2011 May 31 Tuesday
Prisoners Work As Virtual World Slaves

While serving time at the Jixi labor camp in China Liu Dali and other prisoners were forced to play video games to earn virtual credits in games like World of Warcraft . Guards then sold those virtual credits for profit.

Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.

It is bad enough that some teenagers get addicted to video games. But prisoners forced to play them in order to make money? Bizarre.

Where does this lead? Virtual prisons run by humans. Sure, humanity in the Matrix lived in a prison created by the machines. But imagine governments run by humans imprisoning other humans in the Matrix.

One can imagine all sorts of twists. Imagine an extremely high quality virtual reality (VR) where prisoners can't tell they are in a virtual world. The prisoners could get tempted with illegal activities and tested to see if they'll rape, rob, or sell drugs in virtual reality.

Also, imagine implants designed to push a released prisoner back into VR whenever it looks like he is about to commit another crime.

Can prisoners serving time in VR be made economically productive? If computers exist which are powerful enough to create VR then would these computers be able to do productive tasks better than prisoners? Short of full-up VR could some prisoners do useful computer-based work by controlling construction equipment remotely?

By Randall Parker 2011 May 31 10:02 AM  Computing Control Humans
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2011 May 30 Monday
Coccoliths Better Suited For Acidifying Oceans

An interesting article in Wired looks at research on the relative resistance of different types of plankton to increasing acidity caused by rising carbon dioxide dissolving into the oceans.

The results showed that coccoliths are indeed resistant to dissolution. Inorganic calcite crystals begin dissolving around pH 8.2, but the coccoliths remained intact until about pH 7.8.

Some marine plankton will run into trouble sooner. But the coccolithophores could survive until the end of the 21st century.

Some marine plankton and invertebrates build shells from aragonite — a form of calcium carbonate which dissolves more easily than calcite — and these organisms will be the first to feel the effect of increasing ocean acidity. Calcite-secreting organisms which aren’t as resistant as coccolithophores will be next. Near pH 7.8, coccolithophores — and any other groups that stabilize calcite similarly — will be in trouble as well.

We can prevent the melting of Antarctica and Greenland by doing climate engineering. But I've yet to hear a serious proposal for how to prevent high atmospheric CO2 from dissolving into the oceans and making them too acidic.

Given the still rapid rise in CO2 emissions the only hope for the phytoplankton might be a very early date for Peak Coal.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 30 11:37 PM  Climate Adaptation
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2011 May 29 Sunday
Sex-Selective Abortions Lead To Fewer Girls In India

In India cheap fetal ultrasound, cheap abortions, and a strong preference for sons has pushed the ratios of young girls to young boys 914 to 1000.

In 1961, for every 1,000 boys under the age of seven, there were 976 girls. Today, the figure has dropped to a dismal 914 girls.

This will have a number of long term impacts. Notably, lots of young men will feel frustrated by their poor marriage prospects. Will this translate into political unrest? Or will these guys become more depressed and withdrawn? Some young men might become more motivated to find ways to make more money. So maybe the economy will grow more as a result?

In Haryana state the ratio is even lower at 830 to 1000.

But Birbal was unable to find a bride in Haryana, which has the most unbalanced sex ratio in the country, with 877 women for every 1,000 men. Among under sevens, that ratio drops to just 830 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Whereas historically the families of brides have had to pay dowry the female shortage is flipping around who pays. How much does it cost a poor family to raise a daughter? Could the price for brides ever get so high that poor families will raise daughters for profit?

Men in Haryana, unable to find a bride at home, are willing to pay up to 100,000 rupees ($2,222) to marry an "imported" girl from states like West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar or Madhya Pradesh.

In Bihar state the government has a Girl Protection Scheme (Kanya Suraksha Yojana) that pays money out to girls who reach age 18.

One effect for sure: Fewer wombs for baby-making mean slower population growth in India. Due to rapid population growth India's 1.21 billion population will surpass China's by 2025. India's government is offering cash to poor folks to delay reproduction, with future estimates for India's population ranging from 1.5 to 1.9 billion. Rising levels of education for girls will fertility.

Education alone is not enough to avoid the practice of sex-selective abortion. It is widely practiced in many countries, notably China. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, South Korea, India, Serbia, and Belarus. This leads to bride markets across national borders.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 29 10:19 PM  Trends Demographic
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Tyler Cowen: The Great Stagnation

Businessweek has a very flattering article on Tyler Cowen and how his book The Great Stagnation has prompted a shift in the debate about poor economic growth. Having read the book I strongly recommend reading it.

The Great Stagnation runs through three centuries' worth of what Cowen calls the "low-hanging fruit" of economic growth: free land, technological breakthroughs, and smart kids waiting to be educated. For developed economies, he argues, none of these remains to be plucked.

Even more important than land, in my view, is energy. As Peter Tertzakian pointed out in his book A Thousand Barrels a Second, previous energy transitions of the last couple of centuries were to energy sources that were cheaper and/or more convenient. The transition to petroleum combined both cost and convenience advantages. For example, the transition from coal to oil for heating eliminated the need to load coal into the furnace and to clean out ash. Oil enabled a huge growth in productivity of farm equipment, construction equipment, and in the transportation of humans and goods. The orders of magnitude increases in energy usage made possible our high living standards far more than did widespread college education. Many of the technological innovations were basically to use petroleum in more ways (e.g. to power jet engines). Our problem: Supplies of our most convenient fuel are looking pretty limited. What passes for good news on oil supplies (e.g. hydraulic fracturing of tight oil shale) costs more and projected flow rates aren't high enough to enable a return to the years of substantial annual increases in oil production.

"We thought we were richer than we were."

Yet America, Europe, and Japan have built political and social institutions on the assumption of endless growth. Cowen summarizes the financial crisis in eight words: "We thought we were richer than we were."

It's not that he disagrees with any of the better-known explanations for the crisis—easy credit, flawed ratings—it's that he sees a more fundamental problem, one that can't be fixed with regulation, bailouts, or tax cuts. Cowen thinks that now that America has used up the frontier, educated all of the farm kids, and built a couple of cars for every family, we might be done growing for awhile.

A slowing or halting of growth is highly problematic because so much has been set up based on the assumption of continued economic growth at a rate close the post-WWII average. Debt instruments have been issued and entitlements promised based on assumptions about long term growth that are not realistic. Pension funds project their funding needs based on rates of return from their stock market investments that are too optimistic. Even worse, we could be looking at something even more painful than stagnation: a receding tide of prosperity.

One can see signs of declining returns on investment in many areas. For example, doubling Pentagon modernization budgets delivered far less than was expected.

For almost a decade, the Defense Department saw its budgets boom but didn’t make the kind of technological strides that seemed possible.

“Since 9/11, a near doubling of the Pentagon’s modernization accounts — more than $700 billion over 10 years in new spending on procurement, research and development — has resulted in relatively modest gains in actual military capability,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an address last week.

The article goes on to discuss what is wrong with US Army procurement methods. But I see something deeper at work to cause 10 years of US DOD spending at double the previous rate to yield only modest gains. The low hanging fruit are gone. The US military do not know how to get large gains from smaller scale projects. Therefore they try to do much larger scale engineering projects. Then many of those fail.

Computers are widely seen as huge enablers of progress and I agree they've delivered some big benefits. But what impresses me about the huge amounts of data getting sucked into computers and processed is that it has not (at least so far) enabled such better ways to manipulate matter in ways that can keep energy and other forms of commodities cheap. Investor Jeremy Grantham thinks we've going thru a transition into a much more resource-limited economic era. The industrialization of Asia combined with declining concentrations of minerals extracted from ores and other resource extraction limitations have caused a big turn in the direction of commodity prices starting in 2002 off of the long term trend of the last 100 years (see figure 2 there and my commentary here).

Some economists looked at the economic benefits of personal computers and assigned a small value of them. Compare those benefits to our far larger gains from coal- and oil-driven industrialization. I see computers as reducing (but far from eliminating) the pain of rising commodities costs by, for example, making engines run more efficiently and by reducing the need for physical travel. But computers so far haven't had an impact as great as the combination of oil drilling and mass-produced cars.

Okay, am I all doom and gloom? Nope. In spite of depleted fisheries, Peak Oi, declining ore concentrations, pollution, the potential for massive glacier melts and droughts, aquifer depletion, top soil loss, massive species extinction, human overpopulation (1970s environmentalists were right), and other problems too numerous to list I still hear Eric Idle singing. Potential very big benefits can be seen on the horizon from biotechnology. Very notably, we'll get new organs grown to replace old failing organs. But when will we get replacement organs, stem cell therapies, gene therapies, and great cures for cancer? So far all that's progressing much more slowly than the incredibly dramatic orders of magnitude declines in DNA sequencing costs.


Sequencing costs are going down at rates much faster than Moore's Law for computers. That can happen with really small stuff such as strands of DNA. But cells are much bigger and more complex things and organs are far more complex still. What I want to know: when will the advances in manipulating the small scale come fully to bear on stem cells, gene therapies and other key areas of biotechnology?

By Randall Parker 2011 May 29 10:17 PM  Trends Economic Development
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2011 May 25 Wednesday
Optimistic Areas Economically Stronger?

Does optimism increase economic growth?

Coral Gables, Fla. – May 25, 2011 – Economic recessions are weaker, expansions are stronger, and economic recovery is faster in U.S. states where people are more optimistic says a new study from the University of Miami School of Business Administration. Further, the effects are stronger in states where people are older, less educated and less socially connected.

"Previous studies have shown that economic conditions affect mood – people would expect this, it's more obvious," said Alok Kumar, the Gabelli Asset Management Professor of Finance at the University of Miami School of Business and one of the study's researchers. "Our study is unique in that it shows, for the first time, that mood and optimism can directly affect overall economic activity."

Sunny weather triggers serotonin which brightens mood and boosts optimism. Cloudy weather has the opposite efect via melatonin release.

Weather: Average temperature and cloud cover. Sunny weather triggers the release of serotonin in the brain that causes people to be more alert and cheerful. The opposite is true for bad weather because it releases melatonin that makes people feel tired and down.

So should Seattle companies install very bright artificial lighting? Also, if more people took anti-depressants would the economy grow faster?

One needs optimism to try to start or expand a business. Is irrational optimism necessary for progress?

The above report seems like further evidence you should Always Look On The Bright Side of Life . Another upbeat ditty: Galaxy Song.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 25 11:21 PM  Brain Economics
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2011 May 24 Tuesday
Genetic Basis For Prudent Spending Habits

Frugality is (at least partially) in your genes.

In a study of identical twins, which was published in the April edition of Journal of Consumer Research, marketing professors Itamar Simonson of Stanford University and Aner Sela of the University of Florida report that individual consumer preferences — for such products as chocolate, hybrid cars, movies and jazz — are genetically linked. Those preferences, the authors suggest, are a reflection of individual “prudence” — an inheritable predisposition to living “in the mainstream” or “on the edge” or somewhere in between.

This sort of research tends to undermine the credibility of movements that call for a turning away from materialism, restraint in lifestyles for ecological protection, and other movements that argue that we must consume less. The people who are big spenders lack the innate qualities that would enable voluntary reductions in spending. Also, calls for greater savings for retirement are only going to be heard by the genetically more prudent.

The prudent and spendthrift make unsuccessful marriages. Not surprising given that the spending of one spouse is causing emotional pain in the more prudent spouse who fears the consequences of having little money.

What I want to know: Once it becomes possible to choose offspring genetic endowments will the average person choose genes for their offspring that make their offspring more or less frugal than their parents? In other words, will the human population become more or less frugal than it is now?

What I also wonder: Will the power to choose offspring genes lead to the disappearance of the middle ground? For example, will the prudent-leaning make their kids even more frugal while the spendthrifts make their kids even more oblivious to risks and long term consequences of spending decisions?

By Randall Parker 2011 May 24 07:35 PM  Brain Innate
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2011 May 23 Monday
Computers Cut Reading Ability In Children?

Another "progress is not inevitable" story.

Sweden and the US are two countries in which increased leisure use of computers by children leads to poorer reading ability. This is the conclusion from research carried out at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Professor Monica Rosén of the Department of Education and Special Education has analysed differences between different countries over time in order to explain change in reading achievement among 9-10-year olds. Within the framework of the research project she and her colleagues have studied how pupils' reading skills have changed since 1970. Hungary, Italy, the US and Sweden have been included in all of the international comparisons. Reading ability has improved steadily in Italy and Hungary, while it has fallen rapidly since 1991 in both the US and Sweden.

During this period, many factors within the school system have changed, as have also society in general and the after-school activities of children in particular. The Swedish and American pupils described a large increase in the use of computers in their free time during this period, while a similar increase was not reported in Hungary or Italy.

The researchers argue that computer usage has displaced leisure time reading and the leisure time reading provided a richer experience with words that do computers. This seems plausible for a couple of reasons:

  • Computer games do not require much text reading.
  • Messaging with friends involves using words you all know and abbreviations of simple words.
  • The web has lots of porno and other content that isn't intellectually enriching.

Some really bright kids are probably enabled by the web to learn more and faster. But the for the masses of kids I doubt that computers play the same role. Friends and family members with kids have told me too many stories of fights with role playing game addictions, messaging addictions, and the like. Computers are used like distraction generators to relieve boredom.

Computers could serve more constructive roles for kids. Teaching software could enable kids to learn much faster all hours of the day and night. But parents mostly do not seem to try hard to make computers into more constructive influences.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 23 11:19 PM  Comm Tech Society
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Toyota Expects Prius To Surpass Camry

In a sign of the times Toyota is going to bring up wagon and smaller coupe versions of the Prius and a Toyota executive expects Prius to eventually outsell the Camry (which is the best selling car in America).

“We know the hybrid segment will grow faster if we add a little versatility,” Carter said. “It won’t happen in the next 12 to 24 months, but Prius will outsell Camry. It’s going to be what defines the Toyota brand in the future.”

It is telling that Toyota foresees this shift. Though another Toyota executive has already made clear that Toyota expects Peak Oil by 2020. So the bigger role for the Prius seems consistent consistent with Toyota's expectation of fundamentals driving the need for much greater fuel efficiency.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 23 10:47 PM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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Facebook Peaked Already?

Razib Khan has been using Google Trends to watch the rise of Facebook and the fall of Myspace. Well, looks like Facebook finally hit a plateau. Well, that was a fast ride to a peak. He's not forecasting a Facebook decline. But not everyone wants to devote a substantial amount of their day to Facebook posting.

I found that on Razib's Twitter feed. That brings up a question: Has Twitter peaked yet? Facebook soared far above Twitter on Google Trends with about a 30:1 advantage if I read that page correctly. But looking at Twitter by itself still shows a strong up-trend, at least measured by search volume.

What might unseat Facebook or other current social media leaders: the shift to virtual reality. Or is there some other model of social interaction on the internet that can become the next hit even before virtual reality?

Also read Razib on why Paul Ewald thinks a lot of cancer is due to infection, especially due to sexual activity. Razib thinks some of the "cancer runs in families" story could be due to expressive kissing or sexual activity running in families due to upbringing and/or genes.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 23 10:31 PM  Comm Tech Society
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2011 May 22 Sunday
College Degree 2 Decades After Total Memory Loss

23 years ago Su Meck lost her memories at age 22 from a head trauma.

Consider Su Meck. The 45-year-old homemaker from Gaithersburg graduated Friday from Montgomery College with an associate degree in music. It’s the culmination of a life that, in most senses of the word, began at 22.

So complete retrograde amnesia can happen in real life.

In February 1988, a ceiling fan fell on Meck’s head. The blow erased her memory, and she awoke after a week in a coma with the mental capacity of a young child. She no longer knew her husband or her two baby sons. She barely spoke and could not read or write, walk or eat, dress or drive.

Imagine trying to come back from that. For weeks she could not even form new memories. Even today she learns slowly. So her memory formation circuitry is damaged.

Read the whole thing. Inspiring and yet scary.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 22 09:59 AM  Brain Memory
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2011 May 21 Saturday
End Of World In 1 Billion Years?

Apocalypse Not Yet. You notice any new signs of the end of the world today? I have to say I got distracted and missed paying attention at the moment when it was all supposed to end. My neighborhood is quiet and peaceful. But religious belief is not the only source of predictions of the end of the world. A pair of astronomers say in about 1 billion years the output of our Sun will go up enough to evaporate the oceans and rivers into water vapor.

The story begins some 4.57 billion years ago, when the young sun's nuclear furnace ignited and stabilized. Back then, solar physicists estimate, the sun was 30 percent dimmer than it is today. As it has matured, it has brightened at a pace of about 1 percent every 110 million years.

Over that period, the two explain, Earth's climate system has adjusted to the increase in the sun's output, keeping the planet's average temperature within a livable range and with plenty of water on hand. Orbiting 93 million miles from the sun, Earth finds itself nicely placed in the sun's habitable zone.

But over the next billion years, the duo says, the sun's output will rise by another 10 percent.

Let us suppose sentient beings will still inhabit planet Earth hundreds of millions of years from now and beyond. What to do? I see a few choices:

  • Migrate to Mars.
  • Do climate engineering
  • Move Earth to a larger orbit (and thereby lengthen bond maturities too).
  • Leave the solar system.

Mars? It is a smaller planet with far less water and oxygen. Earth is really superior for our needs. So why give up Earth if it isn't necessary?

Climate engineering? Okay, I'm not opposed on principle. But one problem: It will require constant attention. What if wars or phases of extreme global ennui leave us unable or unwilling to maintain satellites that reflect some of the Sun's rays? Plus, climate engineering can't go the whole distance as the billions of years go by and the Sun swells out as a red giant and expands to Earth's orbit.

Move Earth? A very doable endeavor with an asteroid that swings by Earth and Jupiter once every 6000 years. A small amount of Jupiter's rotational motion would be transferred to Earth in very small increments.

So clearly moving Earth is the best solution which will last the most number of years.

But what about leaving the solar system to go to a younger star? Can we hope to do this with known laws of physics? We'd need fusion reactors as power sources just to maintain habitats. The trip would take an extremely long time. I think we need to be lucky and find that the universe has additional physical laws that make this easy.

Another thought: Move between universes. But most the places we'd come out at in another universe would likely be empty space. How to find a habitable planet in a parallel universe?

By Randall Parker 2011 May 21 09:24 PM  Dangers Natural General
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2011 May 19 Thursday
Pixar Films And Non-Human Intelligences

Writing for Discover's "Science Not Fiction" blog Kyle Munkittrick reviews films made by Pixar and finds a hidden message in Pixar films about the need to respect and accept non-human intelligences. I see this message as more likely to do us a disservice than to make our future brighter.

The new is seen as dangerous and therefore feared. Pixar’s Human as Partner films emphasize that should a non-human intelligence arise, be it a rat or a robot or a monstrous alien, there will be no welcoming with arms wide open from either side.

Victory in the battle for the rights and respect from both groups will come from an act of exemplary personhood and humaneness by those who dare to break ranks with their kind. Thus, the Human as Partner story arc ends with the capitulation of those who refused to recognize the personhood of the non-human and a huge reward coming to those who accepted the non-humans as fellow persons. In Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully discover that laughter yields far more energy than screams. In Ratatouille Anton Ego has an epiphany and gives one of my favorite speeches of all time in response to a Proustian flashback he experiences after eating Remy’s cooking. In WALL•E none less than the human race is saved from the brink of self-induced-extinction. In short, the benefits for humanity are tremendous in every case where non-human persons are treated with respect.

This is a modern technological version of the rather old Golden Rule "Do unto others.." It is an old rule as a couple of quotes from the Christian New Testament demonstrate: Luke 6:31 "Do to others as you would have them do to you." and Matthew 7:21. Also, the rule supposedly pops up in a variety of religions. But while reciprocity is great if you can get it, following the Golden Rule is no guarantee that others will reciprocate. When it comes to non-human (especially artificial) intelligences the odds of reciprocity go way down.

Personhood isn't possible without intelligence. But intelligence is only a necessary - and not a suffcient - condition for personhood. Brave humans (contra Pixar) will not make other forms of intelligence into moral agents who are motivated to respect us.

The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

NY Times science writer Nicholas Wade (or his editor) asked "Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?" in his review of Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis. My answer: Of course. And there lies the problem with the Golden Rule extended to other species of biological life and, especially, machine intelligences. There's no guarantee that other forms of intelligence will have the instinctive desire to engage in reciprocal exchanges with us.

At least biological life forms that are social creatures will very likely have some instinct toward reciprocity. But machine intelligences could manage to escape the ethical programming that humans will try to give them. Since machine intelligences are most likely to be the non-human intelligences that we will encounter in the next 50 years we should be worried about whether we will be able to keep them friendly toward us.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 19 10:03 PM  Bioethics Humanity Definition
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2011 May 17 Tuesday
Telomere Test For Longevity Estimate

A test of the length of the caps on your chromosomes could help more accurately estimate one's life expectancy.

A new blood test soon to be launched in the United Kingdom claims to be able to tell you how long you are going to live. The £435 ($700) test measures the length of a person's telomeres - the inventor claims this is associated with longevity.

The company, Life Length, is working on approvals for sales in European countries and America.

You might not want to know. Imagine a test could predict your life expectancy to within 2 years. Would you want to know? I'm not sure I would. Death is so final, such a hard limit. Beyond this point you will not experience this life in this universe. You might not even exist beyond this point. Do you want to know when that is?

Is the claim for this test plausible? Yup. See my previous posts Short Telomeres Markers For Higher Cancer Risk, Telomere Length Indicates Mortality Risk, Chronic Stress Accelerates Aging As Measured By Telomere Length, Sedentary Lifestyles Age Chromosome Telomeres Faster, and last but not least: Telomere Lengthening Rejuvenates Mice.

Now, having said that, the test can not precisely predict your year of death. Too many factors (accidents, suicide, and murder aside) influence your date of death. Take cancer for example. There's a lot of randomness involved in determining when we'll get cancer. The accumulation of damage in cells can make them turn cancerous. But just when the right set of genetic mutations or other cancer-promoting damage will occur in some cell in one's body is as hard to predict as when someone will win a lottery. Many things have to line up just right all in the same cell to make it cancerous. Every day is basically another throw of the dice. Will a bunch of mutations all line up to send a cell of yours into dangerous mad replication and growth?

Better longevity tests seem useful for retirement planning. Should you save enough money to support yourself to age 95? Or expect to die by your late 60s? A telomere test could help you decide difficult questions about your savings rate and career choices. Do you need to work past age 70 to save enough money to avoid going broke in your 80s and avoid poverty in your 90s? A better sense of the odds would help.

Of course, before we hit our biological shelf life expiration date some of us just might live long enough to still be around when rejuvenation therapies become available. Injections of youthful stem cells with long telomeres could replace older tired cells with short telomeres. This would be great for the immune system, for example, because a youthful immune system will do a better job of fighting cancer. Also, youthful cells for the cardiovascular system could cut the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other killers.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 17 11:09 PM  Aging Measurements
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2011 May 15 Sunday
More Oil Drilling In Alaska

A lesson: $100 per barrel oil is creates enough political pressure to open more oil fields for drilling in Alaska and offshore lower 48. The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and Alaska's Pacific coasts are still to remain off-limits - for now.

President Obama will open Alaska's national petroleum reserve to new drilling, as part of a broad plan aimed at blunting criticism that he is not doing enough to address rising energy prices.

Environmentalist opposition to drilling in some areas has done us a favor by delaying the use of that oil until we really needed it. Of course, that wasn't their intent. But the practical result of their opposition to drilling was to prepare for Peak Oil.

With oil prices over $100 per barrel and prices going higher as the decade progresses additional sources brought into production 5 or 10 years from now will help much more than if they'd been developed 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. For a graphical view of how much oil production growth has slowed see figure 7 here in an article by Gail Tverberg. It shows in a single graph how growth in world oil production has gone thru a succession of down-shifts. That down-shifting has made economic growth progressively harder to achieve, especially in industrialized countries heavily reliant on oil.

As oil hits higher price points more restrictions on drilling will be lifted as the public becomes more concerned with their own living standards and jobs and less with distant places. $150 oil sustained for a couple of years will probably result in drilling in ANWR and any offshore areas that look promising.

I wish the environmentalists had been more successful because the amount of oil fields they've kept out of production is not enough to make the transition from oil slow enough to minimize the economic pain.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 15 09:52 PM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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2011 May 13 Friday
Modest Proposal To Expand Railroad Usage

When Warren Buffett decided to buy the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad my reaction was that Warren must see rail as a great Peak Oil bet. Rail is a few times more energy efficient that trucks per ton-mile. He's certainly willing to invest to expand rail capacity. So my modest proposal: Warren should buy all the US railroads. Imagine the results. Warren would shift more freight to rail on a massive scale. That would cut oil usage, make highways safer and less crowded, and he'd earn a lot of money doing it. All this he'd do without taxpayer subsidies.

Burlington Chief Executive Officer Matthew K. Rose is determined to take advantage of the industry's improved climate and the flexibility he gets by having only one shareholder—Buffett. This year, Rose is boosting capital spending by 31 percent, triple the increase of other major rails. He's buying about 200 locomotives and building more huge transfer facilities where rail freight containers are switched to and from trucks before and after their transport by train. Rose's goal: to bolster the second-largest U.S. railroad's competitiveness relative to long-haul truckers.

Increasing the number of places that truck loads can be moved onto rail cars will cut the distance freight will need to travel via truck. More freight moved by rail will cut total oil usage.

As the price of oil goes higher in the coming years rail will take more freight traffic from trucks. But if the price of oil goes up too fast and pushes the US into a recession then total freight volume will drop faster than freight shifts to rails. I would be very curious to know how Buffett weighs these possibilities.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 13 11:40 PM  Energy Transportation
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How To Adjust To A Flood Plain?

Looking at photos of Mississippi River flooding submerging some mobile homes triggered a thought: What would it cost to build a floatable mobile home? Note that unlike a house boat it would not need to be water-tight at all time.s It could be designed for easy to conversion into something floatable. It could sit on sealed barrels that are anchored to it. Or a set of inflatable cushions could be brought in and inflated under it.

The potential costs of a really big flood triggered these thoughts. A Christian Science Monitor piece about past great floods mentions that a flood as large and lasting as the 1927 Mississippi River flood would cost $160 billion.

A Risk Management Solutions study, published on the 80th anniversary of the flood, estimated that a repeat of the same flood would cause up to $160 billion in damages in modern times.

I wasn't aware that the potential for financial damage is that large. So, short of convincing people to move, what could be done to cut the damage caused by floods? Floatable assets seems an obvious option. Mobile homes are in theory mobile. But it takes time and a truck to tow them to higher ground. Is it practical to try to clear all the mobile homes out of a flood plain when rising waters threaten? Or can floating in place be made to work?

Another idea: Mobile home elevators to lift them up onto steel beams. Imagine all the mobile homes lifted up on steel or aluminum stilts when a flood looks likely. Sound practical?

Update: Another idea: Build dykes just around individual houses. Great pictures at the link.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 13 11:39 PM  Dangers Natural General
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People Marry For Political Compatibility

Only church attendance has a stronger role in mate choice than political leanings?

Though "variety is the spice of life" and "opposites attract," most people marry only those whose political views align with their own, according to new research from Rice University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Political scientists found that political attitudes were among the strongest shared traits and even stronger than qualities like personality or looks.

In an article published in the April issue of the Journal of Politics, researchers examined physical and behavioral traits of more than 5,000 married couples in the United States. They found spouses in the study appeared to instinctively select a partner who has similar social and political views.

John Alford and John Hibbing (of Rice and UN-Lincoln respectively) have been studying twins and political orientation for years and find a strong genetic component to political orientation. So one way to read these results is that people are selecting for mates who share key genetic traits with regard to how they perceive the world.

Other attributes had weak correlations as compared to political ideology or church attendance.

"It turns out that people place more emphasis on finding a mate who is a kindred spirit with regard to politics, religion and social activity than they do on finding someone of like physique or personality," said John Alford, associate professor of political science at Rice University and the study's lead author.

On a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 means perfectly matched, physical traits (body shape, weight and height) only score between 0.1 and 0.2 among spouse pairs. Personality traits, such as extroversion or impulsivity, are also weak and fall within the 0 to 0.2 range. By comparison, the score for political ideology is more than 0.6, higher than any of the other measured traits except frequency of church attendance, which was just over 0.7.

I bet they did not test IQs and that IQ differences between mates are pretty small on average. That's partly due to propinquity but mostly due the ability to relate to one another and also to see the other as an asset.

This suggests mating sites should include a survey of political views and frequency of religious worship.

What would be interesting to know: For people who are not politically or religiously compatible what maintains the relationship? Are they different in that other traits draw them more strongly? Do political views as keys to compatibility only work for some people and not others?

By Randall Parker 2011 May 13 07:15 PM  Brain Love
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2011 May 11 Wednesday
Microbubbles Against Prostate Cancer

One problem with gene therapy is how to deliver the genes. The immune system will react to gene carrier packages, the liver potentially could filter out the gene therapy packages, and genes usually should go to only a small number of cell types and organs Packaging gene therapy into microbubbles enables better control and success for delivering gene therapy into cancer cells in prostates.

Richmond, Va. (May 10, 2011) – Cancer researchers are a step closer to finding a cure for advanced prostate cancer after effectively combining an anti-cancer drug with a viral gene therapy in vivo using novel ultrasound-targeted microbubble-destruction (UTMD) technology. The research was conducted by scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center, VCU Institute of Molecular Medicine and School of Medicine, in collaboration with colleagues from Washington University School of Medicine and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.

In their study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, prostate cancer growth in mice with functioning immune systems was inhibited by sensitizing the cancer cells with the drug Sabutoclax (BI-97C1) and using UTMD technology to deliver a viral gene therapy that expresses the gene mda-7/IL-24. This powerful new approach to treating prostate cancer builds upon prior studies by principle investigator Paul B. Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D., Thelma Newmeyer Corman Endowed Chair at VCU Massey, professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the VCU School of Medicine and director of the VCU Institute of Molecular Medicine.

With cancer the goal is to kill the cancer cells without killing the normal cells. That's really hard because cancer and regular cells are otherwise so similar in so many ways.

A microbubble approach is already in phase III clinical trials for heart disease. This approach could be used against many other types of cancer as well.

UTMD uses microscopic, gas-filled bubbles that provide great contrast against soft tissue when viewed using ultrasound equipment. The microbubbles can also be paired with complexes made to bind to specific areas of the body, allowing them to be targeted. In this study, a weakened adenovirus (a virus that is typically associated with respiratory infections) engineered to deliver the tumor-suppressing gene mda-7/IL-24 was joined to the microbubbles and delivered through the blood stream directly into the prostate. UTMD's ability to systematically target a disease site could revolutionize gene therapy.

A sufficiently complex gene therapy might some day execute a genetic program that will only give the order to kill a cell if the genetic program detects it is executing in a cancer cell.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 11 11:03 PM  Biotech Cancer
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2011 May 10 Tuesday
Liposuction Fat Loss Not Permanent

It just shows up again at other parts of the body. Since it fully comes back in a year how about periodic 3 month liposuction? Get it when you go in for botox? Or whole body liposuction?

AURORA, Colo. (May 8, 2011) Liposuction has become one of the most popular plastic surgeries in the country. It has been around since 1974 and there are now more than 450,000 operations a year. But does the fat come back? A recent study by Teri L. Hernandez, PhD, RN and Robert H. Eckel, MD, at the University of Colorado School of Medicine have found that the fat eventually returns within one year, and is redistributed to other areas of the body, especially the upper abdomen. There was further redistribution around the shoulders and triceps of the arms.

"The fact that fat returned is of great interest to us as scientists. It supports the idea that levels of body fat are very tightly regulated by mechanisms we have yet to uncover," said Eckel. "This was the hypothesis we were testing and it was confirmed. In rodents when fat is removed it returns, and after weight loss in humans most everyone regains the weight. We think the brain somehow knows how much fat is on board and responds in a manner to regulate that weight. That's why preventing obesity is so important".

Imagine injectable drugs that would suppress fat cells in the area of injection. Maybe a gene therapy could instruct fat cells to shrink and stay small. The injection route to remold one's fat distribution would be far less invasive and traumatic. In the long run I expect most plastic surgery that involves cutting into people will be replaced by injections and topical treatments that reprogram cells to resculpt our bodies without crude mechanical cutting.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 10 10:46 PM  Bodies Perfected Resculpting
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How Competitive Electric Cars?

When do electric cars make sense? A Time magazine piece quotes the company Better Place (that is setting up electric car battery swapping operations in Israel and Denmark as claiming that the Better Place electric battery swapping model makes sense at $9 per gallon. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of electric cars for people paying American or Canadian or Australian gasoline prices.

The customers also pay a one-time fee equal to $2,000, but even so, in both Israel and Denmark where gas runs about $9 a gallon, Better Place calculates that the typical customers would stand to save 10% to 20% against a comparable gasoline car — and enjoy most of its satisfactions.

Note that a Dane travels many fewer miles per year than an American. So a car battery in Denmark probably does not go thru as many charging cycles per year as one in America or other less densely populated industrialized countries. Daniel Indiviglio at The Atlantic takes a look at electric cars that are sold with electric batteries and finds the Nissan Leaf starts to make sense for Americans at only $5 per gallon for gasoline. Note that his analysis assumes a $7500 tax credit from the US government. So the real cost effectiveness is considerably worse than these numbers indicate.

But when gas hits $5 per gallon, the LEAF begins to look more attractive. Then, you just need to drive a hair over 100,000 miles to break even, which isn't so outlandish for many Americans. But even at $5 per gallon, you'd need to drive the Volt more than 175,000 miles to justify its purchase over the Elantra. In fact, if you only plan on driving the Volt a little over 100,000 miles, its electric capability doesn't justify its price tag until gas nears $8 per gallon.

Take out the government subsidy and then you'll have to burn at least another 1500 gallons of gasoline at $5 per gallon to pay for that extra $7500. It is worse than that since you'll also have to pay battery charge costs.

Tom Whipple, writing about Peak Oil, provides some useful context to think about when comparing electric cars to gasoline cars.

The average U.S. personal vehicle (cars, trucks and SUVs) consumes about 700 gallons of fuel a year. At $4 a gallon this is now about $2800 a year to fuel the average passenger vehicle. Each dollar a gallon increase adds only $60 a month to the gasoline bill, an amount manageable by many given the “essential” of personal transport.

He's wrapping together older cars that travel fewer miles per year with newer cars that spend more time on the road. Plus he's combining SUVs and all sizes of cars together. People who are considering an electric car are much more likely to compare it to a Toyota Prius which gets about 50 mpg. That Prius will use only 240 gallons at 12000 miles per year. At $5 per gallon that's only $700 per year and that lowers the price bar EVs need to get down to in order to compete. Battery costs need to plummet or gasoline needs to hit $8+ per gallon.

The Nissan Leaf has an MSRP of $32,780 minus whatever tax rebates you might be eligible for. Since the Prius MSRP starts at $22,120 a competitive electric car lies some years in the future. That car won't be as flexible as the Prius. It'll have much shorter range and limits on where you can take it.

So how fast will oil prices go up and how fast will battery prices drop? Answer those two questions correctly and you can predict when EVs will make economic sense.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 10 09:50 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2011 May 08 Sunday
Simon Baron-Cohen Wants To Treat Empathy Deficiency

Narcissists, each of you may believe you are the greatest being on the face of the planet and a gift to the rest of us that we fail to appreciate. But Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor Simon Baron-Cohen wants to help you develop more empathy.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale -- these people have "zero degrees of empathy."

But rather than labeling them as evil, Baron-Cohen says they should be seen as sick, or "disabled," and we should seek to understand why they have such an empathy deficiency and help them replace it.

So naturally I'm picturing some narcissists thinking that Baron-Cohen needs to learn how to love and worship and serve them.

I know I have some psychopathic readers who are aware they are fortunate not to be burdened by the mind-clouding weakness of empathy. What do you think of Baron-Cohen's views? Does he fail to appreciate the advantages of a psychopathic CEO who will fire inefficient people and allow the firm to flourish? Does he not realize that psychopaths can serve useful purposes?

Also, hey high functioning autistics: He researches you too as directory of the Cambridge Autism Research Center. Does he have views at odds with those autistics who do not think they are defective?

Baron-Cohen has a new book about to come out about brain research on empathy entitled (at least in America) The Science of Evil. I haven't read it but it sounds interesting.

My take: while a lack of empathy combined with some other traits can cause humans to harm and kill others it would be a mistake to believe that we should make everyone equally empathetic and much more empathetic. Too often empathy causes people to enable others to be lazy, destructive, and irresponsible. The tendency to experience very strong emotional desires, of any form, clouds the mind and blocks development of needed understanding.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 08 11:38 AM  Brain Society
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Common Drugs Reduce Feelings Of Unfairness?

An anti-anxiety drug reduces the odds people will respond to unfair treatment by trying to punish the perpetrator.

[PRESS RELEASE, 4 May 2011] A new study from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden shows that the brain has built-in mechanisms that trigger an automatic reaction to someone who refuses to share. The reaction derives from the amygdala, an older part of the brain. The subjects' sense of justice was challenged in a two-player money-based fairness game, while their brain activity was registered by an MR scanner. When bidders made unfair suggestions as to how to share the money, they were often punished by their partners even if it cost them.

The drug in question probably does this by inhibiting the amygdala part of the brain.

A drug that inhibits amygdala activity subdued this reaction to unfairness.

An anti-anxiety drug increases the willingness to accept perceived unfairness.

In the present study, the subjects were either given the anti-anxiety tranquilliser Oxazepam or a sugar pill (placebo) while playing the Ultimate Game. The researchers found that those who had received the drug showed lower amygdala activity and a stronger tendency to accept an unfair distribution of the money - this despite the fact that when asked, they still considered the suggestion unfair.

Has the use of anti-anxiety drugs increased the level of unfairness in developed countries? Benzodiazepine anti-anxiety drugs include such familiar names as Librium, Valium, Xanax, Atvan, Klonopin. They all might increase your willingness to accept unfair treatment in relationships, business dealings, jobs, and courts. Anti-anxiety drugs are used extensively.

In 2008, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the top 20 benzodiazepines, an increase of 10 million over 2004, according to IMS Health, a health-care information company based in Norwalk, Conn.

Even the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as Zoloft and Paxil are used in treatment of anxiety disorders.

Men especially are made less aggressive and more willing to go along with unfair distributions of money when on Oxazepam.

In the control group, the tendency to react aggressively and punish the player who had suggested the unfair distribution of money was directly linked to an increase in activity in the amygdala. A gender difference was also observed, with men responding more aggressively to unfair suggestions than women and showing a correspondingly higher rate of amygdalic activity. This gender difference was not found in the group that received Oxazepam.

This also has implications for the future evolution of the human species. When prospective parents gain the ability to choose between potential offspring genetic sequence variants will they choose variants that make for more or less amygdala activity? The willingness to dole out altruistic punishment could become more or less prevalent in genetically engineered humans. I see the instinctive desire to carry out altruistic punishment as a necessary trait to maintain a safe and healthy society.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 08 11:37 AM  Brain Altruism
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2011 May 07 Saturday
Fatih Birol: Oil Production Already Peaked

Sounding very much like Ken Deffeyes on Peak Oil, Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, says world oil production has already peaked.

When we look at the oil markets the news is not very bright. We think that the crude oil production has already peaked in 2006.

Maybe we'll hit another production peak this year or next. All liquids production is up to about 2006 levels now. When you read about current oil production keep in mind that the term "all liquids" is often reported in the press as meaning oil production. But the "all liquids" term includes liquids condensed from natural gas, ethanol made from corn, and other liquids. The stuff that made Jed Clampett rich is a large but declining fraction of "all liquids". Some of those other liquids aren't as useful as oil. The biomass-derived liquids like corn ethanol excessively inflate the useful amounts of liquids because it takes oil to grow and process the corn. So the all liquids figure isn't as good as it looks.

We've been on a bumpy plateau of world oil production since late 2004. A peak in any one year is less important than when the decline off the plateau starts in earnest and how steep a production slope we ride going down. Jeremy Leggett thinks the decline could be steep. Chris Skrebowski thinks we are a few years away from the start of the decline.

Sir Richard Branson
Let's not an oil crunch take us by surprise and be poorly prepared.

Dr Jeremy Leggett
The Oil Crunch is when global supply fails to meet demand and starts to drop, and arguably we fear, starts to drop so fast that you'd almost call it a collapse.

Chris Skrebowski
All the calculations tell us that it, it's, it's going to be no later than 2014 and it could be as early as 2013.

So if oil production starts going down sharply can renewables fill the gap? Mason Inman points to a report which claims renewables won't grow fast enough.

Renewable energy could, in theory, take over quickly from fossil fuels, according to a draft of a new report on renewable energy by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study says renewables could grow 20-fold in the next four decades—more than enough to meet projected demand. But in reality, the report argues, less than 2.5 percent of that potential will be put into place.

I see one ray of hope: If natural gas production from fracturing shale continues its current trend then at least in the United States and Canada natural gas could serve as a transition energy source away from oil. If you think the price of gasoline is going to skyrocket and you also expect natural gas prices to stay low then help is on the way: For the 2012 model year the Honda Civic GX natural gas vehicle will be sold nationwide in the United States. The previous Civic GX was sold in only a few markets.

What about cost? Civic hybrid at $23,950 (which also has more expensive trim levels) costs less than the current Civic GX at $25,490. By contrast, the base Civic model starts at only $15,805.

Does a natural gas car make sense yet? It has several downsides (and all substitutes for oil have substantial downsides - that's why oil costs much more per unit of energy, it is so convenient). First off, the Civic GX only holds the equivalent of about 7.8 gallons of gasoline. So you'll have about 250-300 mile range. Second, you'll have to spend several thousand dollars more when you buy the car. Plus, you'll have to either seek out rate natural gas recharging stations or buy a home recharging natural gas compressor.

Upside: Your cost of an amount of natural gas equivalent to a gallon of gas could be a half or a third of what you pay for gasoline. Check out this map of natural gas refueling stations. Prices vary enormously depending on whether much natural gas is produced in a region. It is hard to move natural gas around in anything but pipelines. So prices vary much more than gasoline prices do. Around Salt Lake City natural gas prices are very low at $1.27 per gallon. In parts of Oklahoma it costs less than $1. Ontario Canada has some even lower prices. If you want or need to to refuel at home you'll have to pay a few thousand more for a home natural gas compression unit that'll refill your car while you sleep.

My take: If natural gas prices stay as low as they have since collapsing in 2008 then by 2020 (and perhaps much sooner) natural gas cars will be a better value than gasoline cars for a large portion of the US and Canadian populations and ditto for a number of other countries with large natural gas reserves.

Update: Cheap NG: See Jean-Marie Bourdaire's video presentation on about shale natural gas costs and prospects. He discusses Arthur Berman's skepticism on shale natural gas and indications of why it might really be as cheap as claimed.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 07 07:11 PM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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2011 May 03 Tuesday
Biggest Nuke Utility CEO Says New Nukes Too Costly

John Rowe, CEO of electric power utility Exelon, has gathered under Exelon ownership the largest fleet of nuclear reactors in the United States. As his last major deal before retirement he has even put together a merger of Exelon with Constellation Energy that will put even more nuclear power plants under the control of Exelon. Rowe spent several years supporting cap and trade carbon emissions regulations in order to shift more demand toward nuclear power. Yet now the low natural gas prices in recent years due to the development of methods to extract natural gas from shales has so lowered the price of natural gas that Rowe now favors natural gas over nuclear power for new electric power plants. Nukes still cost too much.

"Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner than any or all of the alternatives I know," said Rowe during a lunchtime address during CERAWeek. "It costs about $100 per megawatt hour to build nuclear -and that's with subsidies. Nuclear plants are about 40 per cent out of the money right now, probably by a factor of two."

Rowe went on to point out solar runs at about $200/MGW, carbon capture and storage isn't economic right now and offshore wind is even more expensive.

That's quite a departure from his previous position. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute a few days before the Japanese earthquake and Fukushima nuclear plant failures Rowe says natural gas is so much cheaper than its competitors that it a big nuclear build would need government subsidies to happen.

Chairman Upton has stated that renewable energy subsidies have cost the taxpayer $100 billion over the past ten years. Yet, even with this high level of government support, wind and solar are still not cost competitive.

Renewable energy is not the only technology to receive money from the government – coal, oil, gas and nuclear combined have received billions of dollars in government support.

Some in Congress talk about doubling or tripling the size of the existing nuclear fleet to face our energy challenges. Since these plants are not currently economic at today’s low natural gas prices, the government would have to spend $300-600 billion to get these plants built.

Fukushima (which has shifted public opinion against nuclear power) matters less to the future of nuclear power in the United States than total cost of nuclear versus natural gas for electric power generation. Cost is king.

Rowe opposes further extensions of US government loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants.

Congress should not expand the nuclear loan guarantee program beyond the current $18.5 billion already allocated and should not extend the PTC and ITC tax credits. And, I say this not just as a nuke, but also as a new owner of 735 MW of wind and the largest urban solar facility in the United States.

Wind and solar will become more economic, just not yet. Solar costs will continue to fall, and wind’s economics improve as more coal plants retire. Unlike solving the problems of social security or Medicare, where people must share pain, we can stop energy subsidies without losing the benefits of a clean energy future.

Rowe says absent government subsidies natural gas will win out and displace dirtier coal. Take away subsidies and we can get cheap and clean electric power.

Natural gas is Queen. It is domestically abundant and inexpensive and is the bridge to the future. Because of natural gas, there is no need for expensive mandates and subsidies. Natural gas allows us to compete with China and India.

The competitive landscape has shifted against new nukes - at least in America.

“Up until 2 or 3 years ago, I simply could see no alternative to a major nuclear resurgence at some time, but as we look at a world with relatively slow growth in demand for electricity, wind that actually works, solar that has gone from 40 cents per kilowatt-hour to 20 cents…you do begin to envision that there may be a more complex technology base out there that might be economically competitive with nuclear and socially thought to be preferable.”

Elsewhere (can't find a link now) Rowe has commented on the lower costs of building nukes in China. The big nuke build now underway in China might make economic sense due to lower nuke prices there. What I'm not clear on: What does industrial natural gas cost in China? More expensive than the US?

By Randall Parker 2011 May 03 11:49 PM  Energy Nuclear
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2011 May 02 Monday
Jeremy Grantham: Peak Everything?

Will depleting resources become an obstacle to economic growth? Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of money manager GMO with $106 billion under management, has developed an interest in resource limitations as obstacles to economic growth. It is disturbing to read that he doesn't just think Peak Oil is near. He's closer to a Peak Everything position. See his article on GMO's web site PDF), on The Oil Drum or on The Energy Bulletin (and easiest to read).

The purpose of this, my second (and much longer) piece on resource limitations, is to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in a different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common. (Previously, I had promised to update you when we had new data. Well, after a lot of grinding, this is our first comprehensive look at some of this data.)

Accelerated demand from developing countries, especially China, has caused an unprecedented shift in the price structure of resources: after 100 hundred years or more of price declines, they are now rising, and in the last 8 years have undone, remarkably, the effects of the last 100-year decline! Statistically, also, the level of price rises makes it extremely unlikely that the old trend is still in place. If I am right, we are now entering a period in which, like it or not, we must finally follow President Carter’s advice to develop a thoughtful energy policy and give up our carefree and careless ways with resources. The quicker we do this, the lower the cost will be. Any improvement at all in lifestyle for our grandchildren will take much more thoughtful behavior from political leaders and more restraint from everyone. Rapid growth is not ours by divine right; it is not even mathematically possible over a sustained period. Our goal should be to get everyone out of abject poverty, even if it necessitates some income redistribution. Because we have way overstepped sustainable levels, the greatest challenge will be in redesigning lifestyles to emphasize quality of life while quantitatively reducing our demand levels. A lower population would help. Just to start you off, I offer Exhibit 1: the world’s population growth. X marks the spot where Malthus wrote his defining work. Y marks my entry into the world. What a surge in population has occurred since then! Such compound growth cannot continue with finite resources. Along the way, you are certain to have a paradigm shift. And, increasingly, it looks like this is it!

In terms of how bleak a picture Grantham paints about resource limitations and other factors restraining growth he falls between Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation and Chris Martenson's The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment. I've read and recommend Tyler's book. I'm not yet far enough into it to offer a take on Martenson's book.

Grantham says China's rapid growth has put an enormous demand on resources.

As I wrote three years ago, this growth process accelerated as time passed. Britain, leading the charge, doubled her wealth in a then unheard of 100 years. Germany, starting later, did it in 80 years, and so on until Japan in the 20th century doubled in 20 years, followed by South Korea in 15. But Japan had only 80 million people and South Korea 20 million back then. Starting quite recently, say, as the Japanese surge ended 21 years ago, China, with nearly 1.3 billion people today, started to double every 10 years, or even less. India was soon to join the charge and now, officially, 2.5 billion people in just these two countries – 2.5 times the planet’s entire population in Malthus’ time – have been growing their GDP at a level last year of over 8%. This, together with a broad-based acceleration of growth in smaller, developing countries has changed the world. In no way is this effect more profound than on the demand for resources.

Grantham says "peak everything" is our greatest challenge. Effectively he's predicting a return to the Malthusian Trap where death due to insufficient resources was a common occurrence. The rate of innovation will determine whether that's to be the fate of humanity. Faster rates of innovation could produce the technological innovations that would allow us to develop replacements for depleted resources.

If I am right in this assumption, then when our finite resources are on their downward slope, the hydrocarbon-fed population will be left far above its sustainable level; that is, far beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. How we deal with this unsustainable surge in demand and not just “peak oil,” but “peak everything,” is going to be the greatest challenge facing our species. But whether we rise to the occasion or not, there will be some great fortunes made along the way in finite resources and resource efficiency, and it would be sensible to participate.

Annual gains in agricultural productivity have fallen from 3.5% to 1.25%. That growth rate is even worse than it looks because Asians with rising affluence are spending more on meat and therefore driving up prices for others whose earnings are still much lower.

Exhibit 10 shows that at the end of the 1960s, average gains in global productivity stood at 3.5% per year. What an achievement it was to have maintained that kind of increase year after year. It is hardly surprising that the growth in productivity has declined.

It runs now at about one-third of the rate of increase of the 1960s. It is, at 1.25% a year, still an impressive rate, but the trend is clearly slowing while demand has not slowed and, if anything, has been accelerating. And how was this quite massive increase in productivity over the last 50 years maintained? By the even more rapid increase in the use of fertilizer. Exhibit 11 shows that fertilizer application per acre increased five-fold in the same period that the growth rate of productivity declined.

What's worth noting here: First off, advances in genomics have not (at least so far) reversed this slowing rise in agricultural productivity. This makes sense intuitively. A lot of productivity-boosting changes to crop plants amounts to lowering their defenses (whether to insects, other species of plants, or other enemies and conditions) while substituting other measures for those defenses (e.g. pesticides, herbicides, measures to keep away birds). Well, there's a limit to how low the defenses can be lowered. Plus, there's a limit to how efficiently plants can convert sunlight into sugars, oils, and proteins. Diminishing returns on investment are to be expected.

As Grantham points out, we've continued to deplete aquifers, shift prime agricultural land into housing and commercial areas, and overfarm in ways that cause loss of quality topsoil. In theory if we only had really cheap energy we could run massive desalination plants along coast lines and pump the water hundreds of miles inland to grow crops in dry areas. But if some non-fossil fuel energy source does not become super cheap then food supplies in much of the world

Natural gas is used to make nitrogen fertilizers (hydrogen atoms from CH4 methane get bound to nitrogen to reduce it). We've been very fortunate that, unlike oil, natural gas prices have stayed low since collapsing in 2008 due to natural gas produced by fracturing shales deep underground. For any areas with cheap shale gas (and hopefully that will continue to be the case for the United States for a few decades) we'll continue to have that cheap source of energy to reduce nitrogen to make assorted nitrogen fertilizers. Whether most of the world will have cheap natural gas for some decades remains to be seen. As oil production declines the shift toward natural gas for transportation and chemical production will increase the demand and consumption rates of natural gas. Not clear what that'll do to its price.

After having read the full article upon reaching the end some of his conclusions are surprising. Running out of natural resources? For the United States he only expects a slowing of growth, not a contraction.

The slowing growth in working age population has reduced the GDP growth for all developed countries. Adding resource limitations is further reducing it. If our GDP in the U.S. grew 2% for the next 20 years, I think we would be doing very well. Dropping to 1.5% would not surprise me, nor would it be a disaster. In the past 28 years, we have increased our GDP by 3.0% per year with only a 0.9% increase in energy required. That is, we increased our energy efficiency by 2.1% without a decent energy policy and despite some very inefficient pockets like autos and residential housing. This would suggest that at a reduced 2% GDP growth rate, we might expect little or no incremental demand for energy, even without an improved effort. If in addition we halved our deficit in energy efficiency compared with Europe and Japan in the next 20 years, then our energy requirements might drop at 1.5% a year. Given the plentiful availability of low-hanging fruit in the U.S., this is achievable.

For countries less endowed with natural resources the prospects are more grim as their costs of inputs go way up. For the poorest countries the prospects are especially bleak because the world's poorest spend such large fractions of their incomes on food. Higher food prices for most Americans are an annoying inconvenience. But for someone who spends half his income on food a doubling of prices means hunger.

The bright spot with fossil fuels lately has been natural gas, which has the potential to serve as a substitute transportation fuel once oil prices get too high. Current natural gas prices are below the level that makes gas-to-liquid plants economically viable.

Deutsche Bank analyst Jarrett Guldenhuys figures a U.S. GTL plant could be profitable at gas prices as high as $4.70 per mmBTU and oil as low as $64.

With Brent oil around $120 per barrel and natural gas near $4 per mmBTU the prospects for more GTL plants seem favorable. But this depends on low natural gas prices as we've witnessed in the last few years.

If we could develop ways to get energy cheaply from non-fossil fuel sources then I'd be more optimistic about Peak Oil and Peak Everything. We can substitute cheap energy for minerals in many ways. Future energy costs will do much to determine whether we can handle the declining supplies of other commodities. It is not clear to me how this will turn out.

Update: As I point out in the comments, there's enough iron, aluminum, and magnesium in the Earth's crust that given very cheap energy we could get plenty of those materials for structural use. Our future pivots on the price of energy. Rising energy costs will make it even more expensive to extract minerals from the remaining lower grade ores. But a huge breakthrough in some method to very cheaply generate electricity (e.g. if Andrea Rossi's energy catalyzer really worked would make the declining ore concentration problem much easier to deal with.

Update: See Alan Fletcher on what it would take to prove Rossi's reactor is the real deal.

By Randall Parker 2011 May 02 03:12 PM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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