and hundreds of millions of dollars the costs have now fallen into the tens of thousands (if not lower) per genome. With these low costs the rate of full genome sequencing has now reached hundreds per quarter and therefore over one thousand per year. We can expect the rate to go up by more orders of magnitude.

Complete Genomics said last week that it anticipates sequencing more than 300 human genomes in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Full genome sequencing allows identification of extremely rare genetic variants and also the measurement of large copy variations and other genetic variants not easily captured by gene chips. But data the gene chips alone, used by hundreds of thousands and even millions of people and combined with personal data, will allow scientists to identify at least tens of thousands of genetic variants that influence who we are.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 30 10:45 PM  Human Population Genetics
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2010 December 29 Wednesday
Increased Ocean Acidity To Reduce Nitrification

A substantial portion of the rising atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean and increases ocean acidity. The effects this acidification will have on marine organisms is a topic of research. One researcher at UC Merced finds slight acidification changes caused substantial reduction in nitrogen metabolism by microbes in the oceans.

“Microbial nitrification rates decreased in every instance when pH was experimentally reduced at multiple locations in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans,” wrote researchers led by University of California, Merced, biogeochemist J. Michael Beman in the Dec. 21 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Our results suggest that ocean acidification could reduce nitrification rates by 3 to 44 percent within the next few decades … fundamentally altering nitrogen cycling in the sea.”

That's not good. Via our fossil fuels burning we are conducting a massive real life experiment on ocean acidity. This is the aspect of rising CO2 emissions that worries me most. We can always find ways to quickly and cheaply cool the planet. But if more CO2 dissolved in the oceans will cause big shifts in marine ecosystems it is hard to see how to reverse it quickly.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 29 09:49 PM  Pollution Oceans
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10 Million British To Live To 100th Birthday

With a population of about 62 million people nearly one in six are expected to reach the age of 100.

In the first official projection of its kind, the Department for Work and Pensions today forecasts that almost a fifth of Britons will celebrate their 100th birthday.

Of the 17 per cent of the population who will become centenarians, about three million are under the age of 16, and 5.5 million are aged between 16 and 50.

Predicting the rate of increase of life expectancy used to be much easier because the rate of increase did not vary much. But some areas of biotechnology are increasingly driven by the same kinds of advances that make computer power increase so rapidly.

Just as computer circuits kept getting smaller and more dense biological instrumentation is undergoing a similar revolution where microfluidic devices and gene chips do work previously done with human hands wielding flasks, pipettes, and petri dishes. So, for example, DNA sequencing costs have fallen by orders of magnitude and that trend continues. In a similar vein large numbers of cells are manipulated individually in microfluidic devices.

It is difficult to look down the road 20 years and guess every way that biological manipulations will speed up by orders of magnitude or which treatments will become very easy as a consequence. But it seems reasonable to expect that in the 21st century we will experience a revolution in biotechnology in par with the revolution in computer technology that began in the middle of the 20th century and continues to this day.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 29 09:16 PM  Aging Trends
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3.7 Billion Years To Last Restaurant At End Of Universe?

At UC Berkeley Raphael Bousso and some friends think the universe has to be of finite duration. Time to book a reservation.

There is a 50 per cent chance that time will end within the next 3.7 billion years, according to a new model of the universe

About that 5 billion year birthday party some of you have planned: Do you feel lucky?

An infinite universe is crazy because extremely low probability events can happen an infinite number of times?

Their argument is deceptively simple and surprisingly powerful. Here's how it goes. If the universe lasts forever, then any event that can happen, will happen, no matter how unlikely. In fact, this event will happen an infinite number of times.

Just how many problematic extremely low probability events are there? Why wouldn't their probability drop to 0 at some point as the universe becomes too spread out?

From the abstract:

Present treatments of eternal inflation regulate infinities by imposing a geometric cutoff. We point out that some matter systems reach the cutoff in finite time. This implies a nonzero probability for a novel type of catastrophe. According to the most successful measure proposals, our galaxy is likely to encounter the cutoff within the next 5 billion years.

You can read the full PDF. One weirdness: if you ever find yourself falling toward a black hole time might end before you reach it. Not sure if that's a feature. They also discuss whether time ends sharply or in a smear.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 29 08:11 PM  Space Time
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2010 December 28 Tuesday
$5 Per Gallon Gasoline In US In 2013?

John Hofmeister, former president of Royal Dutch Shell's US business unit, says gasoline in the United States is headed to $5 per gallon in 2 years and in 10 years shortages will become severe.

But former Shell executive John Hofmeister offered a more aggressive estimate, saying Americans could be paying $5 a gallon in two years. And he predicted that sometime between 2018 and 2020, supply and demand will become so out of balance that gas stations in several regions of the country will simply start to run out.

"I think it's going to be a cumulative problem that won't happen suddenly," Hofmeister, who now heads Citizens for Affordable Energy, told FoxNews.com.

$5 per gallon by early 2013? That seems too soon. Count me skeptical. I'm reminded of another oil price prediction that did not pan out. New York Times columnist John Tierney is about to win a bet with the late Matt Simmons about the price of oil.

I called Mr. Simmons to discuss a bet. To his credit — and unlike some other Malthusians — he was eager to back his predictions with cash. He expected the price of oil, then about $65 a barrel, to more than triple in the next five years, even after adjusting for inflation. He offered to bet $5,000 that the average price of oil over the course of 2010 would be at least $200 a barrel in 2005 dollars.

$200 per barrel oil was not in the cards because the world economy could not afford $200 per barrel oil. The world economy would go into recession if oil prices went that high and demand would slacken. We can't get to a sustainably much higher oil price without a few changes:

  • Shift more current uses of oil to other energy sources. That way more parts of economies are less vulnerable to oil price spikes and oil demand does not dip due to recessions.
  • Add less price elastic users of oil. This is happening in China, India, and other developing countries. China has a large number of people who use fairly small amounts of oil as compared to the size of their economy. In fact, China gets 68% of its energy from coal with the rest split across other sources. Whereas the world overall gets about 27% of its energy from coal and 33% of its energy from oil.
  • Decreases in oil production.

With the Chinese now producing a few million more cars per year than the United States they are on a trajectory for much higher oil demand. Add in rising oil demand in OPEC and I can see how the world economy will be able to support much higher oil prices in the future. But the needed economic development that widens the base of oil demand to create the bigger inelastic demand takes time to build up. We can't get to much higher prices sooner without a sharp decline in production.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 28 10:52 PM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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2010 December 27 Monday
IBM 2010 Predictions For Next 5 Years

Here are some excerpts from IBM's predictions for the next 5 years. What do you think of these predictions?

You'll beam up your friends in 3-D

In the next five years, 3-D interfaces – like those in the movies – will let you interact with 3-D holograms of your friends in real time. Movies and TVs are already moving to 3-D, and as 3-D and holographic cameras get more sophisticated and miniaturized to fit into cell phones, you will be able to interact with photos, browse the Web and chat with your friends in entirely new ways. 

Scientists are working to improve video chat to become holography chat - or "3-D telepresence." The technique uses light beams scattered from objects and reconstructs them a picture of that object, a similar technique to the one human eyes use to visualize our surroundings. 

3-D telepresence will do more for business than for personal communication. The trend for socializing is toward more chatting by typing than by talking. The ratio of typed to spoken cell phone conversations keeps going up. Think about it: Do you spend more time in chat rooms, instant messaging, email, and Facebook? Or do you spend more time on the phone?

Better batteries using air.

Batteries will breathe air to power our devices

Ever wish you could make your lap top battery last all day without needing a charge? Or what about a cell phone that powers up by being carried in your pocket?

Battery improvements will certainly keep coming. But will they have their biggest impact on hand-held devices? Or on cars? My guess: cars. Oil is too expensive and the remaining oil is deep offshore or in other places hard to reach. In the United States 94% of transportation energy comes from oil. Even that number understates the dependency since corn ethanol (shown as renewable energy in that graph) requires so much oil to produce it.

Some feel good pap about how we can all save the planet with personal technology. Is this practical?

You won’t need to be a scientist to save the planet

While you may not be a physicist, you are a walking sensor. In five years, sensors in your phone, your car, your wallet and even your tweets will collect data that will give scientists a real-time picture of your environment. You'll be able to contribute this data to fight global warming, save endangered species or track invasive plants or animals that threaten ecosystems around the world. In the next five years, a whole class of "citizen scientists" will emerge, using simple sensors that already exist to create massive data sets for research. 

One idea: Imagine putting camera collars on big cats. Suppose the cameras could be powered from the movement of the cats (I'm reaching). Far more people would get off on virtually riding along with the cats on hunts than would get off on shooting the cats. The cameras might help deter poachers (and then again, maybe not). But habitat destruction wouldn't be stopped by cameras aimed at stopping poachers. Habitat destruction due to growing human populations and industrialization is the root problem. I see continued deterioration.

Computers will tell you how to commute to avoid traffic. Ho hum.

Your commute will be personalized

Imagine your commute with no jam-packed highways, no crowded subways, no construction delays and not having to worry about late for work. In the next five years, advanced analytics technologies will provide personalized recommendations that get commuters where they need to go in the fastest time. Adaptive traffic systems will intuitively learn traveler patterns and behavior to provide more dynamic travel safety and route information to travelers than is available today. 

I doubt this will help much. What will help: 3-D holograms that enable you to work from home and yet still do really high quality meetings. What will help longer term: Cars that drive themselves. That'll enable closer packing of cars on the road, higher speed travel, lower accident rates, and time to read and type at a computer while the car computer does the driving.

IBM expects more of the waste heat from computer data centers will get used for useful purposes like heating buildings in winter.

Computers will help energize your city

Innovations in computers and data centers are enabling the excessive heat and energy that they give off to do things like heat buildings in the winter and power air conditioning in the summer. Can you imagine if the energy poured into the world's data centers could in turn be recycled for a city's use. 

I question the potential for this idea to do much. Data centers are often located where electric power is cheaper. Really expensive cities (e.g. Manhattan) have rental costs that tend to push data centers out to the suburbs or beyond. So knowledge workers in expensive skyscrapers interact with cloud computers in other states and countries.

What should have made it to IBM's list for the next 5 years? I can think of a few things off the top of my head:

  • The web will answer a lot more of your questions and foresee many more of your wants and needs. The total amount about you sitting up on cloud computers will grow by orders of magnitude and allow marketers and service providers to predict more of your wants and answer your questions in much more personalized fashion.
  • News delivery will become much more integrated into your personal life. For example, your airline reservations will be linked to your personal web page so that you'll see weather forecasts for where you are going. Or if your car needs maintenance it'll send a message to your life manager on some cloud server which will alert your pad or smart phone to offer you shops with time slots available you can select from for an appointment to bring it in.
  • Personal computers with local storage will fade to be replaced more with cloud-linked computers that greatly reduce your PC maintenance burden. Whether Google's Chrome OS or some future Microsoft OS does this it will happen. PC maintenance, security, and data management are far too much work.
  • Better ways for people to collaborate to build up knowledge on the web will be developed. The Wikipedia text editing model will be supplemented with models for structured data entry. Clay Shirky's "cognitive surplus" will be harnessed in more productive fashions.
  • Many of us will get full genome sequencing done.

So what else do you see in the next 5 years? How will faster computing power and cheaper internet bandwidth change our lives? Will biotechnological advances have much of an impact in the next 5 years? Biotech's big impacts seem longer term. Certainly we'll see amazing biotech advances in the 2020s. But will we see any major disease cures in the next 10 years?

Update: Also check out IBM's 2007 predictions for the following 5 years. Note they had cell phones acting like credit/debit cards. That's already the case in Japan and now the Nexus S phone from Google has circuitry to help do that. So this is happening, albeit more slowly. Also, they predicted more active control of cars by car computers. That's happening very gradually with adaptive cruise control and other electronic assists making some driving decisions.

Update II: An article about 3-D and augmented reality reminds me of some areas of continued big advances in the next 5 years:

  • Game quality will soar both in terms of becoming more life-like and also much more complex.
  • As we walk around the amount of enhanced context our glasses and cell phones will add will go up, up, up. Want to know what you are looking at? Stare at it and tap your glasses or point your cell phone and you'll get enormous detail. Point at a house and you'll learn the last selling price of a house, its estimated worth, the likely income of its occupants, and other details. Start at a plant and get its evolutionary history, whether it is an invasive species, and much more.
  • Our augmented information will be customized to our interests to guide us to sales, musical performances, and other experiences which fit with who we are. Walking thru a major city will become a much different experience. In some jurisdictions where privacy laws do not block it we'll be warned of approaching criminals.
By Randall Parker 2010 December 27 10:11 PM  Trends Technological Advance
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2010 December 26 Sunday
Big Amygdala Means Bigger Social Network

Does a person with a long Facebook friend list have a bigger amygdala on average? Do the people voted most popular in high school also have big amygdalas? Researchers find a positive correlation between amygdala size on a brain scan and the size and complexity of one's social network.

"We know that primates who live in larger social groups have a larger amygdala, even when controlling for overall brain size and body size," says Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, who led the study. "We considered a single primate species, humans, and found that the amygdala volume positively correlated with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans."

The researchers also performed an exploratory analysis of all the subcortical structures within the brain and found no compelling evidence of a similar relationship between any other subcortical structure and the social life of humans. The volume of the amygdala was not related to other social variables in the life of humans such as life support or social satisfaction.

"This link between amygdala size and social network size and complexity was observed for both older and younger individuals and for both men and women," says Bradford C. Dickerson, MD, of the MGH Department of Neurology and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Research. "This link was specific to the amygdala, because social network size and complexity were not associated with the size of other brain structures." Dickerson is an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and co-led the study with Dr. Barrett.

This is the very same amygdala that when dysfunctional can cause fearlessness. So I wonder: Do people build up large social networks as a protection mechanism? Do they want lots of friends because back when our ancestors lived in paleolithic tribes one needed friends as allies for protection? Does a fearless person have fewer friends?

What I also wonder: Will prospective parents, empowered with the ability to genetically engineer their offspring, opt to give them really big amygdalas? Will future humans be super-socializers, maintainers of massive networks of social and business relationships?

Ask yourself: If you could give your present or future kids a greater ability and propensity to maintain social networks would you?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 26 09:22 PM  Brain Society
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Macondo Horizon Drilling Rig Events

If you want to understand how the events in Transocean's Deepwater Horizon led to the disaster and lives lost read this long New York Times piece. From blowout to explosion was 9 minutes. This report tells the story from the perspectives of many participants. Worth reading.

The result, the interviews and records show, was paralysis. For nine long minutes, as the drilling crew battled the blowout and gas alarms eventually sounded on the bridge, no warning was given to the rest of the crew. For many, the first hint of crisis came in the form of a blast wave.

The paralysis had two main sources, the examination by The Times shows. The first was a failure to train for the worst. The Horizon was like a Gulf Coast town that regularly rehearsed for Category 1 hurricanes but never contemplated the hundred-year storm. The crew members, though expert in responding to the usual range of well problems, were unprepared for a major blowout followed by explosions, fires and a total loss of power.

They were also frozen by the sheer complexity of the Horizon’s defenses, and by the policies that explained when they were to be deployed. One emergency system alone was controlled by 30 buttons.

I am reminded of the comments made after the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident about overly complex control systems. The nuclear power industry changed a great deal due to TMI. I hope the same happens with offshore drillers as a result of the Horizon accident and loss of life. So many things went wrong and so many safety systems failed that the failure speaks to something much deeper than mistakes made by a single crew or oil company. They need to learn from this accident the way the airline industry has learned from the succession of aircraft accidents over a period of decades.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 26 02:56 PM  Dangers Complex Engineering
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Garlic, Onions, Leeks For Lower Osteoarthritis Risk

Protect your hip joints with garlic.

Researchers at King's College London and the University of East Anglia have discovered that women who consume a diet high in allium vegetables, such as garlic, onions and leeks, have lower levels of hip osteoarthritis.

The findings, published in the BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders journal, not only highlight the possible effects of diet in protecting against osteoarthritis, but also show the potential for using compounds found in garlic to develop treatments for the condition.

This is not a prospective study with controls. So take it all with a grain of garlic salt. But it looks like the allium vegetables might cut arthritis risk.

The team carried out a detailed assessment of the diet patterns of the twins and analysed these alongside x-ray images, which captured the extent of early osteoarthritis in the participants' hips, knees and spine.

They found that in those who consumed a healthy diet with a high intake of fruit and vegetables, particularly alliums such as garlic, there was less evidence of early osteoarthritis in the hip joint.

Since I'm too busy to mess around with garlic bulbs I use garlic powder. Anyone know much about forms of garlic and potency?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 26 02:48 PM  Aging Diet Bone Studies
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2010 December 25 Saturday
Genome Sequencing Enables Genetic Disease Treatment

Full sequencing of a 3 year year old's genome enabled identification of a life-threatening mutation and a successful treatment using donor cord blood stem cells.

A collaborative team of scientists and physicians at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin uses genetic sequencing to identify and treat an unknown disease.

For the one of the first times in medical history, researchers and physicians at The Medical College of Wisconsin and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin sequenced all the genes in a boy's DNA to identify a previously-unknown mutation. The team was able not only to identify the mutation, but to develop a treatment plan using a cord blood transplant, and stop the course of the disease.

The poor little 3 year old, Nicholas Volker of Monona, Wisconsin, had already undergone 100 (!) operations for his disease. After sequencing his genome and spending 3 months looking for potential candidate mutations the researchers narrowed in on a mutation, decided on a cord stem cell transplant, identified a compatible donor, and did the transplant. Now the little kid is at home and eating a normal diet without further symptoms of bowel disease. Amazing.

This result is a sign of the times. Where sequencing a full genome took years and hundreds of millions of dollars back in the 1990s it now takes at most a couple of tens of thousands of dollars for a fast sequencing. The trend on DNA sequencing costs is down, down, down. In the next few years costs will drop below $1000.

If you want to be an early adopter of genetic testing technology you ought to think seriously about getting yourself tested in 2011. The early adopter phase for genetic testing won't last more than another year or two. The full genome sequencing early adopter phase will probably run a few years longer. I'm planning to get full genome sequencing done in 2013 or 2014.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 25 11:04 PM  Biotech Genetic Diseases
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Border Collie Chaser Knows 1022 Words

Chaser is a smart girl.

IN THE age-old war between cats and dogs, canines might just have struck the killer blow. A border collie called Chaser has been taught the names of 1022 items - more than any other animal. She can also categorise them according to function and shape, something children learn to do around the age of 3.

Of course it would be a Border Collie. I used to know a Border-Aussie (Australian Shepherd) mix who was so bright that he knew 250 words according to his owner. Given what I saw of that dog I found the claim believable. That a Border could know 1022 words and even understand verbs versus nouns and other details of sentence structure still seems amazing though.

The article above has a video of Chaser demonstrating Border Collie brilliance. You can also watch Chaser perform on this video and this video with more other videos on YouTube. Since Chaser demonstrates understanding of combinations of nouns and verbs she's like a very young human child in terms of her language skills.

My take: Dogs have been bred to have such a large variety of differences in behavior the various breeds that they will make great sources of DNA sequences to use to identify genetic variants that cause their cognitive characteristics. Given that the breeds differ considerably intelligence comparing breeds (or even different dogs in the same breed) could turn out to be useful in identifying genetic variants that cause intelligence and behavioral differences.

Where does this lead? Breeding for even smarter dogs which can understand even more complex forms of human language. Dog DNA sequencing to discover genes that influence intelligence might turn up some intelligence-boosting genetic variants than even Chaser has. Identification of all these variants would give breeders a goal to shoot for: get as many of the variants as possible into the same litter of dogs.

Identification of intelligence-boosting genetic variants in other species could lead to genetic engineering to put some of those variants into dogs. Is a 70+ IQ dog within reach in, say, 20 or 30 years? Seems like it.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 25 07:48 PM  Brain Intelligence
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Commenting And Real Names

It is a continuing source of amazement to me just how few people use their full names when commenting on blog posts and on articles on news sites. I've asked people why on various sites and some claim to fear what would happen if their views became known (and not just about obviously taboo subjects like race). I've been insulted for telling people this hiding of identity is rarely necessary. I've insulted back by telling one guy he was a coward.

The trend appears to be away from anonymity mostly because of where people are doing more of their chatting. Note that on the soaring social networking site Facebook everyone uses their real names (unless they've gone out of their way to use a fake name - but few appear to do this). Yet they reveal their views about a large assortment of topics to not only their direct friends but to the friends of their friends. Well, speaking as someone who has a lot of Facebook friends due to my blogging I do not know most of them in real life. So Facebook isn't keeping discussions in secret closed discussion circles. Yet real names are used.

Just now I decided to register on the Wall Street Journal site and I noticed before registering that everyone in comment threads was using real names. So when I signed up the WSJ web page said (bold emphasis mine):

Commenting on articles requires a Community Profile and members agree to use their real name when participating in Journal Community. Why?

The Journal Community encourages thoughtful dialogue and meaningful connections between real people. We require the use of your full name to authenticate your identity. The quality of conversations can deteriorate when real identities are not provided.

Sounds right to me. I find the discussions there more civil than on many other sites. Anonymous posting seems like a recipe for easy degeneration into insult-fests.

In my own site I ask people to at least use unique pseudonyms (hence the message "No anon or anonymous"). Threads where anonymous is insulting anonymous who is being defended by anonymous are just too confusing. I will delete messages that do not use unique pseudonyms.

Update: To be clear: Some people have to post with pseudonyms. We live in a society where taboos are enforced by pretty strident segments of the political Left who make quite a few views taboo. But really, the vast majority of comments people make here and on most other blogs do not get near the really taboo topics. For most of what you say you are not at risk of being accused of secular blasphemy and stripped of career advancement opportunities. So my take is that the paranoia out there is excessive.

I can see that you might want to say anything controversial on blogs which are considered as sometimes posting content that violates taboos. But the use of pseudonyms and only first names has reached ridiculous portions. Like, I'm one of a small minority of people who use their whole names when posting a comment on the NY Times site. What's with that? You aren't marching into battle with real bullets whistling by when you post on the web. Don't be chicken.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 25 02:13 PM  Comm Tech Society
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2010 December 24 Friday
Serotonin Gene Variant With Alcohol Makes Men Violent

The HTR2B variant of a serotonin neurotransmitter receptor in the brain makes Finnish men violent if they drink. The HTR2B variant occurs at a much higher rate in violent felons.

A multinational research team led by scientists at the National Institutes of Health has found that a genetic variant of a brain receptor molecule may contribute to violently impulsive behavior when people who carry it are under the influence of alcohol. A report of the findings, which include human genetic analyses and gene knockout studies in animals, appears in the Dec. 23 issue of Nature.

"Impulsivity, or action without foresight, is a factor in many pathological behaviors including suicide, aggression, and addiction," explains senior author David Goldman, M.D., chief of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). "But it is also a trait that can be of value if a quick decision must be made or in situations where risk-taking is favored."

This is an example of why it is valuable for individuals to get their genomes tested. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing ought to be available without regulatory barriers in the way (please tell the FDA and the California and NY state governments). Whether you carry a genetic variant that is liable to make you violent under the influence of alcohol is knowledge that teenagers ought to know. It could save lives, prevent maiming, and keep our prisons less crowded.

Scientists will discover all the genetic variants that make some people dangerous when drunk. I say the sooner the better.

"Interestingly, we found that the genetic variant alone was insufficient to cause people to act in such ways," notes Dr. Goldman. "Carriers of the HTR2B variant who had committed impulsive crimes were male, and all had become violent only while drunk from alcohol, which itself leads to behavioral disinhibition."

The researchers also found that knocking out this gene in mice caused the mice to become more impulsive. The researchers are currently trying to determine whether alcohol makes those mice even more impulsive. Obviously, this could lead to a genetic test to determine whether it is safe to let your pet mouse drink alcohol.

Other genetic variants that increase impulsive and violent behavior are likely to be found.

"Although relatively common in Finland, the genetic variant we identified in this study is unlikely to explain a large fraction of the overall variance in impulsive behaviors, as there are likely to be many pathways to impulsivity in its various manifestations," says Dr. Goldman.

Sounds like about 5 percent of Finnish violent felons might not be in jail if they never drank alcohol.

They found that 7.46% of the violent offenders had the mutation, compared with 2.32% of controls.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 24 11:46 PM  Brain Violence
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2010 December 23 Thursday
Milk Fat Linked To Lower Type 2 Diabetes Incidence

Here's yet another in a series of reports about how Deep Fat is not a health problem. The latest? Supposedly evil milk fat that we've all been taught to avoid might be good for us. Pass me the butter. Turns out a fatty acid in milk fat is associated with a substantially lower risk of type 2 insulin resistant diabetes. This study does not provide direction of causation but is highly suggestive.

Boston, MA – Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and collaborators from other institutions have identified a natural substance in dairy fat that may substantially reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The compound, trans-palmitoleic acid, is a fatty acid found in milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter. It is not produced by the body and so only comes from the diet.

In the United States almost almost a quarter of those over 60 years old have type 2 insulin resistant diabetes. Since type 2 diabetes accelerates the body's aging and shortens life expectancy ways to avoid it can make a big difference in longevity.

Conventional wisdom is to avoid full-fat dairy products. Could conventional wisdom be wrong?

Reporting in the December 21, 2010, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, investigators led by Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH and Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Gökhan S. Hotamisligil, J.S. Simmons Professor of Genetics and Metabolism and chair of the Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases at HSPH, explain that trans-palmitoleic acid may underlie epidemiological evidence in recent years that diets rich in dairy foods are linked to lower risk of type 2 diabetes and related metabolic abnormalities.  Health experts generally advise reducing full-fat dairy products, but trans-palmitoleic acid is found in dairy fat.

Many blood health indicators look better in people with high trans-palmitoleic acid.

The HSPH researchers examined 3,736 participants in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute-funded Cardiovascular Health Study, who have been followed for 20 years in an observational study to evaluate risk factors for cardiovascular diseases in older adults. Metabolic risk factors such as blood glucose and insulin levels, and also levels of circulating blood fatty acids, including trans-palmitoleic acid, were measured using stored blood samples in 1992, and participants were followed for development of type 2 diabetes.

At baseline, higher circulating levels of trans-palmitoleic acid were associated with healthier levels of blood cholesterol, inflammatory markers, insulin levels, and insulin sensitivity, after adjustment for other risk factors. During follow-up, individuals with higher circulating levels of trans-palmitoleic acid had a much lower risk of developing diabetes, with about a 60% lower risk among participants in the highest quintile (fifth) of trans-palmitoleic acid levels, compared to individuals in the lowest quintile.

What's next? Steak for heart disease treatment? Pork to fight cancer?

Seriously though, what factors influence trans-palmitoleic acid levels in milk? Does range fed milk have more? Or goat's milk? Anyone know about what influences its concentration in milk?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 23 10:23 PM  Aging Diet Metabolism
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2010 December 22 Wednesday
Denisovans Bred With Humans Outside Of Africa

Razib Khan has been dropping hints that some big story about human evolution was about to break. Finally the official announcements are here and it is quite a story. "Archaic" humans separate from Neanderthals bred with some human populations and some humans alive today carry some of their genes. Is that cool or what?

Researchers have discovered evidence of a distinct group of "archaic" humans existing outside of Africa more than 30,000 years ago at a time when Neanderthals are thought to have dominated Europe and Asia. But genetic testing shows that members of this new group were not Neanderthals, and they interbred with the ancestors of some modern humans who are alive today.

Well, if two such groups are possible is there a third group waiting to be identified? In theory we should be able to detect the presence of other lost groups that inbred with humans by sequencing the genomes of every human population. Look for sequences that seem out of place. Super cheap DNA sequencing will make that possible. What secrets lurk in the genes of Andaman Islanders, the Ainu of Hokkaido Japan, the Eskimos, or the Australian Aborigines?

Fossils of these Denisovans were found in a cave in Siberia.

The journal Nature reported the finding this week. The National Science Foundation's Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division partially funded the research.

An international team of scientists led by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, used a combination of genetic data and dental analysis to identify a previously unknown population of early humans, whom the researchers call "Denisovans." The name was taken from Denisova Cave in southern Siberia where archaeologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences recovered a bone in 2008.

The finger bone of a girl provided the needed DNA sample.

Genetic sequencing of DNA extracted from a finger bone of a 5-10-year-old girl from the cave revealed that she was neither Neanderthal nor a modern human, but shared an ancient origin with Neanderthals. The genetic analysis also showed she had a very different history since splitting from Neanderthals, the researchers concluded.

A tooth from the cave is unlike human teeth. But what about the total shape of the Denisovans? The obvious thing to try: Clone them in a human egg. If a bunch of them are brought back into existence will they start communicating with each other telepathically and try to take over the planet?

4 to 6 percent of the genes of the people of Papua New Guinea come from Denisovans.

Another type of analysis reported by the study's authors showed Denisovans contributed 4-6 percent of their genetic material to the genomes of present-day New Guineans. "They are ancestors of people in Papua New Guinea but not of the great majority of people in Eurasia," said David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who led the research's population genetics analysis.

Check out pictures of the tooth.

Update: Carl Zimmer's coverage in the New York Times includes someone way more knowledgeable speculating the same point as I guessed at above: there could be more interbreeding cases waiting to be found.

Dr. Bustamante also thinks that other cases of interbreeding are yet to be discovered. “There’s a lot of possibility out there,” he said. “But the only way to get at them is to sequence more of these ancient genomes.”

Is ancient genome sequencing the only way to discover evidence of interbreeding? These genetic sequences from distant relatives of humans don't stand out for other reasons? I would think whole chromosome sequencing might identify chromosomes that couldn't possibly have come from humans who left Africa in the last 100,000 years. No?

Update II: Some comments from Greg Cochran in a Gene Expression thread point out that even before the paper reported on above there were signs of homo erectus admixture in Melanesians.

There has for a long time been a suspicion that Australoids had erectus admixture.
I’ve also seen funny genetic anomalies that are probably due to this.

There were further hints this year. Long, looking at microsatellites, found evidence for one admixture that showed up in all Eurasians and another that showed up only in Melanesians. Moreover, Linda Vigilant (from Max Planck) found Long’s work interesting and said that it fit certain patterns they had seen in Melanesians. Later, in the fall, I noticed the clues in Table S48. I thought that the Denisova sample might be from the same population (from Occam’s razor), but was somewhat discouraged from this when Paabo said the Denisova pinkie was Neanderthal, as recently as two weeks ago.

As for ancient population substructure in Africa – the idea that it explained the evidence of Neanderthal admixture was silly. The idea that it might explain Denisovan admixture in New Guinea is the turducken of silly.

I would expect some genetic differences in a human population can be too complex to be the product of that population's evolution by itself. If more such genetic signatures of admixture exist they will be found. The cost of genetic sequencing is getting too cheap for these patterns to remain undetected.

On Discover Magazine's GNXP blog Greg Cochran says the Denisovans are probably homo erectus.

“Unless of course you are suggesting that Denisovans=Asian Erectines??”

Of course I am. The dates in this paper are functions of the assumed mutation rate. We have two different estimates for that, one much-used standard rate based on essentially nothing, and a recent, much lower one one based on parent-offspring rates and known mutation rates for Mendelian diseases. In the paper, they used the standard rate. Switch to the lower rate and you get population split times that fit the fossil record better in both Europe and Asia.

Yet it’s a great paper for all that.

Also see a post by John Hawks: The Denisova genome FAQ

By Randall Parker 2010 December 22 05:53 PM  Evolutionary History
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Researchers Separate Chromosomes For Sequencing

An article in Technology Review reports on advances made in separating chromosomes so they can be individually sequenced.

Now two teams have devised ways to determine these groupings—known as the haplotype—in an individual. Stephen Quake and collaborators at Stanford University developed a way to physically separate the chromosome pairs and sequence each strand of DNA individually. Jay Shendure and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle sequenced DNA from single chromosomes in specially selected pools and used this information to piece together the genome. Both projects were published this week in Nature Biotechnology.

If each chromosome in a cell can be separated out and individually sequenced then one could do the same to parents and children. With that information it will be easy to figure out exactly which chromosomes each child inherited.

This gets especially interesting when thinking about reproduction. If each person can know which genetic variants they have on which chromosome then couples could think about the ramifications of all the possible combinations of their chromosomes they could give to their offspring.

We still need the technical means to choose chromosomes to assemble the more desired chromosomes from each parent into an embryonic cell to start a pregnancy. Given that capability the rate of human evolution will accelerate by orders of magnitude.

The rate of sequencing of full human genomes is rising by orders of magnitude. We need a flood of genetic data needed to figure out what all the genetic variants mean. That flood is starting to happen.

In the last year, the number of sequenced, published genomes has shot up from two or three to approximately nine, with another 40 or so genomes sequenced but not yet published. "While the numbers are still small numbers, we are starting to put this research into the real disease context and get something out of it," says Jay Shendure, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and a TR35 winner in 2006.

Given an in-depth understanding of the human genome and the means to choose chromosomes for offspring human evolution will accelerate by orders of magnitude. It is only a matter of when, not if. The knowledge is coming over the next 10-20 years. The technology for choosing between embryos with in vitro fertilization will enable some acceleration of evolution. But the ability to choose chromosomes will bump up the rate of evolution by orders of magnitude more.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 22 08:12 AM  Biotech Manipulations
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2010 December 21 Tuesday
Chip To Sequence Genome In Minutes?

A small chip will some day sequence your entire genetic sequence in minutes. Of course, small and fast also means very cheap too.

Scientists from Imperial College London are developing technology that could ultimately sequence a person’s genome in mere minutes, at a fraction of the cost of current commercial techniques.

Couples on dates or sizing up each other in bars will some day surreptitiously take DNA samples of each other and do sequencing to find out if their romantic interest has desired attributes. How smart? How likely to be faithful? How driven? Genetic sequences will provide clues.

The researchers have patented an early prototype technology that they believe could lead to an ultrafast commercial DNA sequencing tool within ten years. Their work is described in a study published this month in the journal Nano Letters and it is supported by the Wellcome Trust Translational Award and the Corrigan Foundation.

The research suggests that scientists could eventually sequence an entire genome in a single lab procedure, whereas at present it can only be sequenced after being broken into pieces in a highly complex and time-consuming process.

With the prices dropping I expect most of us will know at least some of our our genetic differences from genetic testing in the next 5 years. Right now 23andMe is running a DNA testing sale of $99. It strike me that this would make a novel Christmas gift. Got to see if a certain family member wants this as a gift.

In the 10-15 year time line full genome sequencing will become common. I'll be surprised if most of us do not know our our full genome sequence by 2025. Costs are falling so rapidly that 15 years seems sufficient to make genome sequencing very cheap.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 21 12:38 AM  Biotech Assay Services
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Chimp Girls Show Doll Preference

Chimps show familiar human sex stereotypes with objects for playing.

Researchers have reported some of the first evidence that chimpanzee youngsters in the wild may tend to play differently depending on their sex, just as human children around the world do. Although both young male and female chimpanzees play with sticks, females do so more often, and they occasionally treat them like mother chimpanzees caring for their infants, according to a study in the December 21st issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

The findings suggest that the consistently greater tendency, across all cultures, for girls to play more with dolls than boys do is not just a result of sex-stereotyped socialization, the researchers say, but rather comes partly from "biological predilections."

"This is the first evidence of an animal species in the wild in which object play differs between males and females," said Richard Wrangham of Harvard University.

Earlier studies of captive monkeys had also suggested a biological influence on toy choice. When juvenile monkeys are offered sex-stereotyped human toys, females gravitate toward dolls, whereas males are more apt to play with "boys' toys" such as trucks.

Innate brain differences between males and females are the result of natural selection. It is natural that the young of a learning species will practice skills that better enable them to carry out adult responsibilities. Play times in youth are for learning.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 21 12:16 AM  Brain Sex Differences
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2010 December 19 Sunday
Wind Turbines Alter Farm Microclimates

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and the University of Colorado find evidence that wind turbines alter microclimates for farm crops, possibly for the better.

“We’ve finished the first phase of our research, and we’re confident that wind turbines do produce measureable effects on the microclimate near crops,” said Ames Laboratory associate and agricultural meteorology expert Gene Takle.  According to Takle, who is also a professor of agricultural meteorology and director of the Climate Science Program at Iowa State University, the slow-moving turbine blades that have become a familiar sight along Midwestern highways, channel air downwards, in effect bathing the crops below via the increased airflow they create.

Wind turbines might reduce temperature extremes and lengthen growing seasons.

For instance, crops warm up when the sun shines on them, and some of that heat is given off to the atmosphere. Extra air turbulence likely speeds up this heat exchange, so crops stay slightly cooler during hot days. On cold nights, turbulence stirs the lower atmosphere and keeps nighttime temperatures around the crops warmer.

“In this case, we anticipate turbines’ effects are good in the spring and fall because they would keep the crop a little warmer and help prevent a frost,” said Takle. “Wind turbines could possibly ward off early fall frosts and extend the growing season.”

Global climate engineering is controversial. Yet microclimate alteration using wind turbines looks like it is not going to generate much if any opposition.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 19 01:49 PM  Climate Engineering
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Our Universe Bumped Into Other Universes?

The multiverse is so crowded that universes bump into each other. We need to move our universe out into a rural part of the multiverse so we can get some peace. Background cosmic microwave radiation provides evidence of whole universe collisions?

Now Stephen Feeney at University College London and a few pals say they've found tentative evidence of this bruising in the form of circular patterns in cosmic microwave background. In fact, they've found four bruises, implying that our universe must have smashed into other bubbles at least four times in the past.

We are just a bubble floating around in the multiverse?

Are there any causally identical universes which are ahead or behind us in time?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 19 11:06 AM  Space Multiverse
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Deep Fat Is Not The Problem

The mainstream is beginning to accept elements of the Paleo Diet. Refined flour and sugar are the root evils.

"Fat is not the problem," says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases."

It's a confusing message. For years we've been fed the line that eating fat would make us fat and lead to chronic illnesses. "Dietary fat used to be public enemy No. 1," says Dr. Edward Saltzman, associate professor of nutrition and medicine at Tufts University. "Now a growing and convincing body of science is pointing the finger at carbs, especially those containing refined flour and sugar."

Could it be that experts were wrong for decades? Wheat seems like something to avoid. Though oddly potatoes might not be bad.

The old conventional wisdom is "precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true".

Sleeper was prophetic. Oh, and chairs are evil too. Sitting in a pastry shop eating sweet carbs is about the worst thing you can do for your body.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 19 10:14 AM  Aging Diet Studies
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2010 December 18 Saturday
First Nissan Leaf Owner Reports On Battery Range

Olivier Chalouhi can only get the claimed 100 mile range at lower speeds.

After picking up his car on Dec. 11 and taking it to a press conference at San Francisco City Hall, Chalouhi said he brought the Leaf home and plugged it in -- the battery was running low. He said the car's mileage varies wildly. Chalouhi said he can get 100 miles per charge in slow city driving, but only 50 or 60 miles at 75 mph on the freeway.

Still, even if you commute 25 miles each way at high speeds the car would still work for you if you could charge it every night. If you are commuting more than that you have my sympathy.

Ford's electric Focus, coming in late 2011, is supposed to have a 100 mile range too. The Leaf has a simpler battery pack than the Focus. The active cooling and heating of the Ford Focus battery will reduce range degradation in more extreme temperatures and therefore the Focus should achieve closer to its range more of the time. Yes, if you want to be among the electric car cognoscenti and drive a better one you will have to bone up on battery chemistries and active cooling and heating systems.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 18 07:03 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2010 December 16 Thursday
Lack Of Amygdala Function Makes Woman Fearless

Fearlessness comes from an underactive amygdala.

A new study, published online on December 16 in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, offers new insight into the emotional life of a unique individual who completely lacks the function of an almond-shaped structure in the brain known as the amygdala. Studies over the last 50 years have shown that the amygdala plays a central role in generating fear reactions in animals from rats to monkeys. Based on the detailed case study of the woman identified only as SM, it now appears that the same is true of humans.

She knows no fear.

To explore this role of the amygdala, Feinstein and his Univeristy of Iowa team observed and recorded SM's responses in a variety of situations that would make most people feel fear. They exposed her to snakes and spiders, took her to one of the world's scariest haunted houses, and had her watch a series of horror films. They also had her fill out questionnaires probing different aspects of fear, from the fear of death to the fear of public speaking. On top of that, SM faithfully recorded her emotions at various times throughout the day while carrying around an electronic diary over a 3-month period. Across all questionnaires, measures, and scenarios, SM failed to experience fear.

That apparent lack of fear mirrored her personal experience, Feinstein said. "In everyday life, SM has encountered numerous traumatic events which have threatened her very existence, and by her report, have caused no fear. Yet, she is able to feel other emotions such as happiness and sadness. Taken together, these findings suggest that the human amygdala is a pivotal area of the brain for triggering a state of fear."

Drugs to suppress the amygdala might help those with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Or perhaps right after a traumatic experience soldiers could be given drugs to disable the amygdala to prevent conditioning to feel severe fear? Her emotional core is immune to the horrors of life.

"This past year, I've been treating veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from PTSD. Their lives are marred by fear, and they are oftentimes unable to even leave their home due to the ever-present feeling of danger," Feinstein said. "In striking contrast, the patient in this study is immune to these states of fear and shows no symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The horrors of life are unable to penetrate her emotional core. In essence, traumatic events leave no emotional imprint on her brain."

My theory: the cowardly lion had an over-active amygdala.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 16 11:49 PM  Brain Emotions
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Duck And Cover: Stay Inside After Nuclear Blast

Suppose you find yourself half buried under rubble after your city gets nuked. What to do? Flee? Nope. Find a stable building and go inside and stay there. Time spent outside fleeing will radiate you and get you killed. Of course, if you are really close to the center of the blast you have nothing to worry about except maybe the afterlife.

Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with an atom bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe.

Even staying inside a car will cut your mortality risk by 50%. But better to get into something more solid. This is the latest official thinking.

Decontamination may be necessary. Duck and cover! That flash means act fast!

"He did what we all must do. You and you and you and you. Duck and cover!"

Remember, radioactivity is "unseen, unheard, and odorless". Go in to 9:45 to watch buildings get knocked down. Best to be further from the epicenter so you can still find a building to enter for shelter.

If terrorist attacks with nukes ever become a substantial possibility then cities would need a bunch of mostly underground structures that can withstand blasts as long they aren't really close to the epicenter. Then people could have nearby places to flee to.

I'm still way way more concerned with natural aging processes as the most likely way the vast majority of us are going to die. I'd rather have rejuvenation therapies than a fall-out shelter in the back yard.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 16 11:21 PM  Dangers Nuclear Warfare
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2010 December 15 Wednesday
Happy Videos Improve Learning

Psychology researchers at the University of Western Ontario find that students learn better if their mood is manipulated with videos or music to make them happier.

Students who took part in the study were put into different moods and then given a category learning task to do (they learned to classify sets of pictures with visually complex patterns). The researchers manipulated mood with help from music clips and video clips; first, they tried several out to find out what made people happiest and saddest. The happiest music was a peppy Mozart piece, and the happiest video was of a laughing baby. The researchers then used these in the experiment, along with sad music and video (a piece of music from Schindler’s List and a news report about an earthquake) and a piece of music and a video that didn’t affect mood. After listening to the music and watching the video, people had to try to learn to recognize a pattern.

Happy volunteers were better at learning a rule to classify the patterns than sad or neutral volunteers. “If you have a project where you want to think innovatively, or you have a problem to carefully consider, being in a positive mood can help you to do that,” Nadler says. And music is an easy way to get into a good mood. Everyone has a different type of music that works for them—don’t feel like you have to switch to Mozart, she says.

Mood music. Comedy. How about mood music with comedy? Say, an old Steve Martin skit involving banjo playing and balloon head gear?

Watching funny videos at work is a form of self-medication to make one's brain function better.

Nadler also thinks this may be a reason why people like to watch funny videos at work. “I think people are unconsciously trying to put themselves in a positive mood”—so that apparent time-wasting may actually be good news for employers.

Okay dear readers, got any links to some videos that you think will help our brains function at higher levels? Know of some videos that'll make us learn faster and solve more problems more creatively?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 15 11:36 PM  Brain Performance
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Ford To Sell HEV, PHEV, And EV Versions Of Focus

Ford will make gasoline, hybrid, pluggable hybrid, and pure electric versions of the Focus. Finally we will be able to compare consumer reactions to those 4 choices in a more apples-to-apples fashion. This promises to be interesting.

Ford Motor Company's retooled Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., becomes the world's first plant to build not only fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicles, but three production versions of electrified vehicles – battery electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles

Production of the all-new global Ford Focus, in four-door and five-door versions, is under way with sales to begin early next year. The Focus Electric battery electric vehicle goes into production late next year followed by a new hybrid and plug-in hybrid in late 2012

Come much higher oil prices Ford has all its bases covered. If you buy a Focus you can use your choice of variant as a way to bet on the future price of oil. Fearing $200+ per barrel? Go EV. Expecting a retreat from the current $85+ per barrel? Go pure conventional gasoline.

Currently the Nissan Leaf EV (electric vehicle) and GM Chevy Volt PHEV (pluggable hybrid electric vehicle) differ not just as EV versus PHEV but also in assorted design choices of two competing car makers, price, and the probably in the size of the losses the companies take in selling each one. With the Ford Focus we will get to see how EV, HEV, and PHEV equivalents compare to a plain gasoline engine car. We will also get to see how many of each type sell. My guess is the HEV will outsell the PHEV and EV. But it is not clear now the PHEV and EV will fare versus each other. Any guesses?

It is curious that Ford is bringing out the EV before the HEV and PHEV. Anyone know why? Is it just easier to do? The PHEV is the most complex.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 15 10:49 PM  Energy Transportation
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2010 December 14 Tuesday
Single Purchase Can Cause Aesthetic Disharmony

If you want to keep your spending down then avoid buying something that looks too fancy compared to your existing possessions.

The problem starts with the purchase of a new item, particularly those among designer product lines, luxury branded items, or consumer goods of high-end design. Once home, these items – graced with what researchers call salient design elements, such as a unique pattern or interesting color scheme – can look out of place when compared to other possessions. The most obvious solution to this aesthetic mismatch would be to return the item to the store.

But instead of making a return, consumers who were surveyed said they would make more purchases in an effort to try to surround their designer purchase with other luxury items and restore aesthetic harmony, according to marketing professors Vanessa Patrick of the University of Houston and Henrik Hagtvedt of Boston College, whose study is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research. In fact, this additional string of purchases may represent a far larger expenditure than the initial purchase

Of course, if you enjoy aesthetic harmony then you might be able to get away with buying an item that does not fit with everything else you own.

Update: A friend comments that images on a TV set also disrupt aesthetic harmony. They show goods that are out of place with what is in the house or apartment.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 14 10:37 PM  Brain Economics
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Insulin-Producing Cells Made From Adult Cells

Men with type 1 diabetes might be able to grow insulin-producing cells from their own testicular stem cells.

PHILADELPHIA – Men with type 1 diabetes may be able to grow their own insulin-producing cells from their testicular tissue, say Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) researchers who presented their findings today at the American Society of Cell Biology 50th annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Their laboratory and animal study is a proof of principle that human spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs) extracted from testicular tissue can morph into insulin-secreting beta islet cells normally found in the pancreas. And the researchers say they accomplished this feat without use of any of the extra genes now employed in most labs to turn adult stem cells into a tissue of choice.

Extract these stem cells and grow them outside their normal environment and they become stem cells capable of forming all cell types. So in theory these cells could be used to many different types of organs and stem cell therapies.

Because SSCs already have the genes necessary to become embryonic stem cells, it is not necessary to add any new genes to coax them to morph into these progenitor cells, Gallicano says. "These are male germ cells as well as adult stem cells."

"We found that once you take these cells out of the testes niche, they get confused, and will form all three germ layers within several weeks," he says. "These are true, pluripotent stem cells."

Okay guys, so we got that going for us. Be careful with the future source of cells for your replacement organs. The cool part of this approach to creating pluripotent stem cells is it avoids immune incompatibility that could come with embryonic stem cell lines. When we get older we are going to need replacement parts grown to replace the old failing parts. This report might be the ticket for how to get the starter cells for growing replacement parts.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 14 10:21 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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Lenalidomide To Restore Aging Immune Systems?

Lenalidomide, a derivative of thalidomide, was developed to treat multiple myeloma. But in low doses lenalidomide appears to reverse many immune systems which occur in some (though not all) people as they age.

UCSF researchers have identified an existing medication that restores key elements of the immune system that, when out of balance, lead to a steady decline in immunity and health as people age.

The team found that extremely low doses of the drug lenalidomide can stimulate the body’s immune-cell protein factories, which decrease production during aging, and rebalance the levels of several key cytokines – immune proteins that either attack viruses and bacteria or cause inflammation that leads to an overall decline in health.

Blood tests could tell you in your 50s if your immune system is aging in a way that lenalidomide might help.

In 2009, Goetzl had studied a group of 50 elderly adults through the National Institute on Aging, examining their levels of key cytokines – Interleukin (IL)-2, IFN-gamma and IL-17 – and discovered that truly healthy 70-80 year old women had the same levels of those as did healthy 20 year olds.

However, some elderly men and frail women who showed increased levels of inflammatory diseases and weakened defenses against infections tended to have lower levels of the first two cytokines, which are protective, and higher levels of inflammatory cytokines. That imbalance, the researchers found, began in late middle age.

Lenalidomide has plenty of potential side effects. So do not take it lightly. But since this purpose for its use involves lower doses perhaps the odds of side effects are lower than for other purposes?

In this study, the team tested the drug in healthy seniors, each of whom were matched in race, gender and national origin to a healthy young adult participant. They found that extremely low levels of lenalidomide – 0.1 μM – optimally stimulated IL-2 production in the young people (21-40 years) roughly sevenfold, but stimulated IL-2 production in patients over age 65 by 120-fold, restoring them to youthful levels for up to five days. At that dosage, the drug also increased IFN-gamma up to six fold in the elderly patients, without suppressing IL-17 generation.

The UCSF researchers are going to continue to explore its use for aging immune systems. They are also exploring other drugs for this purpose.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 14 12:04 AM  Aging Drugs
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2010 December 12 Sunday
Metabolic Engineering Of Microorganisms

A researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Lab discusses the potential of engineering microorganisms to produce valuable chemicals for medical treatments, plastics, and other applications.

Will we one day design and create molecules, cells and microorganisms that produce specific chemical products from simple, readily-available, inexpensive starting materials? Will the synthetic organic chemistry now used to produce pharmaceutical drugs, plastics and a host of other products eventually be surpassed by metabolic engineering as the mainstay of our chemical industries? Yes, according to Jay Keasling, chemical engineer and one of the world’s foremost practitioners of metabolic engineering.

I read this and think of colonizing other planets. Why? Any colonization ship won't be able to carry along huge amounts of capital equipment. To produce a substantial fraction of the goods (e.g. drugs, textiles, lubricants, paints) that we use we will need very small devices (whether DNA-based or not) to carry along that can replicate themselves in vats set up once a colony is established. We need biotechnology in order to move off-world.

In theory engineering microorganisms to do our bidding ought to lower production costs. Though the microorganisms will still need growing vats with complex control systems to provide optimal growth conditions.

In a paper published in the journal Science titled “Manufacturing molecules through metabolic engineering,” Keasling discusses the potential of metabolic engineering – one of the principal techniques of modern biotechnology – for the microbial production of many of the chemicals that are currently derived from non-renewable resources or limited natural resources. Examples include, among a great many other possibilities, the replacement of gasoline and other transportation fuels with clean, green and renewable biofuels.

“Continued development of the tools of metabolic engineering will be necessary to expand the range of products that can be produced using biological systems, Keasling says. “However, when more of these tools are available, metabolic engineering should be just as powerful as synthetic organic chemistry, and together the two disciplines can greatly expand the number of chemical products available from renewable resources.”

In a Mars colony genetically engineered plants would have one big advantage over genetically engineered microorganisms: no need for vats. Picture a Mars colony with a large enclosed area with a variety of plants growing inside that area producing drugs and textiles. Could microorganisms grow the transparent air-tight shell material needed to create the plant growing areas?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 12 10:25 PM  Biotech Microorganisms
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Alzheimer's Caused By Slow Trash Removal

The rate of formation of amyloid-beta in Alzheimer's disease brains is not the problem. Too slow removal of the peptide plaques in brains might be the real problem.

Neurologists finally have an answer to one of the most important questions about Alzheimer's disease: Do rising brain levels of a plaque-forming substance mean patients are making more of it or that they can no longer clear it from their brains as effectively?

"Clearance is impaired in Alzheimer's disease," says Randall Bateman, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "We compared a group of 12 patients with early Alzheimer's disease to 12 age-matched and cognitively normal subjects. Both groups produced amyloid-beta (a-beta) at the same average rate, but there's an average drop of about 30 percent in the clearance rates of the group with Alzheimer's."

The measured slower rate of clearance would cause accumulation up to a level that causes disease state in about 10 years.

Scientists calculate this week in Science Express that it would take 10 years for this decrease in clearance to cause a build-up of a-beta equal to those seen in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

This explanation might be compatible with some of the other hypotheses for Alzheimer's. For example, poorer brain blood circulation due to atherosclerosis or other blood vessel diseases could starve brain metabolism of the oxygen and sugar it needs to power the trash removal mechanisms. Also, a problem with insulin receptors similarly might starve the neurons for nutrients. Alzheimer's might be a special kind of brain diabetes disease.

Update: What is the root cause of the slow trash removal? This report does not tell us. It is an important question because the nature of the root cause may determine how hard it is to cure Alzheimer's Disease. If the root cause is a nutrient supply problem that is easier to fix than if accumulations of genetic mutations with age are the root cause. If accumulation of genetic mutations degrades the energy production machinery or plaque removal machinery in the cell then curing Alzheimer's will be a lot harder.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 12 02:45 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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Tyler Cowen: Medical Care Queues To Get Longer

Unless you have a great private health insurance plan or lots of money you face a future of rationing by queuing. Even if you have great private health insurance now you won't in your old age. My advice: plan accordingly. Start preparing for it by accumulating money.

UNEQUAL access to health care is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States, but the country is moving toward rationing on a scale that is unprecedented here. Wealthy people will always be able to buy most of what they want. But for everyone else, if we stay on the current course, the lines are likely to get longer and longer.

If you think this isn't going to affect you then unless you are wealthy think again. You need to start saving for your medical care in your old age. Sure, if you are in an industrialized country government will pay a substantial chunk of your old age medical costs. But you are far more likely to get better care and the most cutting edge care if you have the ability to spend substantial amounts of money out of your own pocket for your diagnoses and treatments.

Being unable to pony up some bucks for your medical treatment might not affect your longevity or how much you suffer. Could be you'll get lucky and get a killer disease that is cheap to treat and cure. Could be then you'll go some additional years and then get "lucky" in another way: You could get a killer diseases that is incurable and has no treatment. So being poor and unable to fund any of your own medical care in your old age might not matter.

But suppose you get a disease which has a cure that is in clinical trial where you have to travel somewhere (either in your home country or abroad) to get it before it becomes widely available. Well, being able to pay for this treatment yourself could become a matter of life or death. I think that especially likely for a lot of the great cell therapies and for methods to grow replacement organs. You might need to go to China to get these treatments or somewhere else offshore.

Large number of doctors who are most in demand have dropped seeing Medicaid patients and a growing number have dropped Medicare patients too.

A result is that physicians often make Medicaid patients wait or refuse to see them altogether. Medicare patients are also beginning to face lines, as doctors increasingly prefer patients with private insurance.

Suppose your doctors are stumped about what ails you and you need to see a great specialist. The best really are much better than the average or the below average. You might find yourself in the position of needing to spend your own money to travel to see the best specialist in a field. My advice: save for it.

Tyler says Obamacare is actually going to hasten the development of longer queues for waiting for diagnoses and treatment.

Access to health care will become problematic, and not only because the population is aging and demand is rising. Unfortunately, the new health care legislation is likely to speed this process. Under the new law, tens of millions of additional Americans will receive coverage, through Medicaid or private insurance. The new recipients of private insurance will gain the most, but people previously covered through Medicaid will lose.

You have been warned. What to do about it? Cut your spending and put aside more in retirement accounts. Also, when making career choices go for the money. The utility of money is going to rise with advances in biotechnology. Some extra tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside for medical expenses might save your life.

Update: It is tempting to react to the health care debate by arguing for or against different reforms or by arguing that the other side is perfidious or your side can work miracles if only given a large ruling majority. But all this is besides the point when it comes to your own personal health care. Take the most probable range of health care policy changes in the next 20 year or so. Given any of those changes will you still be able to boost your chances of getting correct diagnoses and cutting edge treatments if you have more money in the bank (or in gold or stocks if you prefer)? I say yes and plan accordingly.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 12 11:20 AM  Aging Population Problems
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2010 December 10 Friday
Living Longer With More Time Sick

We are living longer but with more illness.

Increased life expectancy in the United States has not been accompanied by more years of perfect health, reveals new research published in the December issue of the Journal of Gerontology.

Indeed, a 20-year-old today can expect to live one less healthy year over his or her lifespan than a 20-year-old a decade ago, even though life expectancy has grown.

From 1970 to 2005, the probability of a 65-year-old surviving to age 85 doubled, from about a 20 percent chance to a 40 percent chance. Many researchers presumed that the same forces allowing people to live longer, including better health behaviors and medical advances, would also delay the onset of disease and allow people to spend fewer years of their lives with debilitating illness.

But new research from Eileen Crimmins, AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California, and Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, a postdoctoral fellow at the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, shows that average "morbidity," or, the period of life spend with serious disease or loss of functional mobility, has actually increased in the last few decades.

The results are not surprising. Industrialized countries have rising rates of obesity, insulin resistant diabetes, and other diseases of poor diet and lifestyle.

"There is substantial evidence that we have done little to date to eliminate or delay disease while we have prevented death from diseases," Crimmins explained. "At the same time, there have been substantial increases in the incidences of certain chronic diseases, specifically, diabetes."

The process of aging is basically the process of accumulating damage to your tissue in every part of your body. Live longer and you accumulate more damage. If medicine can keep you from dying by fixing one particularly severe problem (e.g. remove an early stage cancer, fix an aorta, provide substitute hormones for a failed endocrine organ) then you just live longer so that more pieces of your body develop clinical problems.

What we need: The ability to replace aged failing tissue with younger healthier tissue. We need new parts just like cars that break down. We need stem cell therapies, replacement organs grown in vats (or even in our own bodies), and treatments that cause the most damaged cells to commit suicide and make room for healthier neighbors to replicate. We need the ability to reverse the aging process. That's coming in this century. Will it come soon enough to save most of us from death caused by old age?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 10 05:54 PM  Aging Population Problems
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2010 December 09 Thursday
Video Game Make Kids Eat More Vegetables

Today video games to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. But this is just a first step. Why not video games to advance political agendas? When will political factions and financial interests fund video games to promote lifestyles and support for political positions? Why not video games to encourage kids to become investment bankers, hedge fund managers, or special forces soldiers, or believers in a religion?

San Diego, CA, December 7, 2010 – Obesity in youngsters has risen dramatically in recent decades. Fruit and vegetable (FV) consumption and increased water intake can lower the risk of obesity, as can increased physical activity, but it is not always easy to convince children to eat better and exercise more. In a new study published in the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that video games designed to encourage these behaviors were effective.

"Escape from Diab" (Diab) and "Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space" (Nanoswarm) are epic video games specifically designed to lower risks of type 2 diabetes and obesity by changing youth diet and physical activity behaviors. Designed by Archimage, Inc., and funded by a Small Business Initiative Research Grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, Diab and Nanoswarm are based on social cognitive, self-determination, and persuasion theories.

Hey, if video games can get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables surely they can convince young, impressionable, gullible, naive kids to support public transit, saving trees, more aircraft carriers, or socialized health care.

Children playing these video games increased FV consumption by about 2/3 serving per day, but did not increase water consumption or moderate to vigorous physical activity, or improve body composition. Despite the increase, FV and water consumption and physical activity remained below the minimum recommendations.

What I wonder: In the longer run will technological advances enhance or degrade the ability of parents to control the environments that children experience growing up? 30 years from now will parents have more or less control over what their kids learn and what cultural influences reach them?

One can imagine a large market of educational games and virtual environments where parents choose what their kids learn and what influences get thru to them. Will 10 year olds have the equivalent of full access to the web 30 years from now? Or will they access heavily controlled and customizable subsets? Will specialized A.I.s filter what reaches each kid?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 09 11:41 PM  Brain Conditioning
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2010 December 08 Wednesday
Is The Internet A Public Sphere?

The current flap about WikiLeaks and companies booting the site off their servers either due to government pressure, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, or commercial pressures serves to remind that there's no guaranteed free speech on the internet because the internet is not a real public square.

Some internet experts say the situation highlights the complexities of free speech issues on the Internet, as grassroots Web companies evolve and take central control over what their users can make public. Clay Shirky, who studies the Internet and teaches at New York University, said that although the Web is the new public sphere, it is actually “a corporate sphere that tolerates public speech.”

Do we need a subset of the internet that is really guaranteed to allow free speech?

Marcia Hofmann, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “Any Internet user who cares about free speech or has a controversial or unpopular message should be concerned about the fact that intermediaries might not let them express it.”

She added, “Your free speech rights are only as strong as the weakest intermediary.”

Think about it: If you can't communicate via electronic means it is like you become silenced. Fewer people will read hard copy newspapers. Of course, relatively few people get to decide what goes in hard copy newspapers anyway.

Is the internet demonstrating that private property actually will protect speech rights fairly well? Does one have so many ways to transmit one's message that the private nature of the internet is not a problem? I'm not clear on this. Got any thoughts?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 08 11:49 PM  Comm Tech Society
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Electric Delivery Trucks Seen As Cost Effective

Check out this piece in the Wall Street Journal:

The trucks, which have a top speed of about 50 mph and can carry 16,000 pounds, cost about $30,000 more than a diesel, but Staples expects to recover that expense in 3.3 years because of the savings inherent in the electric models, Mr. Payette said.

Staples said the annual maintenance cost of a diesel delivery truck is about $2,700 in most years, including oil, transmission fluid, filters and belts. For an electric truck—which has no transmission and needs no fluids, filters or belts—the cost is about $250.

A 3.3 year payback is pretty impressive. A delivery truck for stationary stores such as Staples might be one of the best cost fits for electric vehicles (EVs). Plenty of miles driving but with lots of short trips. So the truck can be plugged into a high current plug between trips.

The ideal use cases for EVs involve large numbers of miles per year but short trips so that the battery does not go dead. The higher the mileage per year the more the miles the additional capital costs can be spread over.

What is not clear from the article: Absent government subsidies would these electric trucks still make economic sense? How big are the subsidies per truck? Anyone know?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 08 11:36 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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Whey Protein Lowers Blood Pressure?

Here's one whey to lower your blood pressure. (sorry, couldn't resist)

PULLMAN, Wash.—Beverages supplemented by whey-based protein can significantly reduce elevated blood pressure, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease, a Washington State University study has found.

Research led by nutritional biochemist Susan Fluegel and published in International Dairy Journal found that daily doses of commonly available whey brought a more than six-point reduction in the average blood pressure of men and women with elevated systolic and diastolic blood pressures. While the study was confined to 71 student subjects between the ages of 18 and 26, Fluegel says older people with blood pressure issues would likely get similar results.

"One of the things I like about this is it is low-cost," says Fluegel, a nutritional biochemistry instructor interested in treating disease through changes in nutrition and exercise. "Not only that, whey protein has not been shown to be harmful in any way."

Some lines of evidence support the idea that whey increases muscle growth from work-outs.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 08 11:20 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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2010 December 07 Tuesday
Get Dirty To Avoid Depression?

A theory holds that auto-immune diseases and some other disorders related to the immune system are caused by a lack of exposure to microorganisms that our immune systems are designed to handle (this idea is known as the Hygiene Hypothesis). The absence of real enemies makes the immune system incorrectly attack friendlies and to otherwise malfunction. Are imbalanced immune systems due to clean environments making people depressed?

In an effort to pinpoint potential triggers leading to inflammatory responses that eventually contribute to depression, researchers are taking a close look at the immune system of people living in today's cleaner modern society.

Rates of depression in younger people have steadily grown to outnumber rates of depression in the older populations and researchers think it may be because of a loss of healthy bacteria.

In an article published in the December issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, Emory neuroscientist Charles Raison, MD, and colleagues say there is mounting evidence that disruptions in ancient relationships with microorganisms in soil, food and the gut may contribute to the increasing rates of depression.

According to the authors, the modern world has become so clean, we are deprived of the bacteria our immune systems came to rely on over long ages to keep inflammation at bay.

To view a video with Dr. Raison: http://bit.ly/wearetooclean

I find this argument at least plausible because the immune cells have function in the brain beyond just wiping out pathogens.

STANFORD, Calif. - Molecules assumed to be in the exclusive employ of the immune system have been caught moonlighting in the brain - with a job description apparently quite distinct from their role in immunity.

Carla Shatz, PhD, professor of neurobiology and of biology, and her colleagues at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that members of a large family of proteins critical to immune function (collectively known as HLA molecules in humans and MHC molecules in mice) also play a role in the brain. "We think that this family of molecules has an important role in learning and memory," Shatz said. Surprisingly, the absence of one or another of them in the brain can trigger improved motor learning, although perhaps at the expense of other learning ability.

The study will be published online on March 30 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A healthy immune system is needed for a healthy brain.

Update: Another recent study found that an immune system protein altered in utero neuronal development in mice. The researchers suspect infections during pregnancy could cause autism or schizophrenia.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 07 11:00 PM  Brain Depression
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Aspirin Cuts Solid Tumor Cancer Deaths

Low dose aspirin is found to cut cancer deaths.

Many Americans take aspirin to lower their risk of heart disease, but a new study suggests a remarkable added benefit, reporting that patients who took aspirin regularly for a period of several years were 21 percent less likely decades later to die of solid tumor cancers, including cancers of the stomach, esophagus and lung.

So should we take low dose aspirin? Keep in mind that aspirin also increases bleeding risks. Well, this reminds me of another recent study which found that brain microbleeds are highly prevalent in aging brains. It seems very plausible to expect aspirin to increase the risk of these microbleeds.

A small amount of bleeding in the brain seems to be common among older individuals, according to a UC Irvine study.

Neurologist Dr. Mark Fisher and neuropathologist Dr. Ronald Kim found that cerebral microbleeds are highly prevalent in the aging brain – and not primarily products of stroke-related injury, hypertension or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as had been thought.

“Prior work relied on brain imaging to show cerebral microbleeds,” Fisher said. “But in this study, deep regions of the brain were closely examined under a microscope, and nearly all subjects had evidence of small areas of bleeding.”

It is hard to know whether taking some drug for years will cut all cause mortality. Aspirin cuts prostaglandin production and lowers inflammation. But there are non-aspirin ways to cut inflammation. So I wonder whether aspirin delivers protective benefits even for people who eating ideal diets and getting enough exercise. Can we get the same benefits while avoiding aspirin's risks?

We probably need good measures of the level of our body's inflammation and then to try various dietary and lifestyle practices to get it down. But is that sufficient to cut cancer risks as much as aspirin does?

By Randall Parker 2010 December 07 10:49 PM  Aging Drug Risk Cutting
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Plant Growth Negative Feedback On CO2 Warming

CO2 is food for plants and so higher atmospheric CO2 will boost plant growth.

GREENBELT, Md. -- A new NASA computer modeling effort has found that additional growth of plants and trees in a world with doubled atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would create a new negative feedback – a cooling effect – in the Earth's climate system that could work to reduce future global warming.

The cooling effect would be -0.3 degrees Celsius (C) (-0.5 Fahrenheit (F)) globally and -0.6 degrees C (-1.1 F) over land, compared to simulations where the feedback was not included, said Lahouari Bounoua, of Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Bounoua is lead author on a paper detailing the results that will be published Dec. 7 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Without the negative feedback included, the model found a warming of 1.94 degrees C globally when carbon dioxide was doubled.

Note that in models of this sort there are many unknowns and probabilities. The warming from CO2 could be smaller or larger than this study used. The feedbacks from plants could be different for a number of reasons.

Plant growth causes both positive and negative feedbacks on temperature. This study finds the negative feedbacks will dominate.

An example of a positive feedback would be if warming temperatures caused forests to grow in the place of Arctic tundra. The darker surface of a forest canopy would absorb more solar radiation than the snowy tundra, which reflects more solar radiation. The greater absorption would amplify warming. The vegetative feedback modeled in this research, in which increased plant growth would exert a cooling effect, is an example of a negative feedback. The feedback quantified in this study is a result of an interaction between all these aspects: carbon dioxide enrichment, a warming and moistening climate, plants' more efficient use of water, down-regulation and the ability for leaf growth.

When CO2 is high plants do not have to open up their pores for as long to let in CO2. So they lose less water. Hence the comment about "plants' more efficient use of water". That means plants will evaporate less water into the atmosphere. It also means that plants will become less water-limited in their growth. Curiously, the lower water need should cause forests to expand into deserts. Though higher temperatures could cause droughts in some areas that cut plant levels. Hard to say how this all shakes out globally.

While I expect Peak Oil to happen fairly soon I am far less clear on Peak Natural Gas or Peak Coal. Some argue that we have far less coal left than commonly believed. But we do not know how coal production would respond to sustained higher prices. Maybe 90% of the extractable coal will be used by 2070 (PDF). Then again, maybe the amount of coal available would double in response to less than a doubling of coal prices.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 07 10:22 PM  Climate Feedbacks
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2010 December 06 Monday
Active Learners Learn More Than Passive Learners

Interacting with a system you are trying to learn causes you to remember it better.

To better understand how these brain regions influence active versus passive learning, Voss designed an experiment that required participants to memorize an array of objects and their exact locations in a grid on a computer monitor. A gray screen with a window in it revealed only one object at a time. The "active" study subjects used a computer mouse to guide the window to view the objects.

"They could inspect whatever they wanted, however they wanted, in whatever order for however much time they wanted, and they were just told to memorize everything on the screen," Voss said. The "passive" learners viewed a replay of the window movements recorded in a previous trial by an active subject.

Then participants were asked to select the items they had seen and place them in their correct positions on the screen. After a trial, the active and passive subjects switched roles and repeated the task with a new array of objects.

Imagine history where a battle field is presented via an animation and you have the ability to move around your vantage point within the animation. Now, it is a lot of trouble to create the animation. But students studying the animation by moving around inside of it would learn more. Or picture organic chemistry where the reactions occur in animation where you can run the reaction forward or backward and from different vantage points.

Watching from different vantage points is not effective if you do not have control over where you watch from.

The study found significant differences in brain activity in the active and passive learners. Those who had active control over the viewing window were significantly better than their peers at identifying the original objects and their locations, the researchers found. Further experiments, in which the passive subjects used a mouse that moved but did not control the viewing window, established that this effect was independent of the act of moving the mouse.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 06 11:35 PM  Brain Performance
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Steven Chu: 5 Years To Competitive Electric Cars

US Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu says electric cars are going to become competitive with internal combustion engines real soon now.

"It's not like it's 10 years off," Chu said at a press conference on U.S. clean energy efforts on the sidelines of the climate talks. "It's about five years and it could be sooner. Meanwhile the batteries we do have today are soon going to get better by a factor of two."

That's a pretty optimistic statement. Is it realistic? Note that electric cars will not become competitive for all drivers at the same time. There's a sweet spot in terms of daily miles driven, access to a garage for parking and charging, and other considerations that influence when electric cars become competitive for different buyers. A person who drives a 60 mile daily round trip commute with a home garage with a fairly new high amperage electric power installation is going to find pure EVs competitive much sooner. A person who lives in a city apartment building and parks on the street to take a 5 mile trip to work but few hundred mile weekend trips will find EVs competitive several years after the ideal EV users do.

The South Korean government wants South Korean auto makers to have electric cars make up 20% of the vehicles they produce by 2015. Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn predicts 10% of cars will be electric by 2020. Note that he has pushed the development of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. But the Leaf is suffering from production delays and its release this year will be in such small quantities (only 5 cars in all the US) that does not suggest EVs are about to take off. Other industry participants put the 2020 EV production figure at between 2% and 5% of all cars produced.

Even if Ghosn is right about EV production in 2020 since cars last for many years the electric cars built in 2020 will be a much smaller percentage of all vehicles on the road in 2020. Therefore if Peak Oil is as near as I think we aren't going to be prepared for it.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 06 11:18 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2010 December 05 Sunday
Robert Rapier On The Impending World Energy Mess

Robert Rapier has written a review of the new book The Impending World Energy Mess by Robert L. Hirsch, Roger H. Bezdek, and Robert M. Wendling. Rapier finds their coverage of adaptations to Peak Oil most interesting. This is where my own curiosity has shifted on the Peak Oil topic. That it is happening I have no doubt. But how will people and industries and governments respond? How quickly will they respond?

I felt the book became much more interesting when they started to discuss “How is the oil debacle likely to unfold?” This is where I began to find a lot of value in the book for me personally. Future scenarios were very well thought-out, and pros and cons were given for them. The authors delve pretty deeply into potential mitigation pathways. For instance, I have often thought about how people will cope as gasoline prices head higher. One of the possible options is that gas will be rationed. This book takes scenarios like that a step further. First, it makes a strong argument that it is a no-brainer that gasoline will be rationed, and then goes into several well thought-out options of how that might be accomplished.

If rationing gets implemented I expect that to increase the costs of adjustment to the declining availability of oil. Rationing has no other purpose than to hold down prices. Yet prices are the most powerful means to incentivize people to change their lifestyles.

My worry on Peak Oil: The longer the general public do not know it is happening either in the next 10 years or right now the longer they'll make purchasing, career, and lifestyle decisions that will make the adjustment all the harder. When big changes are going to force lifestyle and career changes it is best to get ahead of these changes. Adjusting before you have to costs less and avoids a lot of stress and worry.

This book has a foreword written by former Defense and Energy Secretary James Schlesinger. He also believes Peak Oil is coming in this decade.

Update: Check out some graphs of world oil production in recent years. Note how the last year oil production increased consistent with historical trends was 2004. It is possible oil production in late 2010 might surpass the average rate of 2005. But that would mean beating a rate from 5 years ago! Hardly business as usual and we have oil prices at about double 2004 in order to provide incentives to extract that much oil. The oil is harder to get to and more expensive to extract.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 05 10:13 PM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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Molecule Stimulates Stem Cells To Repair Myelin

British researchers have managed to stimulate stem cells to repair damaged myelin sheath (nerve insulator). This holds promise for multiple sclerosis treatment.

The results come from the Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair and the Edinburgh Centre for Translational Research, two of the Society's major investments. We hope these results lead to clinical trials in people with MS in the next five years and the possibility of treatment within 15 years.

Chief Executive Simon Gillespie said: "for people with MS this is one of the most exciting developments in recent years. It’s hard to put into words how revolutionary this discovery could be and how critical it is to continue research into MS. We're delighted to have funded the first stage of this work and we're now considering funding it further."

What did the study show?
Researchers looked at ways that the brain's own stem cells repair myelin in people with MS. They identified a specific type of molecule called RXR-gamma, which appears to be important in promoting myelin repair.

They found that targeting RXR-gamma in laboratory models of MS encouraged the brain's own stem cells to regenerate myelin.

More details here.

Since myelin sheath decays due to normal aging the ability to stimulate stem cells to do myelin repair also holds promise for brain rejuvenation. While trying to rejuvenate aged nerve cells promises to be every difficult stimulating support cells to generate a better environment for nerves (e.g. new myelin, capillary repair) seems a lot easier to achieve. Note that these researchers above think human trials might be possible starting in 5 years. Even if it takes 15 to 20 years to develop myelin repair therapies we'd be looking at myelin repair by 2030.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 05 09:44 PM  Aging Brain Cell Therapies
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Telomere Lengthening Rejuvenates Mice

Scientists at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute found that engineering mice to suppress the telomerase enzyme (which makes telomere caps on chromosomes) caused the mice to prematurely age and activating the enzyme in prematurely aged mice caused some of their aging to reverse. But read on for why we can't easily exploit this insight.

Scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute say they have for the first time partially reversed age-related degeneration in mice, resulting in new growth of the brain and testes, improved fertility, and the return of a lost cognitive function.

In a report posted online by the journal Nature in advance of print publication, researchers led by Ronald A. DePinho, MD, said they achieved the milestone in aging science by engineering mice with a controllable telomerase gene. The telomerase enzyme maintains the protective caps called telomeres that shield the ends of chromosomes.

I wasn't going to do a post on this report because it was pretty much along the lines of my expectations. Also, it does not suggest any obvious easy ways to do full body rejuvenation. But since enough people have asked me here's my take:

If we found a way to turn on telomerase to make all our telomeres longer we'd increase the amount of repair done in our bodies. Lengthened telomeres would at least slow and, for a time, partially reverse aging in some parts of the body. That sounds great. But doing this might not cut all cause mortality. Why? Longer telomeres in aged cells will increase our odds of developing and dying from cancer.

The problem is that telomere shortening is an anti-cancer strategy for the body. Using drugs or gene therapy to lengthen telomeres would enable dormant cancer cells or pre-cancerous cells to grow. Whether the net result would be longer or shorter life would depend on each individual. But probably on average the net result would be shorter life because otherwise we'd already have more active telomerase (since longevity-lengthening mutations would be selected for, all else equals). In other words, our telomeres get shorter as we age in order to stop cancer cells. But their shortening also prevents other cellular division which accelerates aging. So telomere shortening with each division of a cell is a trade-off.

In spite of the cancer risk from longer telomeres I would be more excited by a study that found a way to activate telomerase in human cells in the body. Why? Because some people who have degenerative conditions face such high risks of death from organ failure that for most of them telomere lengthening would cut their death risk from organ failure by more than they'd increase their death risk from cancer. Basically, they face a bigger risk of death from unrepaired failing tissue than they do from cancer. So the trade-off for them comes down on the side of greater benefit from lengthening their telomeres.

When telomeres get too short their shortness tells cells to die or at least to stop dividing. But you need a constant supply of dividing cells in your skin and intestinal tract among other places. So widespread telomere shortening in an organism causes shrinking organs and declining function as cells die and are not replaced.

Loss of telomeres sends a cascade of signals that cause cells to stop dividing or self-destruct, stem cells to go into retirement, organs to atrophy, and brain cells to die. Generally, the shortening of telomeres in normal tissues shows a steady decline, except in the case of cancer, where they are maintained.

The experiments used mice that had been engineered to develop severe DNA and tissue damage as a result of abnormal, premature aging. These animals had short, dysfunctional telomeres and suffered a variety of age-related afflictions that progressed in successive generations of mice.

Among the conditions were testes reduced in size and depleted of sperm, atrophied spleens, damage to the intestines, and shrinkage of the brain along with an inability to grow new brain cells.

In order to do full body rejuvenation we need a cure for cancer that has mild side effects. Given a reliable way to wipe out or normalize cancer cells the risks of telomerase activation would go way down.

We could use telomere lengthening for a wider range of people sooner if the telomere lengthening therapy could be delivered more selectively to single organs or cell types. Figuring out ways to do that will take a while. Stem cell therapies where newer undamaged cells with long telomeres are introduced might become workable sooner.

Also check out some of my earlier posts on telomeres and aging: Telomere Length Indicates Mortality Risk, Chronic Stress Accelerates Aging As Measured By Telomere Length, and Sedentary Lifestyles Age Chromosome Telomeres Faster.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 05 01:49 PM  Aging Reversal
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2010 December 04 Saturday
Fear Of Malicious Envy Elicits Altruistic Behavior

In situations where people were given awards they did nothing to earn the sense of getting an unjustified advantage caused people to act more altruistic. They probably wanted to dampen down the feeling of malicious envy in others.

“In anthropology, they say if you are envied, you might act more socially afterward because you try to appease those envious people,” van de Ven says—by sharing your big catch of fish, for example. They wanted to know if these observations from anthropology held up in the psychology lab. 

In experiments, he and his colleagues made some people feel like they would be maliciously envied, by telling them they would receive an award of five euros—sometimes deserved based on the score they were told they’d earned on a quiz, sometimes not. The researchers figured the deserved prize would lead to benign envy, while the undeserved prize would lead to malicious envy. Then the volunteer was asked to give time-consuming advice to a potentially envious person. 

People who had reason to think they’d be the target of malicious envy were more likely to take the time to give advice than targets of benign envy. 

In another experiment, an experimenter dropped a bunch of erasers as the volunteer was leaving; those who thought they’d be maliciously envied were more likely to help him pick them up. 

None of this is terribly surprising. The researchers previously found envy comes in a benign form that caused those who experience benign envy to want to improve themselves. Basically success inspires attempts to become more successful. But malicious envy causes people to want to bring down others.

In previous research, Niels van de Ven of Tilburg University and his colleagues Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters had figured out that envy actually comes in two flavors: benign envy and malicious envy. They studied people who showed these two kinds of envy and found that people with benign envy were motivated to improve themselves, to do better so they could be more like the person they envied. On the other hand, people with malicious envy wanted to bring the more successful person down.

Note that a person who focuses on feeling malicious envy misses the opportunity to motivate themselves to become more successful. Benign envy is more adaptive in most cases.

You can see from this why political class warriors who want to raise taxes or regulate an industry try to argue that their targets do not deserve their success. They want to bring out that feeling of malicious envy.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 04 11:55 PM  Brain Ethics Law
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Sugar Caffeine Drink Dosage Too High For Optimal Function

If you must drink Red Bull do not drink a full can or bottle.

The study, published in the December issue of the APA journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, included 80 college students (34 men and 46 women) between the ages of 18 and 40. Some were given Red Bull 7, while others were given lower amounts of caffeine added to Squirt, a lemon-flavored decaffeinated soda that looks and tastes like Red Bull. Others were given plain Squirt as a placebo. A half-hour after finishing the drinks, participants took a computerized "go/no-go" test in which they had to respond quickly to targets on a screen. They were instructed to hit the forward slash key when a green target appeared and do nothing when a blue target appeared.

Participants were also asked how stimulated and mentally fatigued they felt after the drinks. The students who were given Red Bull reported feeling more stimulated and less tired than the other participants, but their response rates were slower.

This reminds me of my old post: Scientists Demonstrate Best Way To Use Caffeine

Avoid over-revving the brain or body with drugs. You might feel like a Master Of The Universe. But you run the risk of putting in the performance of a cheezy B-movie actor.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 04 12:47 PM  Brain Enhancement
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2010 December 02 Thursday
Body Mass Index Above 25 Raises Mortality Risk

Pooling data from 19 long term studies researchers find shorter life expectancies for body mass indexes above 24.9.

A study looking at deaths from any cause found that a body mass index (BMI) between 20.0 and 24.9 is associated with the lowest risk of death in healthy non-smoking adults. Investigators also provided precise estimates of the increased risk of death among people who are overweight and obese. Previous studies that examined the risks from being overweight were inconclusive, with some reporting only modestly increased risks of death and others showing a reduced risk. Also, the precise risks for different levels of obesity were uncertain. The research team included investigators from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, and collaborators from a dozen other major research institutions worldwide. The results appear in the Dec. 2, 2010, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

From 25 to 29.9 BMI all cause mortality went up 13%. Your risk will be higher at 29.9 than at 25.

They found that healthy women who had never smoked and who were overweight were 13 percent more likely to die during the study follow-up period than those with a BMI between 22.5 and 24.9. Women categorized as obese or severely obese had a dramatically higher risk of death. As compared with a BMI of 22.5 to 24.9, the researchers report a 44 percent increase in risk of death for participants with a BMI of 30.0 to 34.9; an 88 percent increase in risk for those with a BMI of 35.0 to 39.9; and a 2.5 times (250 percent) higher risk of death for participants whose BMI was 40.0 to 49.9. Results were broadly similar for men. Overall for men and women combined, for every five unit increase in BMI, the researchers observed a 31 percent increase in risk of death.

You can calculate your BMI here. Then dial back your weight to see how low it has to go to get below a BMI of 25. That's the goal to shot for.

Update If you are a low fat, high muscle guy then you could have a high BMI that does not indicate higher disease risk. But usually BMI is a decent proxy for body fat because so few people are buff, especially among those in middle age and beyond.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 02 10:30 PM  Aging Weight Studies
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Massive Fishing Expansion With Peak In Catches

The Earth's oceans are being overfished after a rapid decades-long expansion in fishing.

The Earth has run out of room to expand fisheries, according to a new study led by University of British Columbia researchers that charts the systematic expansion of industrialized fisheries.

In collaboration with the National Geographic Society and published today in the online journal PLoS ONE, the study is the first to measure the spatial expansion of global fisheries. It reveals that fisheries expanded at a rate of one million sq. kilometres per year from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. The rate of expansion more than tripled in the 1980s and early 1990s – to roughly the size of Brazil's Amazon rain forest every year.

NB: View the study at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0015143.

Fisheries catches peaked in the late 1980s in spite of continued rapid expansion of fished areas well into the 1990s.

Between 1950 and 2005, the spatial expansion of fisheries started from the coastal waters off the North Atlantic and Northwest Pacific, reached into the high seas and southward into the Southern Hemisphere at a rate of almost one degree latitude per year. It was accompanied by a nearly five-fold increase in catch, from 19 million tonnes in 1950, to a peak of 90 million tonnes in the late 1980s, and dropping to 87 million tonnes in 2005, according to the study.

We need to set aside large areas of the oceans for fisheries recovery.

There's nowhere left to expand into.

"The decline of spatial expansion since the mid-1990s is not a reflection of successful conservation efforts but rather an indication that we've simply run out of room to expand fisheries," says Wilf Swartz, a PhD student at UBC Fisheries Centre and lead author of the study.

This is the Tragedy of the Commons. Can it be stopped. The forces pushing the overfishing seem like they are too strong to restrain. There's not much of an environmental movement to oppose these forces. At best some specific industrialized countries or small groups of countries might band together to restrict fishing in fairly small areas. But for most of the oceans I do not see enough nations signing up to agree to restrain their fishing industries.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 02 09:43 PM  Trends Resource Depletion
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Omega 3 Fatty Acids Slow Eye Aging?

People with diets high in fish get less age-related macular degeneration (AMD) of the eye.

Researchers at Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, wanted to know how the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) would be affected in a population of older people who regularly ate fish and seafood, since some varieties are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. A diet rich in omega-3s probably protects against advanced AMD, the leading cause of blindness in whites in the United States, according to the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and other recent studies. High concentrations of omega-3s have been found in the eye's retina, and evidence is mounting that the nutrient may be essential to eye health. The new research, led by Sheila K. West, PhD, was part of the Salisbury Eye Evaluation (SEE) study.

Food intake information with details on fish and shellfish consumed was collected over one year using a validated questionnaire for 2,391 participants aged 65 to 84 years who lived along Maryland's Eastern Shore. After dietary assessment was complete, participants were evaluated for AMD. Those with no AMD were classified as controls (1,942 persons), 227 had early AMD, 153 had intermediate-stage disease, and 68 had advanced AMD. In the advanced AMD group, the macular area of the retina exhibited either neovascularization (abnormal blood vessel growth and bleeding) or a condition called geographic atrophy. Both conditions can result in blindness or severe vision loss.

Other evidence for this benefit has been found. Also see my previous reports Eye Aging Slowed By Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Omega 3 Fatty Acids Slow Age-Related Macular Degeneration.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 02 08:39 PM  Aging Diet Eye Studies
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Shoe Radar Enhances Inertial Reference Unit

So you go inside a building and your Global Positioning System (GPS) smart phone stops working. What to do? Mini-gyroscopes to keep track of your movements. But the mini-gyros drift. So how to reduce the error? Radars in your shoes could keep track of when you are moving and when sitting still to eliminate much of the drift.

However, IMUs have traditionally faced a significant challenge. Any minor errors an IMU makes in measuring acceleration lead to errors in estimating velocity and position – and those errors accumulate over time. For example, if an IMU thinks you are moving – even as little as 0.1 meters per second – when you are actually standing still, within three minutes the IMU will have moved you 18 meters away from your actual position.

But, “if you had an independent way of knowing when your velocity is zero, you could significantly reduce this sort of accumulate error,” Stancil says.

Enter the shoe radar.

“To address this problem of accumulating acceleration error, we’ve developed a prototype portable radar sensor that attaches to a shoe,” Stancil says. “The radar is attached to a small navigation computer that tracks the distance between your heel and the ground. If that distance doesn’t change within a given period of time, the navigation computer knows that your foot is stationary.” That could mean that you are standing still, or it could signal the natural pause that occurs between steps when someone is walking. Either way, Stancil says, “by resetting the velocity to zero during these pauses, or intervals, the accumulated error can be greatly reduced.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, these technologies would make great enhancements for Maxwell Smart's shoe phone.

By Randall Parker 2010 December 02 08:35 PM  Comm Tech Gadgets
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2010 December 01 Wednesday
3 Times More Stars Than Previously Thought

I suddenly feel very crowded. The cool dwarf stars have been undercounted. They've been staying in the background trying to avoid being noticed..

The biggest galaxies in the universe are elliptical galaxies. The largest of these hold over one trillion stars according to astronomical census takers, compared to 400 billion in our Milky Way. However, new research shows that elliptical galaxies actually hold five to ten times as many stars as previously believed. This means that the total number of stars in the universe is likely three times bigger than realized.

As soon as the news about these dwarf stars gets spread across the galaxies residents of their habital planets are going to be at much greater risk of interstellar invasions.

The universe already held a ridiculously large number of galaxies.

With as many as 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars, the result – if it holds up – implies an enormous number of additional burning gas balls out there, with intriguing implications for explanations of how stars and galaxies form and evolve, researchers say.

Think of it this way: The list of very important human-authored novels is already a daunting burden for anyone who wants to be wise and well read. But if each of these galaxies have only 1 intelligent civilization then there are trillions of novels we really ought to be reading. Worse yet, the number of such novels just tripled.

A new NASA discovery of a bacteria that lives in severe conditions is seen by NASA scientists as upping the odds of life on other planets.

The bacteria has been found at the bottom of Mono Lake in California's Yosemite National Park which is rich in arsenic – usually poisonous to life. Somehow the creature uses the arsenic as a way of surviving and this ability raises the prospect that similar life could exist on other planets, which do not have our benevolent atmosphere.

These reports up the odds of alien invasion. The more life out there the more likely it has evolved higher intelligence. The more intelligent life out there the higher the odds that some of it evolved to have a foul mood about life and totally intolerant toward other intelligent life forms. Some of you are laughing and think you can avoid the alien invasion. But unless you happen to have a secret portal to a parallel universe I don't see any reason for complacency.

Update: You might wonder: What sorts of creatures come from planets orbiting around red dwarfs? I think the answer is obvious: Leprechauns. So the universe has many more leprechauns than previously suspected. They've been hiding - as one would expect.

The improbable leprechauns have had plenty of time to evolve.

"There are possibly trillions of Earths orbiting these stars," van Dokkum said, adding that the red dwarfs they discovered, which are typically more than 10 billion years old, have been around long enough for complex life to evolve. "It's one reason why people are interested in this type of star."

By Randall Parker 2010 December 01 10:04 PM  Space Alien Intelligence
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