2011 June 28 Tuesday
More Borders And Lower Costs Boost War

In a nutshell: More borders lead to more war. The internet is creating more virtual borders and therefore more potential for conflict.

Is progress inevitable? It depends on what you categorize as progress. If you like war (and the sight of beautiful women can bring that out in men) then you can feel satisfied that lower war costs due to technological progress have combined with the breakdown of empires to make it easier to have more wars.

New research by the University of Warwick and Humboldt University shows that the frequency of wars between states increased steadily from 1870 to 2001 by 2% a year on average. The research argues that conflict is being fed by economic growth and the proliferation of new borders.

The internet creates new borders which leads to greater opportunity for conflict. The internet warfare between nations and even by private groups against governments can be viewed as a result of more borders created by the internet. The internet effectively has created huge numbers of virtual borders online where firewalls try to enforce sovereignty in protected zones while invaders from other zones try to invade and pillage.

More conflicts between states.

We may think the world enjoyed periods of relative freedom from war between the Cold War and 9/11 but the new research by Professor Mark Harrison from at the University of Warwick’s the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and Professor Nikolaus Wolf from Humboldt University, shows that the number of conflicts between pairs of states rose steadily from 6 per year on average between 1870 and 1913 to 17 per year in the period of the two World Wars, 31 per year in the Cold War, and 36 per year in the 1990s.

Professor Mark Harrison from the University of Warwick said:

“The number of conflicts has been rising on a stable trend. Because of two world wars, the pattern is obviously disturbed between 1914 and 1945 but remarkably, after 1945 the frequency of wars resumed its upward course on pretty much the same path as before 1913.”

One of the key drivers is the number of countries, which has risen dramatically – from 47 in 1870 to 187 in 2001.

The European Union is an attempt to avoid European wars by eliminating the borders that would have been fought over in previous eras. But in other parts of the world border formation has outpaced consolidation into larger political units. In the 21st century will the number of nations and borders go up? Can violence between nations decline globally by merger of nations into larger national entities?

The US government has recently warned it will treat cyber attacks as acts of war. The Chinese miltiary is warning the US military is preparing for cyberwarfare. This illustrates the extent to which existing sovereign governments view the internet as a source of new border formation.

If the 21st century turns into a bloody era then blame this turn of events on the rise of the internet.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 28 11:16 PM  Comm Tech Society
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2011 June 27 Monday
NYT And EIA: Shale Gas Bubble?

The New York Times has gotten hold of internal documents of the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration where several EIA officials are found voicing their skepticism about the long term prospects for extracting large amounts of natural gas from fracturing shale rock. The term "irrational exuberance" gets used.

In scores of internal e-mails and documents, officials within the Energy Information Administration, or E.I.A., voice skepticism about the shale gas industry.

One official says the shale industry may be “ set up for failure.” “It is quite likely that many of these companies will go bankrupt,” a senior adviser to the Energy Information Administration administrator predicts. Several officials echo concerns raised during previous bubbles, in housing and in technology stocks, for example, that ended in a bust.

Some of the EIA folks think shale gas companies are exaggerating their prospects by selectively showing their best wells. Click thru to the article and you can then click thru to more emails it links to.

Why this matters: Natural gas from shale is being promoted as so plentiful that it will allow a large scaling up in natural gas production. Shale gas has made natural gas much cheaper in the last few years since peaking in price right before the 2008 financial crisis. In the United States natural gas consumption grew an amazing 21.7% in 2010. The low cost of natural gas has unexpectedly made new nuclear power plants uncompetitive in the United States. If the electric power industry does a big build of natural gas electric power plants as a result of an unsustainable boost in shale gas production then a big build-out of natural gas electric plants will turn out to be a costly mistake.

Another great hope for cheap shale natural gas is in transportation. Natural gas vehicles are touted as a way to move away from costly oil. As Asian oil demand keeps rising and production fails to follow the hope in some circles is that compressed natural gas cars The big hope requires lots of cheap shale gas. Is this hope realistic? The stakes for all of us are huge.

These leaks of internal EIA documents show that Arthur Berman and Henry Groppe are not alone in their skepticism about shale gas. See Berman's post on The Oil Drum: Shale Gas—Abundance or Mirage? Why The Marcellus Shale Will Disappoint Expectations. Berman thinks likely shale gas production potential is greatly exaggerated.

And then the other thing that we see empirically is that if you look at any of these individual shale-gas plays-whether it’s the Haynesville or the Barnett or the Fayetteville-they all contract to a core area that has the potential to be commercial that is on the order of 10 to 20 percent of the geographic area that was originally represented as all being the same. So if you take the resource size that’s advertized-say for the Haynesville shale, something like 250 Tcf-and you look at the area that’s emerging as the core area, it’s less than 10 percent of the total. So is 25 Tcf a reasonable number for the Haynesville shale? Yeah, it probably is. And it’s a huge number. But the number sure is not 250 Tcf, and that’s the way all of these plays seem to be going. They remain significant. It hasn’t been proved to me yet that any of it is commercial, but they’re drilling it like mad, there’s no doubt about it.

So will a huge sustained boost in shale gas production substantially ease our adjustment to Peak Oil? Or will shale gas so disappoint that it will be seen an unfortunate distraction that delayed nuclear power plant proposals? Will coal production have to suddenly ramp to fill in a gap while nukes get hurriedly built?

Update: Jeff LeVine has a pretty good summary of the EIA internal documents and the resulting flap. Also see at The Automatic Earth Stoneleigh's take on it with her post "Get ready for the North American gas shock". I fear Stoneleigh, Art Berman, and assorted industry participants who wrote letters to the EIA are right. Shale Gas really is an investment bubble whose economics are far worse than the major shale gas players are claiming.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 27 08:41 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2011 June 25 Saturday
New Nukes Coming Online To More Than Double

Globally the rate at which new nuclear power plants get turned on to start operating will more than double from 5 to 12 per year in the next 4 years.

Assuming about five years for construction it can be expected that reactors will be coming online around 2012 at double today's rate of five per year, with this to rise to one per month around 2015.

Each nuclear reactor takes years to plan and years to build. With many nukes in the pipeline decisions taken a few in the last few years to ramp up nuclear reactor construction in China and other Asian countries are starting to be felt. The Fukushima accident is too recent to affect the pipeline of nukes under construction. A few European countries have turned against nuclear power. Japan might do so as well. But Japanese opposition to nuclear power is mixed. In Asia the Fukushima accident might have little or no impact on new nuclear reactor builds. China's still charging forward with a big nuke build. Even in Europe Lithuania so wants to cut its dependence on Russian natural gas that it is going to build a nuke.

In the United States the Tennessee Valley Authority will start operating the Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor in 2013. Its construction was halted in 1985 but is now being completed. That will be the first added nuke in the US since the 1990s. The TVA has plans for more nuclear reactors including a half dozen small modular reactors. The US government's commitment to nuclear power is undiminished and nuclear power's biggest obstacle in the US is the low cost of natural gas from shale.

The British government has just named 8 sites for new nukes aimed at replacing nukes that are nearing the ends of their operating lives.

If natural gas from shale becomes a large and cheap source of natural gas in Asia then I expect nuclear power's growth in Asia to slow and possibly even stop. But short of that possibility I still expect to see a continued large nuke build in Asia.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 25 11:05 PM  Energy Nuclear
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Crowd Sourcing Identifies 2 Parkinsons Disease Genes

The folks at personal genetic testing company 23andme.com recruited Parkinson's Disease (PD) patients from mailing lists and other means and compared their genetic variants with a group of 23andme customers who also got their genetic variants tested by 23andme. They used the resulting data to discover 2 more genetic variants associated with Parkinson's Disease. The results demonstrate the speed, low cost, and power of web-based recruiting to do genetic research outside the traditional academic framework.

We conducted a large genome-wide association study (GWAS) of Parkinson's disease (PD) with over 3,400 cases and 29,000 controls (the largest single PD GWAS cohort to date). We report two novel genetic associations and replicate a total of twenty previously described associations, showing that there are now many solid genetic factors underlying PD. We also estimate that genetic factors explain at least one-fourth of the variation in PD liability, of which currently discovered factors only explain a small fraction (6%–7%). Together, these results expand the set of genetic factors discovered to date and imply that many more associations remain to be found. Unlike traditional studies, participation in this study took place completely online, using a collection of cases recruited primarily via PD mailing lists and controls derived from the customer base of the personal genetics company 23andMe. Our study thus illustrates the ability of web-based methods for enrollment and data collection to yield new scientific insights into the etiology of disease, and it demonstrates the power and reliability of self-reported data for studying the genetics of Parkinson's disease.

You can read the whole open access Plos Genetics research report at that link.

What's cool about this: Using a web site and cheap genetic testing services people can volunteer themselves as research subjects on a scale that historically has taken far more effort to organize. This approach can scale into the hundreds of thousands, and even hundreds of millions of people. There's a big network effect where the more people who get tested the more useful genetic testing becomes.

Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) genetic testing is what made the study above possible. Whether we will be able to continue to get our DNA tested without paying for a doctor's visit and additional testing mark-ups remains to be seen. In the United States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking a dim view of DTC genetic testing. See here, here, here, here, and here for more.

I see DTC genetic testing as the tip of a much bigger iceberg: The flow of huge amounts of biomedical data from all manner of test devices at home, in drug stores, in portable units people will carry, and from sensors embedded in the body. A business-as-usual regulatory environment where it is difficult to do medical testing outside of traditional locations such as hospitals and clinics will prevent the flood of testing data and greatly slow the rate of progress of biomedical science. DTC testing services and personal testing devices hold the potential to revolutionize biomedical research with crowd sourcing and also to revolutionize diagnosis and monitoring of health. In the universe of Arrakis it was said "the spice must flow". Our modern equivalent is "the data must flow". Think about it.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 25 09:31 PM  Policy Medical
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2011 June 22 Wednesday
Cosmetic Cell Therapy Approved For Smile Lines

The first FDA-approved cell therapy for cosmetic purposes:

EXTON, Pa., June 22, 2011 – Fibrocell Science, Inc. (OTCBB:FCSC.OB), a cell therapy company focused on the development of autologous (personalized) cell therapies for aesthetic, medical and scientific applications, announced today that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Company’s Biologics License Application for its lead product, laVív® (azficel-T) late last night. laVív is the first and only personalized aesthetic cell therapy approved by the FDA for the improvement of the appearance of moderate to severe nasolabial fold wrinkles (smile lines) in adults. In clinical trials, laVív was well tolerated with the majority of adverse events being injection-site reactions that were of mild to moderate intensity and resolved within one week.

The cells are the patient's own, removed and grown outside the body for reinjection.

The patented technology behind laVív is an advanced process that extracts and multiplies a specific kind of a person’s own skin cells (fibroblasts) to create LAVIV, which is then injected into the patient to improve the appearance of smile lines. In normal skin, fibroblasts are responsible for producing collagen.

While this therapy probably works an even better one would include added steps to select fibroblast cells which are least damaged from aging, more steps to rejuvenate those cells (e.g. make longer telomeres and reduce the DNA methylation that accumulates with age. Techniques to make cells younger and less damaged will lower the risks of cell therapies while at the same time make the therapies more effective and longer lasting.

Since the cells get injected a few times over a few months and then they divide and make collagen it takes months for the full benefit.

“The concept of using a patient’s own collagen-making cells is a revolutionary way to help treat nasolabial fold wrinkles and help restore a fresh appearance,” said Dr. Robert A. Weiss, Clinical Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Director, Maryland Laser Skin & Vein Institute, and an investigator for the LAVIV clinical trials. “Since this is a biological process that works over time, LAVIV is able to provide gradual and natural-looking results.”

We could have more stem cell therapies with existing biotechnology. How about anterior cruciate ligament repair with stem cells? Stem cell therapy to fix race horse joints is already done because animal treatments are much less regulated than human treatments. I never realized before that I had an important reason to like horse racing: the revenue from horse racing helps fund rejuvenation therapies that will also some day get used to treat humans. The same is true for pet stem cell therapies.

(thanks Lou Pagnucco for the latter 2 links)

By Randall Parker 2011 June 22 11:54 PM  Aging Appearances
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Short Telomeres Boost Progerin Aging Protein

Each time a cell divides its chromosome caps (called telomeres) get shorter. When telomeres get really short they interfere with the health of cells and cell division becomes more difficult. Telomere length is an indicator (albeit not perfect) of cell age and cell health. Therefore mechanisms by which telomere length impact cell health and cell death are as important topic of aging research. So it is interesting that NIH researchers have discovered a mechanism by which telomere shortening boosts production of the toxic protein progerin in cells.

National Institutes of Health researchers have identified a new pathway that sets the clock for programmed aging in normal cells. The study provides insights about the interaction between a toxic protein called progerin and telomeres, which cap the ends of chromosomes like aglets, the plastic tips that bind the ends of shoelaces.

The study by researchers from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) appears in the June 13, 2011 early online edition of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Telomeres wear away during cell division. When they degrade sufficiently, the cell stops dividing and dies. The researchers have found that short or dysfunctional telomeres activate production of progerin, which is associated with age-related cell damage. As the telomeres shorten, the cell produces more progerin.

Progerin is a mutated version of a normal cellular protein called lamin A, which is encoded by the normal LMNA gene. Lamin A helps to maintain the normal structure of a cell's nucleus, the cellular repository of genetic information.

This finding ties the premature aging disease Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome (HGPS) which typically kills children by their early teens (see pictures of progeria children). The same progerin protein that causes cellular damage in progeria syndrome also causes the same sorts of damage as we grow older and our telomeres shorten.

You might think, why not rejuvenate by lengthening telomeres? The problem (see that link) is that telomere shortening is probably a defense mechanism against cancer. So lengthening telomeres (assuming we had a treatment that would do this) might not lower the risk of all-cause mortality. However, throw in some great cures for cancer (the sooner the better) and telomere lengthening will suddenly become a very appealing idea. Another possibility: If we could bioengineer our immune systems to very aggressively police against cancers we could reduce the cancer risk from making our telomeres long again. Immune system rejuvenation along with tweaks to make the immune system more aggressive against cancers could so reduce cancer risk that telomere lengthening would carry far less risk.

Cell therapies using rejuvenated stem cells with long telomeres (carefully checked to assure no cancer-causing mutations) will some day deliver some of the benefits of telomere lengthening. While cell therapies won't replace all the aged cells in bodies they at least will provide youthful cells that will do lots of tissue repair.Similarly, advances in tissue engineering to enable growth of replacement organs from youthful stem cells will allow us swap out organs that have lots of aged cells with short telomeres.

For a sense of how important telomeres are in the aging process see my previous posts Telomere Length Indicates Mortality Risk, Chronic Stress Accelerates Aging As Measured By Telomere Length, Telomere Genes Linked To Longer Life, and Telomere Test For Longevity Estimate.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 22 11:47 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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On Road Speed Signs And Blood Nanosensors

An article in Wired reports about how drivers respond to dynamic speed display signs (with built-in radars by slowing down. FuturePundit wonders whether a cell phone tell that would tell you (unsolicited) when you've exceeded your calorie allotment would have a similar effect.

The results fascinated and delighted the city officials. In the vicinity of the schools where the dynamic displays were installed, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent. Not only that, at three schools the average speed dipped below the posted speed limit. Since this experiment, Garden Grove has installed 10 more driver feedback signs. “Frankly, it’s hard to get people to slow down,” says Dan Candelaria, Garden Grove’s traffic engineer. “But these encourage people to do the right thing.”

In the years since the Garden Grove project began, radar technology has dropped steadily in price and Your Speed signs have proliferated on American roadways. Yet despite their ubiquity, the signs haven’t faded into the landscape like so many other motorist warnings. Instead, they’ve proven to be consistently effective at getting drivers to slow down—reducing speeds, on average, by about 10 percent, an effect that lasts for several miles down the road.

The ability to do instant continuous testing of your blood, stomach, and other organs with nanosensors tied to your cell phone would provide you with feedback while you are making decisions about your health and diet. Would you behave differently as a result of that feedback? Imagine your phone buzzed you and you looked at it at as you walked into a restaurant (using geolocation information tied to a search engine) at lunch time and it told you to eat a vegetable and that you are already over your calorie budget for the day. Would you behave differently?

Having a doctor lecture you once every year or two about your diet and blood lipids doesn't do much to many people. Instant test results provided directly to consumers might do far more.

Update: We are headed for the Feedback Society where the number of monitoring and feedback mechanisms we use will soar. Getting enough sleep, enough exercise, the right foods, the right amounts of foods? Dedicating enough time to the study of career-enhancing subjects or to playing with your kids? All this and far more will be monitored for you using sensors in your environment and on and in your body.

Technology Review has a neat on-going series called The Measured Life. It reports on gadgets for measuring how far you walk, your sleep patterns, calories burned, and other aspects of your life.

I am expecting a progression into the social aspects of life. How about voice recognition sensors that record the identity of everyone you interact with and when you interacted with them? All your conversations could be recorded and translated to text. You could search back to find out what you promised and what others promised. Threats, fears, attempts at deception. They will all be recorded and categorized and compared automatically to knowledge coming from search engines and databases.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 22 08:55 AM  Biotech Society
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2011 June 21 Tuesday
DNA Synthesis Costs Dropping Rapidly

An article in Technology Review about synthetic biology (e.g. create custom organism to make stuff) includes an interesting fact at the end: the costs of DNA synthesis is dropping as fast as the cost of DNA sequencing.

Fortunately, the cost of DNA synthesis technology, much like that of DNA sequencing technology, is dropping rapidly. George Church, director of the Center for Computational Genomics at Harvard, noted in his talk that the costs of both DNA synthesis and sequencing technologies have been decreasing at an astonishing rate—lately by a factor of 10 each year.

The dropping costs for DNA synthesis will accelerate the rate at which scientists try out new designs of genes and organisms.

Where does this lead in the long run? The biggest wild card: Far more people will be able to do genetic engineering. Just as computing power spread from large organizations to anyone who can afford a cell phone the number of people who can make new organisms will grow by orders of magnitude. Where does this lead to? Ecological disasters where introduced genetically engineered species wipe out natural species? Count me concerned.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 21 12:40 AM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Small Nuclear Reactor Site Planned

Small nuclear reactors might be the ticket to restarting growth of the US nuclear power industry.

This week the Tennessee Valley Authority signed a letter of intent with nuclear-reactor maker Babcock & Wilcox to work together to build up to six small reactors near Clinch River, Tennessee. If the plan goes ahead, these could be the first small modular commercial nuclear power plants.

Babcock & Wilcox has a long history of making nuclear reactors for US Navy ships. This gives them an advantage in the small nuclear reactor market. Whether this advantage can translate into a competitive product remains to be seen. In theory small reactors can be made in a manufacturing plant that can reach much higher levels of productivity than a construction site for a big nuke could hope to achieve.

Babcock & Wilcox isn't the only company trying to compete in the new market for small reactors. NuScale is touting a small reactor design that uses passive cooling. So a loss of power to cooling pumps as happened at Fukushima would not cause a problem for a NuScale reactor as it doesn't use those pumps in the first place.

Smaller nukes can be built underground and can cool down faster. But smaller nukes have downsides. For example, as nukes scale up in size they need less material per unit of output and the cost of a large nuke's security force is spread out over a larger revenue flow from electric power generator. However, faster time to market and other advantages of smaller nukes still might make them competitive.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 21 12:14 AM  Energy Nuclear
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2011 June 20 Monday
Women Freezing Their Eggs To Make Babies Later

Conscious of their aging ovaries more women are having their eggs flash frozen for later use with in vitro fertilization (IVF) to make babies.

In a Manhattan office building on a recent evening, two dozen women — all in their 30s and 40s — sit in folding chairs, balancing cellphones and glasses of wine. They're gathered for a seminar called "Take Control of Your Fertility."

Dr. Alan Copperman of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York wastes no time laying out this harsh reality: By the time a woman hits her 40s, 90 percent of her eggs are abnormal. The chances of a typical 40-year-old getting pregnant in any given month? Ten percent. Unless, that is, she gets pregnant with her younger eggs — eggs she had frozen years before.

Many 40-year-old women are already effectively infertile. The earlier the eggs get frozen the better.

Frozen and then thawed eggs enable high success rates at IVF.

"These days we've sort of cracked the code on egg freezing and the pregnancy rates really are essentially the same as with fresh eggs now," Dr. William Schoolcraft with the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine said.

Want to freeze some of your eggs for when you get older? A Denver Colorado news site puts the cost at about $12,000 to $15,000.

While egg freezing probably makes sense in the 10 to 15 year time frame it won't always be necessary. At some point it will become possible to take adult cells and convert them into eggs in a lab environment. Once that capability is well developed older women will be able get a small tissue sample converted into eggs.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 20 12:03 AM  Biotech Reproduction
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2011 June 15 Wednesday
Olive Oil Cuts Stroke Risk?

A French study of 7,625 people ages 65 and older found that higher olive oil consumption is associated with 41% lower risk of stroke over 6 years.

ST. PAUL, Minn. – A new study suggests that consuming olive oil may help prevent a stroke in older people. The research is published in the June 15, 2011, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

"Our research suggests that a new set of dietary recommendations should be issued to prevent stroke in people 65 and older," said study author Cécilia Samieri, PhD, with the University of Bordeaux and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Bordeaux, France. "Stroke is so common in older people and olive oil would be an inexpensive and easy way to help prevent it."

The researchers say the olive oil consumers might eat healthier foods. But they tried to control for diet and other factors.

After considering diet, physical activity, body mass index and other risk factors for stroke, the study found that those who regularly used olive oil for both cooking and as dressing had a 41 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who never used olive oil in their diet (1.5 percent in six years compared to 2.6 percent).

Does the olive oil deliver benefits? Or does it just substitute for oils that cause inflammation?Given other research I'm strongly inclined toward the view that at least part of the benefit comes from what is in olive oil. See these posts: High Phenolic Olive Oil Changes Gene Expression, Genetic Variation Makes Olive Oil A Weight Loss Food, Olive Oil Lowers Oxidative Stress Marker, Some Mediterranean Diet Components More Important and Mediterranean Diet Plus Nuts Cuts Metabolic Syndrome.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 15 09:53 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Electric Current Controls Impulsivity

If you want to turn down your impulses an electrical current will do the trick.

London, 15 June 2011 - Inhibitory control can be boosted with a mild form of brain stimulation, according to a study published in the June 2011 issue of Neuroimage, Elsevier's Journal of Brain Function. The study's findings indicate that non-invasive intervention can greatly improve patients' inhibitory control. Conducted by a research team led by Dr Chi-Hung Juan of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, National Central University in Taiwan, the research was sponsored by the National Science Council in Taiwan, the UK Medical Research Council, the Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award, and a Fulbright Award.

This is like some science fiction novel. Imagine a young Jack Nicholson rendered calm and passive by a cap he can't remove. Would he jump into a lake to short out the hat so he can go on a rampage?

Imagine a dangerous impulsive person let out of jail on parole on the condition that they'll have a device strapped to their head that delivers a mild electrical current to their scalp. Would you favor or oppose parole conditioned on electrical controls that restrain a felon's brain?

The study demonstrates that when a weak electrical current is applied over the front of participants' scalps for ten minutes, it greatly improved their ability to process responses – effectively jumpstarting the brain's ability to control impulsivity. The treatment has the potential to serve as a non invasive treatment for patients with conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette's syndrome, drug addictions, or violent impulsivity.

Professor Chi-Hung Juan who led the research team noted, "The findings that electrical stimulation to the brain can improve control of their behavioral urges not only provide further understanding of the neural basis of inhibitory control but also suggest a possible therapeutic intervention method for clinical populations, such as those with drug additions or ADHD, in the future".

Do you have attention deficit? Too hyperactive? Would you want to wear an electrical stimulator device that would calm you down?

By Randall Parker 2011 June 15 08:02 PM  Brain Free Will
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2011 June 14 Tuesday
We Each Have About 60 Unique Genetic Mutations

You are a mutant. Don't deny it. Accept your role in the mutant horde.

Each one of us receives approximately 60 new mutations in our genome from our parents.

This striking value is reported in the first-ever direct measure of new mutations coming from mother and father in whole human genomes published today.

For the first time, researchers have been able to answer the questions: how many new mutations does a child have and did most of them come from mum or dad? The researchers measured directly the numbers of mutations in two families, using whole genome sequences from the 1000 Genomes Project. The results also reveal that human genomes, like all genomes, are changed by the forces of mutation: our DNA is altered by differences in its code from that of our parents. Mutations that occur in sperm or egg cells will be 'new' mutations not seen in our parents.

The vast majority of those mutations are not in areas that affect gene expression or protein structure. But you might have a unique functional mutation. Do you feel really really weird? A mutation might explain it. Your body might be subtly twisted and strange and foreign to the rest of the human race. You might want to keep that to yourself.

In a very unexpected result some get far more mutations from their fathers and others from their mothers. Why should this be?

They sorted the mutations into those that occurred during the production of sperm or eggs of the parents and those that may have occurred during the life of the child: it is the mutation rate in sperm or eggs that is important in evolution. Remarkably, in one family 92 per cent of the mutations derived from the father, whereas in the other family only 36 per cent were from the father.

With full genome sequencing costs below $10k and dropping rapidly we are only a few years away from being able to find out just how unique we all are.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 14 08:28 AM  Trends, Human Evolution
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2011 June 11 Saturday
China Surpasses US In Energy Consumption

BP's 2011 Statistical Review of World Energy is out and the biggest news: China has become the biggest world energy consumer.

BP, in its 60th annual Statistical Review of World Energy, said China accounted for 20.3 per cent of demand, compared with the United States' 19 per cent.

The report said China's consumption rose by 11.2 per cent last year. American demand increased 3.7 per cent.

For carbon dioxide emissions China already blew past the United States about 5 years ago due to China's much heavier reliance on coal. Now China has surpassed the US in total heat energy used across all energy types. The Chinese economy's heavy reliance on coal makes it more immune to high oil prices. Though high level of car sales in China threatens to make China much more vulnerable to high oil prices.

King Coal gained market share. China was was responsible for two thirds of the coal consumption rise.

Thermal coal consumption in the global energy mix in 2010 rose to 29.6%, its highest level since 1970, according to the BP 2011 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In 2001, coal accounted for 25.6% of the global energy market.

Oil's share of the energy market continues to decline. The remaining oil costs more to extract and prices are high.

Oil remains the world’s leading fuel, at 33.6% of global energy consumption, but it continued to lose market share for the 11th consecutive year.

When will coal's market share surpass oil? It depends on China most of all. If the Chinese slow up their nuclear power plant construction program they'll keep ramping up their coal consumption until they hit the limits of available domestic coal.

So are renewables gaining ground against fossil fuels? In a word: No. Fossil fuels gained market share overall.

The growth in fossil fuels was so strong that although non-fossil-fuel energy also had a record year, its share of the world total primary energy decreased a little.

Here's what's interesting. While wind grew by 24.6% and solar by 73% they are such a small fraction of total non-fossil fuels energy that their high percentage growth rates did not translate into a high percentage growth rate for non-fossil fuels overall. Solar still amounts to only 0.1% of total electric power and an even smaller percentage of overall energy production. Wind is now 1.6% of global electric power. It needs a few more doublings to become a major player.

Wind and solar are helped by subsidies. But in order to scale they've got to compete on price.

The 7.4% rise in natural gas consumption is especially impressive, almost as high as coal's 7.6% increase. Can gas shale production ramp up outside of the United States enough to allow the natural gas rate of production growth to surpass coal?

Solar energy's got to go thru 4 doublings just to catch up with where wind energy is now. While solar gets huge attention in the price it is really a very minor bit player even today.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 11 10:55 PM  Energy Policy
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2011 June 10 Friday
DARPA Wants Living Foundries Biological Factories

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA_ is looking to fund the development of scalable bio-factories where cells or materials normally found in cells will make assorted products.

A recent call for research by the Pentagon’s mad science agency proposes a new program called “Living Foundries.” The idea is to use biology as a manufacturing platform to “enable on-demand production of new and high-value materials, devices and capabilities.”

Click thru and read the details.

Looks like we will get biological factories long before Eric Drexler's nanoassemblers. What I wonder: Do we need specialized lab artificial intelligences to do sufficiently rapid scientific experiments on nanoassemblers to search the potential solution space to find ways to make nanoassemblers workable? Read the Controversy section of that Wikipedia page for a sense of the debate about the practicality of nanoassemblers.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 10 03:09 PM  Biotech Automation
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Lower Cost Nanodevices

Getting closer to a medical tricorder.

A simple technique for stamping patterns invisible to the human eye onto a special class of nanomaterials provides a new, cost-effective way to produce novel devices in areas ranging from drug delivery to solar cells.

The technique was developed by Vanderbilt University engineers and described in the cover article of the May issue of the journal Nano Letters.

The new method works with materials that are riddled with tiny voids that give them unique optical, electrical, chemical and mechanical properties. Imagine a stiff, sponge-like material filled with holes that are too small to see without a special microscope.

What I want: a very powerful miniature home medical test lab. Get your blood, and assorted secretions tested any time you want. Very early stage cancer testing in your own bathroom would be especially good. Catch and remove the cancer before it spreads. But very early stage means very small. The hard part will be to precisely locate it once it leaves some sort of signature in the blood.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 10 02:42 PM  Nanotech for Biotech
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Focus On A Chase Cuts Mental Notice Of Side Events

Boston police officer Kenny Conley, convicted of perjury for claiming he did not see a beating as he ran past after another suspect (who was the correct suspect btw), likely was telling the honest truth. Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Union College staged similar incidents to test student ability to notice what was going on and two thirds of the students missed the fight.

To test whether someone could actually run past a fight without seeing it, Chabris and his students set up an experiment in which subjects had to "chase" a researcher for three minutes on a college campus. The subjects, who were tested individually, had to follow the runner at a distance of about 30 feet and count the number of times he touched his head.

On the way, the subjects passed a staged fight about 8 meters (26 feet) off the pathway they were using.

"We tried to set up conditions that were as similar as we could to the situation Conley faced while still maintaining experimental control," Chabris said. "Two students were beating up a third, and they were kicking and punching and yelling and coughing."

A first study was conducted at night to simulate the original incident. The researchers then repeated the experiment during daylight.

I think we fool ourselves about how well our minds and process and remember what is going on around us. Therefore we have too much trust in eyewitness accounts and in our own memories. There are implications here for our criminal justice system, civil courts, and other institutions.

Students chasing someone were less likely to notice a beating at night. But even during the day the percentage who missed it was substantial.

"At night, which was when officer Conley had his experience, only about a third of people noticed the fight," Simons said. "When we did it during the day, over 40 percent still missed it."

"One of the hallmarks of inattentional blindness is that increasing the demands on a person's attention decreases the likelihood that he or she will notice something unexpected," Chabris said.

Giving the chasing students 2 things to do further reduced the odds of noticing a fight.

To verify that inattentional blindness was involved, some study subjects were asked to keep separate counts for the number of times the runner's right hand and left hand touched his head.

"Keeping two counts made them much less likely to notice the fight than keeping no counts," he said.

It would be interesting to see the same sort of experiment done on bank hold-ups, convenience store hold-ups, car accidents, and other things that could be staged with cameras to record what really happened. How much do people get right?

By Randall Parker 2011 June 10 02:08 PM  Brain Performance
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How Smoking Suppresses Appetite

Smoking really does suppress appetite and some researchers at Yale and Baylor College of Medicine have narrowed down the appetite suppression mechanism to a particular class of neural receptors in the hypothalamus. This discovery opens up a target for drug development for both smokers and non-smoking folks with weight problems.

Smokers tend to die young, but they tend to die thinner than non-smokers. A team of scientists led by Yale School of Medicine has discovered exactly how nicotine suppresses appetite – findings that suggest that it might be possible to develop a drug that would help smokers, and non-smokers, stay thin.

Nicotine activates a small set of neurons in a section of the hypothalamus that signals the body has had enough to eat, the researchers report in the June 10 issue of the journal Science. Nicotine accomplishes this trick by activating a different set of receptors on the surface of neurons than those that trigger a craving for tobacco.

"Unfortunately, smoking does keep weight off," said Marina Picciotto, the Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry, professor of neurobiology and pharmacology and senior author of the paper. "Many people say they won't quit smoking because they'll gain weight. Ultimately, we would like to help people maintain their body weight when they kick the habit and perhaps help non-smokers who are struggling with obesity."

Needed: a drug that selectively binds to the the α3β4 nicotinic receptor.

In the study, lead investigator Dr. Marian Picciotto, Yale University School of Medicine, and her research team focused on nicotine receptors expressed in the hypothalamic neurons that control the motivation to eat. In mice, they were able to determine that a particular nicotinic receptor subtype, the α3β4 nicotinic receptor, can influence how much a subject eats. They found that when nicotine binds to this receptor, pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons are activated, beginning the process that leads to appetite suppression.

From identification of a drug target to availability of a drug on the market can easily take 10 years. So this is good news for smokers overweight people in the 2020s.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 10 01:46 PM  Brain Appetite
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2011 June 09 Thursday
Bigger Genome Projects Undertaken

At the end of a press release from UC Davis about a research cooperation deal struck with a big genomics research institute in China the Chinese center's genome sequencing capacity is mentioned and it is quite large.

BGI was founded in 1999 as the Beijing Genomics Institute. It now has several branches and subsidiaries including: BGI-Shenzhen, a nonprofit research institute; BGI-Hong Kong, a private institute that manages international collaborations and transfers profits to BGI; and BGI-Americas, located in Boston, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary and announced new joint projects with the Broad Institute and the United Kingdom. BGI has about 4,000 employees and the capacity to sequence the equivalent of 1,600 complete human genomes each day.

What caught my eye: The ability to sequence 1,600 complete human genomes per day. In a year that is 584,000 genomes. Back in the 1990s it took years to sequence a single human genome. Now 1,600 human genomes or equivalent numbers of genomes from other species could be sequenced in a day. Rapidly declining sequencing costs will bring us to 1 million genomes sequenced per year pretty soon. Check out this graph showing how DNA sequencing costs have gone into a steep dive:


This huge decline in sequencing costs is making possible some pretty ambitious efforts to sequence to find genetic variants that control important human traits. In particular, the BGI mention above brings to reminds me that BGI-Shenzhen is doing a big DNA sequencing effort on very smart Chinese kids in order find genetic variants that contribute to high intelligence. In 5 years they might have many such variants identified.

As long as the US Food and Drug Administration and similar regulatory agencies in Europe do not outlaw direct-to-consumer genetic testing it is going to become useful to get yourself genetically tested and, in the longer run, get your full genome sequenced.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 09 12:26 AM  Biotech Advance Rates
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2011 June 06 Monday
Why Do People Eat Dirt?

An important question. Do you eat dirt? Sera Young and other researchers at Cornell asked the question of why do people eat dirt? While at first glance micronutrient deficiencies might seem a plausible guess in reality the clay most often eaten is not a good source of minerals.

The nutrition hypothesis was also a poor fit to the data. The database shows that the kind of earth people eat most often is a type of clay that contains low amounts of nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium. Plus, if calcium deficiency drove people to eat dirt, one would expect them to do it most often at life stages when they need calcium the most—adolescence or old age. But that isn't the case, according to the database. Reports do indicate that geophagy is often associated with anemia, but several studies have shown that cravings for earth continue even after people are given iron supplements. What's more, some research suggests that clay can bind to nutrients in the stomach, making them hard to digest. If that's true, it's not a lack of nutrients that causes geophagy; rather it could be the other way around.

So what is it? The dirt might be killing parasites and pathogens.

Overall, the protection hypothesis fits the data best, the Cornell researchers found. The database shows that geophagy is documented most commonly in women in the early stages of pregnancy and in pre-adolescent children. Both categories of people are especially sensitive to parasites and pathogens, according to Young and her colleagues. In addition, geophagy is most common in tropical climates where foodborne microbes are abundant. Finally, the database shows that people often eat earth during episodes of gastrointestinal stress. It's unlikely the intestinal problems are caused by the dirt itself because the type of clay people usually eat comes from deep in the ground, where pathogens and parasites are unlikely to contaminate it. Plus, people usually boil the clay before eating it.

Boiled clay? So there's a whole gastronomic tradition around clay eating.

So the thought crossed my mind: Are there clay diet cookbooks? Didn't find anything promising. But turns out Sera Young has written a Kindle book on why people have cravings for clay and a few other items.Craving Earth: Understanding Pica--the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk.

Any closet chalk-eaters out there? Do you eat it for calcium? To save money on Tums? Turns out the calcium carbonate in chalk comes from coccolith plankton. Ring a bell? See my recent post on the advantage that coccolith will have other other plankton as higher atmospheric CO2 increases ocean acidity.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 06 10:12 PM  Brain Appetite
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Most Expensive Offshore Ship For LNG Production

A post by Big Gav at The Oil Drum reports on a decision by Shell to spend $12.6 billion to build a ship that will float above an Australian offshore natural gas field and liquify natural gas for shipment. The field is too far from the coast to have pipelines built to bring the natural gas onshore.

My take: This ship illustrates the massive amounts of capital and engineering talent available to extract fossil fuels (about $490 billion total capital spending by oil companies in 2011). Offshore floating LNG production ships seem to be unrivaled in costs for a single energy extraction device. Even a nuclear power plant won't cost that much (caveat: nuclear power cost estimates cover a wide range).

The costs of LNG production ships also dwarf the already very expensive deepwater drilling rigs. To put them in perspective in 2001 the Petrobras P-36 rig, then the world's largest, sunk and its insured value at the time was $500 million. In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon was insured for $560 million. Construction costs for the deepest water drilling rigs peaked at $800 million and then declined by about a quarter.

Nothing else offshore seems to rival this ship in size or cost. $12.6 billion builds a ship 6 times heavier than the world's largest aircraft carrier (which would be the 102,000 tonne Nimitz carriers). The LNG ship even beats carriers on cost. While the first Ford class carrier will cost almost $12 billion that includes a few billion of research and development that is for innovations for the class. Later Ford class carriers are supposed to cost $4-6 billion less. So you can buy 2 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the cost of one LNG production ship.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 06 10:00 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2011 June 05 Sunday
Stem Cell Therapy To Fix Broken Bones

Stem cell therapy speeds the healing of broken bones in an animal model.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine have shown in an animal study that transplantation of adult stem cells enriched with a bone-regenerating hormone can help mend bone fractures that are not healing properly.

The UNC study team led by Anna Spagnoli, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and biomedical engineering, demonstrated that stem cells manufactured with the regenerative hormone insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I) become bone cells and also help the cells within broken bones repair the fracture, thereby speeding the healing. The new findings are presented Sunday, June 5, 2011 at The Endocrine Society's 93rd Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.

Peak bone mass is reached most often in one's 20s. Well, why wait for broken bones before delivering stem cell therapies? Once youthful bone stem cell therapy becomes available it will make sense to get it ones 40s or 50s to reverse the bone loss long before breaks become a risk.

Lots of people have problems healing from fractures, including some with genetic defects of bone formation.

A deficiency of fracture healing is a common problem affecting an estimated 600,000 people annually in North America. "This problem is even more serious in children with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, and in elderly adults with osteoporosis, because their fragile bones can easily and repeatedly break, and bone graft surgical treatment is often not successful or feasible," Spagnoli said.

Approximately 7.9 million bone fractures occur every year in the United States alone, with an estimated cost of $70 billion. Of these, 10 to 20 percent fail to heal.

Stem cell therapies that get developed to treat assorted medical problems will be usable for general rejuvenation. This report is an example of therapy development that will have uses beyond the initial purpose.

While waiting for stem cell therapies you can slow your bone loss by eating a less acidic diet.

Chevy Chase, MD—Diets that are high in protein and cereal grains produce an excess of acid in the body which may increase calcium excretion and weaken bones, according to a new study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM). The study found that increasing the alkali content of the diet, with a pill or through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables has the opposite effect and strengthens skeletal health.

"Heredity, diet, and other lifestyle factors contribute to the problem of bone loss and fractures," said Bess Dawson-Hughes, M.D., of Tufts University in Boston, Mass. and lead author of the study. "When it comes to dietary concerns regarding bone health, calcium and vitamin D have received the most attention, but there is increasing evidence that the acid/base balance of the diet is also important."

For additional bone protection use turmeric as a spice on the veggies.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 05 10:32 PM  Aging Joint Repairs
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2011 June 01 Wednesday
Less Sleep Lowers Testosterone

Guys, if you want to keep up your testosterone then get enough sleep.

Cutting back on sleep drastically reduces a healthy young man's testosterone levels, according to a study published in the June 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Eve Van Cauter, PhD, professor in medicine and director of the study, found that men who slept less than five hours a night for one week in a laboratory had significantly lower levels of testosterone than when they had a full night's sleep. Low testosterone has a host of negative consequences for young men, and not just in sexual behavior and reproduction. It is critical in building strength and muscle mass, and bone density.

"Low testosterone levels are associated with reduced well being and vigor, which may also occur as a consequence of sleep loss" said Van Cauter.

Getting less than 5 hours sleep per night will lower testosterone as much as aging 10 to 15 years.

At least 15% of the adult working population in the US gets less than 5 hours of sleep a night, and suffers many adverse health effects because of it. This study found that skipping sleep reduces a young man's testosterone levels by the same amount as aging 10 to 15 years.

Once full body rejuvenation becomes possible it will create not just a more useful society but also one where, due to restored testosterone levels, men become more energetic, aggressive, and driven.

By Randall Parker 2011 June 01 10:56 PM  Brain Sleep
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