2011 August 31 Wednesday
Food Challenge For Mars Mission

Maya R. Cooper, a scientist in NASA's Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston, says keeping astronauts fed during a 5 year mission to Mars poses big challenges.

Speaking at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Maya R. Cooper said that provisioning the astronauts with food stands as one of the greatest challenges in scripting the first manned mission to Mars.

If they took all their food with them they'd need 7,000 pounds per person for a 5 year mission. One immediately thinks: But why ship the food? Why not grow it there?

For flights on the space shuttles and the International Space Station, astronauts get 3.8 pounds of food per day. For a 5-year round-trip mission to Mars, that would mean almost 7,000 pounds of food per person.

It would be cheaper to send the food ahead of time on a slower but cheaper orbit. Anyone got a grasp on how to calculate the shipping costs for tons of goods to Mars orbit?

If all the food was sent in advance it would have to be packaged to last 5 years. Shipping the means to grow food would reduce the amount of food mass that would need to be sent. How much weight in food growing equipment would need to be sent to do this? How long does the mission have to last for Mars farming to become cost effective?

Whenever I read proposals for a Mars mission my reaction is we should work on enabling technologies first. Why go with lousy tech? Going to Mars is not just about the safety or speed or cost of the rockets and spaceship. It all gets much cheaper, easier, safer, and sustainable with advanced robotics and advanced bioengineering. Therefore going to Mars will get steadily easier in the 21st century.

Sufficiently advanced robots that include robot maintenance capabilities and very long lasting designs could go to Mars years before humans. Such bots could build up physical structures for humans to live in and operate farming equipment to grow and package enough food to assure astronauts of sufficient food once they reached Mars. even more important, sufficiently advanced bioengineering technologies will enable creation of plants suited for food, fiber, pharmaceuticals, and biomass fuel production. Bioengineering will make Mars farming far more productive and fruitful.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 31 09:15 PM  Space Colonization
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Nuclear Power For Moon And Mars Bases

A reactor for the equivalent of 8 Earth-bound homes would be the size of a carry-on suitcase.

The first nuclear power plant being considered for production of electricity for manned or unmanned bases on the Moon, Mars and other planets may really look like it came from outer space, according to a leader of the project who spoke here today at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

James E. Werner said that innovative fission technology for surface power applications is far different from the familiar terrestrial nuclear power stations, which sprawl over huge tracts of land and have large structures such as cooling towers.

"People would never recognize the fission power system as a nuclear power reactor," said Werner. "The reactor itself may be about 1 ½ feet wide by 2 ½ feet high, about the size of a carry-on suitcase. There are no cooling towers. A fission power system is a compact, reliable, safe system that may be critical to the establishment of outposts or habitats on other planets. Fission power technology can be applied on Earth's Moon, on Mars, or wherever NASA sees the need for continuous power."

While the Mars rotation period is almost the same as Earth the Moon's rotation is about 27.32 days. Hard to make solar power work when you have to store 2 weeks of electricity. Harder still if operating in a crater that gets sunshine for an even shorter period of time.

Getting enough mass to Mars for solar panels and batteries would be far more expensive than moving nuclear power plants to Mars. So a Mars base would almost certainly be nuclear powered. But to break free from dependency on uranium from Earth would require development of solar and perhaps biomass energy sources. Geothermal and wind are not options on Mars or the Moon.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 31 07:08 AM  Space Colonization
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2011 August 29 Monday
Meta-Analysis Finds Chocolate Good For Heart

Time once again to remind you that you can make the excuse that you are only eating chocolate for your health. Less risk from heart attack or stroke for regular chocolate eaters.

High levels of chocolate consumption might be associated with a one third reduction in the risk of developing heart disease, finds a study published on bmj.com today.

The findings confirm results of existing studies that generally agree on a potential beneficial link between chocolate consumption and heart health. However, the authors stress that further studies are now needed to test whether chocolate actually causes this reduction or if it can be explained by some other unmeasured (confounding) factor.

The meta-analysis looked at 7 studies and found the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with about a third less heart attack and stroke.

However, the evidence about how eating chocolate affects your heart still remains unclear. So, Dr Oscar Franco and colleagues from the University of Cambridge carried out a large scale review of the existing evidence to evaluate the effects of eating chocolate on cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke.

They analysed the results of seven studies, involving over 100,000 participants with and without existing heart disease. For each study, they compared the group with the highest chocolate consumption against the group with the lowest consumption. Differences in study design and quality were also taken into account to minimise bias.

Five studies reported a beneficial link between higher levels of chocolate consumption and the risk of cardiovascular events and they found that the "highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in stroke compared with lowest levels." No significant reduction was found in relation to heart failure.

Also see my recent posts Chocolate Compound Epicatechin Boosts Exercise Benefit and Cocoa Flavanols Improve Artery Dilation In Heart Patients. Also, chocolate and massage both lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

You are better off eating dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate to get the flavonoids or other beneficial compounds in chocolate in more concentrated form.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 29 11:50 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Ford Focus EV Comes With Home PV Recharge Option

If you want to get an electric vehicle (EV) obviously it will cost more due to expensive batteries. Look at the price of the Nissan Leaf at $35,200 USD before tax rebate (and I emphasize costs below before tax credits and rebates because a solution can not scale if it depends on taxes to fund it). One could get a similar-sized compact for half that price. Not cheap. Well, with the forthcoming Ford Focus EV you'll have the option to buy solar panels at the same time.

Dearborn, Mich., Aug. 10, 2011 – Ford and SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWRA, SPWRB) have teamed up to offer customers a rooftop solar system that will allow Focus Electric owners to “Drive Green for Life” by providing customers with enough clean, renewable energy to offset the electricity used to charge the vehicle.

For a one-off $10k investment you get the cost your electric car's power paid for about the next 25 years. Never pay for fuel again. This assumes you do not need to go more than 100 miles at a time and even less under conditions (e.g. very cold) where your range will be even lower.

The 2.5 kilowatt rooftop solar system is comprised of the SunPower® E18 Series solar panels that produce an average of 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually. These high-efficiency solar panels generate approximately 50 percent more electricity than conventional panels and utilize a smaller footprint on the roof. The system was sized to accommodate a customer who drives about 1,000 miles per month.

The complete SunPower solar system is offered at a base price of less than $10,000*, after federal tax credits. Local and state rebates, along with other incentives, may drive the system cost down even more, depending on a customer’s location. Included in the purchase is a residential monitoring system, which includes the ability to track the performance of their solar system on the web or through an iPhone application. Affordable financing options for the solar system are available through SunPower. This price point does not include local sales tax.

The US federal tax credit looks to be about 30%. So the solar panels before tax rebate come in at about $14k.

You might opt to spend about $1500 for a 240V home recharging station to get 3-4 hour recharging time. But if your house electric wiring is too old you might need to pay substantially more for a home wiring upgrade to support the 240V to the recharging station.

All these dollar numbers above let us come up with a ballpark figure for what it would cost in in 2011 or 2012 to end your direct reliance on oil and even your reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity. For about $35k for the car, $14k for the solar panels, and $1.5k for the recharge station we are at about $52k for an electric car that should last for many years and solar panels that'll last over a couple of decades.

A future of much cheaper batteries and much cheaper solar panels would make the transition to electric power a lot easier to do.

The International Energy Agency is very bullish about the future of solar power. In a recent report the IEA claimed half the world's energy will come from solar power by 2060. That's not just half the world's electricity. That's half the world's power. That can't happen without electric power driving a much larger fraction of transportation. So the IEA must be pretty bullish on the future of electric cars.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 29 05:52 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2011 August 27 Saturday
Software Finds Better Organic Electronic Materials

Harvard chemistry professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik has developed software that can find better organic electronic materials.

A chemical compound designed with the aid of a Harvard-created computer program has turned out to be one of the best organic electronic materials to date. This new material, an organic semiconductor, could be used to make new electronics such as colorful displays that roll up. It's an important proof of principle for using computers to aid materials design.

The article also mentions a computational model used to develop faster charging batteries which A123Systems is in the process of commercializing.

Why does this matter? If more advances in batteries, photovoltaic materials, and other important areas for materials could be done with computational experiments rather with lots of time- and labor-consuming physical experiments then the rate of advance in many key fields would accelerate. How much will this happen as successive generations of computers keep going thru doublings in speed? Are we more limited by a lack of needed computational power? Or by lack of sufficient quantity and quality of software to do the virtual experiments? Or lack of sufficient knowledge about the physical laws so that we do not know what to code up in a simulation to do virtual experiments?

The great hope of the Singularitarians is that the creation of artificial intelligence (AI) will enable a sustained dramatic rate of acceleration of technological advance. But if so, mainly how? Primarily by the AI formulating and physically testing more hypotheses? Or more by the AI writing more and better software to simulate and test hypotheses? Or by the AI designing new generations of computers more rapidly so that computational power increases more rapidly? You might say "yes" to all those things. But surely they are not all equally important. So what bottleneck will AI do the most to break thru?

On the one hand, I worry AI will inevitably turn on us. On the other hand, I wonder whether AI is really capable of delivering on the biggest promises made for it. My skepticism has two sources:

  • Computer scientists have identified problems which basically require an infinite amount of computation to solve. In some cases assorted heuristics in software enable the discovery of useful but less-than-ideal solutions. But for how many remaining unsolved problems will that be the case?
  • The laws of the universe may preclude many dreamed-of science fiction advances. Star Trek molecular transporter? Faster-Than-Light drives for star ships? Anti-gravity fields for space ships? Not sure if any of that will ever happen regardless of whether we reach the Singularity.

Each doubling in computational power seems to yield less net gain in utility (at least per person in industrialized countries) than the doubling before it even though each doubling is twice as big as the doubling before it. You have orders of magnitude more computational power at your beck and call than you did 20 years ago. Do you feel much richer? We seem to have sharply diminishing returns on computational power. Will we reach some threshold of computational power (or software sophistication) where the returns will swing up dramatically?

It could be that I'm underestimating the net gain from higher computational power because some of that added utility is compensating for other things that are going wrong which would otherwise lower our quality of life. For example, computers lower the cost of resource extraction even as resource extraction becomes more expensive due to lower quality of remaining extractable minerals and fossil fuels. However, if that's happening computers need to do a much better job of coming up with solutions for resource limitations. Hence the importance of computers doing science to develop better batteries, photovoltaic materials, nuclear reactor designs, and the like.

If we are going to reach a point where the returns on new generations of computers rise sharply then why? My guess: Software that writes its own new versions with much higher quality and at a far faster rate than humans can. But if that happens will the bigger gain come from automation or a resulting much faster rate of useful scientific discovery? More automation by computers seems a more certain bet. Whether AI can solve the problem of a lack of low-hanging fruit remains to be seen.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 27 01:09 PM  Computing AI
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2011 August 26 Friday
Peptide Paint Reverses Tooth Decay

Got a cavity on a tooth? No problem. Just paint on a special peptide solution and the tooth will repair itself. (a peptide is chain of amino acids)

It's a vicious cycle, but one that can be broken, according to researchers at the University of Leeds who have developed a revolutionary new way to treat the first signs of tooth decay. Their solution is to arm dentists with a peptide-based fluid that is literally painted onto the tooth's surface. The peptide technology is based on knowledge of how the tooth forms in the first place and stimulates regeneration of the tooth defect.

It is amazing that the solution to tooth decay can be this simple.

"This may sound too good to be true, but we are essentially helping acid-damaged teeth to regenerate themselves. It is a totally natural non-surgical repair process and is entirely pain-free too," said Professor Jennifer Kirkham, from the University of Leeds Dental Institute, who has led development of the new technique.

The 'magic' fluid was designed by researchers in the University of Leeds' School of Chemistry, led by Dr Amalia Aggeli. It contains a peptide known as P 11-4 that - under certain conditions - will assemble together into fibres. In practice, this means that when applied to the tooth, the fluid seeps into the micro-pores caused by acid attack and then spontaneously forms a gel. This gel then provides a 'scaffold' or framework that attracts calcium and regenerates the tooth's mineral from within, providing a natural and pain-free repair.

On a small group of people the peptide reversed decay from dental caries.

The technique was recently taken out of the laboratory and tested on a small group of adults whose dentist had spotted the initial signs of tooth decay. The results from this small trial have shown that P 11-4 can indeed reverse the damage and regenerate the tooth tissue.

"The results of our tests so far are extremely promising," said Professor Paul Brunton, who is overseeing the patient testing at the University of Leeds Dental Institute. "If these results can be repeated on a larger patient group, then I have no doubt whatsoever that in two to three years time this technique will be available for dentists to use in their daily practice."

Can this peptide be used for tooth rejuvenation? Will it improve worn teeth that have grooves and other signs of wear? It might make sense as a periodic treatment to slow or possibly reverse tooth aging.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 26 10:58 AM  Biotech Teeth And Gums
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2011 August 25 Thursday
El Nino Weather Cycle Boosts Civil War Risks

In an approximate 5 year cycle the warming of the surface water in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean during the El Niño-Southern Oscillation causes changes in weather including shifts in rainfall and temperatures. For 90 affected tropical countries these climate changes cause societal stress that up the risk of civil war.

In the first study of its kind, researchers have linked a natural global climate cycle to periodic increases in warfare. The arrival of El Niño, which every three to seven years boosts temperatures and cuts rainfall, doubles the risk of civil wars across 90 affected tropical countries, and may help account for a fifth of worldwide conflicts during the past half-century, say the authors. The paper, written by an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University's Earth Institute, appears in the current issue of the leading scientific journal Nature.

These authors worry that anthropogenic global warming will cause in a more sustained fashion the same food shortages and higher prices that trigger civil wars during El Nino. My guess is global warming won't be needed for that outcome.

In recent years, historians and climatologists have built evidence that past societies suffered and fell due in connection with heat or droughts that damaged agriculture and shook governments. This is the first study to make the case for such destabilization in the present day, using statistics to link global weather observations and well-documented outbreaks of violence. The study does not blame specific wars on El Niño, nor does it directly address the issue of long-term climate change. However, it raises potent questions, as many scientists think natural weather cycles will become more extreme with warming climate, and some suggest ongoing chaos in places like Somalia are already being stoked by warming climate.

In a less globalized world with less transportation food shortages were a more local phenomenon. Today with a global food market that's changed.

"The most important thing is that this looks at modern times, and it's done on a global scale," said Solomon M. Hsiang, the study's lead author, a graduate of the Earth Institute's Ph.D. in sustainable development. "We can speculate that a long-ago Egyptian dynasty was overthrown during a drought. That's a specific time and place, that may be very different from today, so people might say, 'OK, we're immune to that now.' This study shows a systematic pattern of global climate affecting conflict, and shows it right now."

Climate changes cause changes in food supplies, and therefore in food prices. Higher food prices are probably the biggest mechanism by which civil war risks are stoked. But I do not yet think that global warming as caused by carbon dioxide emissions is a major factor driving civil wars. High food prices have other causes.

Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam of New England Complex Systems Institute have published a paper showing the 2007-2008 food price spike and the 2010-2011 food price spike both are highly correlated with civil unrest and food riots. See the graph on the 3rd page (or here and here). Arab Spring a result of social networking web sites bringing down big meanie dictators? Nope. It is about people suddenly pressured to get money for their next meal. The authors predict a shift toward higher long term food prices with prices staying above the threshold for unrest by 2012 or 2013. So we could be at the beginning of a long term uptick in the frequency of of wars and revolutions.

A persistence of global food prices above this food price threshold should lead to persistent and increasing global unrest. Given the sharp peaks of food prices we might expect the prices of food to decline shortly. However, underlying the peaks in Fig. 1, we see a more gradual, but still rapid, increase of the food prices during the period starting in 2004. It is reasonable to hypothesize that when this underlying trend exceeds the threshold, the security of vulnerable populations will be broadly and persistently compromised.

If we really are heading into an era of sustained higher food prices then future food price spikes will start from higher base prices and the spikes will cause even greater political upheavals.

The price spikes and long term trend of rising food prices are driven by Asian economic development, rising energy and fertilizer costs, and population growth. Population growth lower the ratio of land to people. Bigger populations use more water and leave less for agriculture. The people of the poorer countries might find themselves unable to compete for food with large industrialized populations. The recent spikes in civil wars and uprisings might be more than a temporary blip.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 25 11:42 PM  Trends Human Conflict
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USGS Slashes Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Reserve Estimate

The US Geological Survey has cut its estimate of technically recoverable natural gas from the big Marcellus Shale by about 79.5%. You just got more energy poor. Get a more insulated water heater next time you need a new one.

The shale formation has about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas, according to the report from the United States Geological Survey. This is drastically lower than the 410 trillion cubic feet that was published earlier this year by the federal Energy Information Administration.

These are technically recoverable estimates. Economically recoverable reserves will be some amount less than these numbers and to get anywhere near the full technically recoverable number above might require substantially higher costs.

How does 84 trillion cubic feet compare to how much natural gas the United States uses per year? In 2010 the US used 24,136,666 million cubic feet in 2010 (i.e. about 24 trillion cubic feet). So the revision downward cost about 13.5 years of natural gas at current consumption rates. with the new total less than 4 years of consumption.

Shale natural gas has become the biggest fossil fuel energy hope. Cleaner than oil or natural gas and currently quite cheap. Shale natural gas enthusiasts claim the shales (Barnett, Haynesville, Fayetteville, Marcellus have huge supplies of natural gas can displace oil for many users (e.g. compressed natural gas cars) and natural gas is partially displacing dirtier coal in electric power generation. Therefore a lot is riding on how much natural the more optimistic view for the future of natural gas would have consumption rising substantially. While oil prices have gone up natural gas has stayed cheap since the 2008 financial crisis and US natural gas consumption grew by 21.7% in 2010. Cheap natural gas has made the construction of new nuclear power plants uncompetitive.

Back in June 2011 a New York Times article reported on skepticism inside the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration about the real potential for shale gas. With this big USGS downgrade on Marcellus the most important question becomes: Will USGS do similar downgrades on the other big shale formations? Anybody know whether the USGS is looking into reserve revisions on the other shales?

By Randall Parker 2011 August 25 06:56 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2011 August 24 Wednesday
Travel Between Stars?

As long as we do not have warp drives will it ever be worth it for humans to travel to other stars and back again? A New York Times article on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant to study what it would take for humans to travel between the stars makes an interesting claim: travel between the stars would take so long that whoever went out would not return.

An actual human launching is at least a couple of centuries away and, barring the invention of Star Trek-like warp drives, could take additional centuries to complete. Whoever goes on such a journey will not be coming back.

The idea is that either a robot carries back findings or the descendants of the original travelers come back to a planet they've never seen before.

I have a problem with this line of reasoning. First off, the time to travel between stars is so long that anyone who is going to age normally won't even live to see their destination, let alone return to Earth. So why go in the first place? So your grandchildren or great grandchildren can stand on another planet?

Since a destination planet would very likely not have an ecosphere compatible with human life what would be the point even for those descendants still alive when the space ship (perhaps a hollowed-out asteroid) reached the destination? If the destination has life there's a decent chance its microbes will kill humans. So why go?

But why go into space with a body that ages? It would seem far more sensible to wait until humans develop bio-technologies needed to stay young for thousands of years. Then one could travel to another start and get back again even if the trip took hundreds or even thousands of years.

Of course, even if you can stay alive the whole time the longer the trip the less the point to it. Unless you can pass hundreds of years in cryogenic sleep why box yourself into a relatively small habitat to travel for hundreds of years? It would seem extremely boring and a waste of years better spent on more rewarding activities. Be bored for hundreds of years go get to some planet to stay for some years before turning around to head back again? The reward/boredom ratio seems extremely low. Plus, there's the risk you'll die.

Perhaps with genetic engineering humans could be designed who'd find the trip thrilling. Or cryogenic sleep might provide a way to escape the boredom of centuries of travel.

A lot can happen on Earth while you travel between the stars. Imagine you travel for centuries, get to your destination, and a warp drive space ship from Earth is there waiting for you and it just left Earth 5 days previously. What a waste that would be.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 24 10:56 PM  Space Exploration
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2011 August 23 Tuesday
Older Brains Better At Longer Term Strategy Games?

Brains age and many research projects have shown younger minds perform better than older minds in tests of decision-making. But in a test where decisions at each step affected not only the immediate reward but also the size of future rewards eldery people beat college-age students in a mental game.

We make decisions all our lives—so you'd think we'd get better and better at it. Yet research has shown that younger adults are better decision makers than older ones. Some Texas psychologists, puzzled by these findings, suspected the experiments were biased toward younger brains.

So, rather than testing the ability to make decisions one at a time without regard to past or future, as earlier research did, these psychologists designed a model requiring participants to evaluate each result in order to strategize the next choice, more like decision making in the real world.

Perhaps older minds have decades of experiences where going for immediate rewards is no always optimal.

Older folks beat the young when a large advantage accrued from thinking ahead.

In the first experiment, groups of older (ages 60 to early 80s) and younger (college-age) adults received points each time they chose from one of four options and tried to maximize the points they earned. In this portion, the younger adults were more efficient at selecting the options that yielded more points.

In the second experiment—the setup was a sham test of two "oxygen accumulators" on Mars—the rewards received depended on the choices made previously. The "decreasing option" gave a larger number of points on each trial, but caused rewards on future trials to be lower. The "increasing option" gave a smaller reward on each trial but caused rewards on future trials to increase. In one version of the test, the increasing option led to more points earned over the course of the experiment; in another, chasing the increasing option couldn't make up for the points that could be accrued grabbing the bigger bite on each trial.

The older adults did better on every permutation.

Perhaps older minds have learned thru repeated trial-and-error that one should play a longer term game.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 23 11:47 PM  Brain Performance
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2011 August 22 Monday
Decision Fatigue And Conservation Of Willpower

NY Times reporter John Tierney and researcher Roy Baumeister have written a book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”, about Baumeister's area of scientific research: how the brain's performance degrades when it has to make lots of decisions and when it is tired. A New York Times Mag article by Tierney surveys some of the findings from the book. If you make a group of decisions count on the later ones to be of lower quality.

As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer.

When able to do so it is best to order your decisions to make the most important and consequential ones first.

If you go for a buying approach increases the number of decisions you have to make you will make poorer quality decisions overall.

Similar results were found in the experiment with custom-made suits: once decision fatigue set in, people tended to settle for the recommended option. When they were confronted early on with the toughest decisions — the ones with the most options, like the 100 fabrics for the suit — they became fatigued more quickly and also reported enjoying the shopping experience less.

If you really want to take a more complex approach then try to spread your complex set of decisions out over different days. I've been doing that for a belated spring cleaning where I go thru lots of old possessions and ask myself do I really want to keep them. I could do it all in a few days. But I'm doing pieces each weekend over several weeks and and delaying decisions that I'm unsure about.

Another lesson from the article: If you are poorer then making buying decisions is more fatiguing. Buy less stuff and keep more money in your checking account so when you do go to buy you'll suffer less mental exhaustion from it. Living close to the financial edge is mentally exhausting.

Here is a blog post by Tierney on the same topic.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 22 08:01 AM  Brain Performance
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2011 August 21 Sunday
Sun Acoustic Waves Allow Sunspot Predictions

Sunspots can be predicted 1-2 days in advance.

The researchers got help from the Michelson Doppler Imager aboard NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellite, known as SOHO. The craft spent 15 years making detailed observations of the sound waves within the sun. It was superseded in 2010 with the launch of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite, which carries the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager.

Using the masses of data generated by the two imagers, Stathis Ilonidis, a Stanford graduate student in physics, was able to develop a way to reduce the electronic clutter in the data so he could accurately measure the solar sounds.

The new method enabled Ilonidis to detect sunspots in the early stages of formation as deep as 65,000 kilometers inside the sun. Between one and two days later, the sunspots would appear on the surface. Ilonidis is the lead author of a paper describing the research, published in the Aug. 19 edition of Science.

The principles used to track and measure the acoustic waves traveling through the sun are comparable to measuring seismic waves on Earth. The researchers measure the travel time of acoustic waves between widely separated points on the solar surface.

Why does this matter? The ability to forecast sunspots brings us closer to the ability to forecast solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). That could be a matter of life and death for millions or billions of people. Solar flares are associated with sunspots and potentially disruptive coronal mass ejections (CMEs) (though CMEs can happen independently from solar flares). CMEs happen much more during periods of heavy sunspot activity. A really strong CME hitting the Earth as happened with the Carrington Event of 1859 would cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that have devastating consequences for the electric power grid.

Which brings us to Jerry Emanuelson's great write-up on the dangers of solar and nuclear electromagnetic pulses. One of the take-home lessons: nuclear EMP is much more damaging than solar EMP from a CME. He also has a useful page about EMP protection at the personal level. How to survive a large scale long-lasting power outage? Ar you a prepper or what to become one? Read that page.

Speaking as a mildly aspiring prepper: Salt water filtration seems problematic. It is much easier to filter non-salt water. The reverse osmosis filters that can remove salt require plenty of pressure (40-45 psi if memory serves). The other alternative is distillation.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 21 11:55 AM  Dangers Natural General
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2011 August 19 Friday
Web Genetic Study Confirms Genetic Associations

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe used customer data and volunteered health information from customers to confirm over 180 known genetic associations with diseases and human characteristics. As the number of people who have gotten themselves genetically tested goes up by orders of magnitude so too will the ability of genetic testing services provides to find more associations between genes and assorted diseases and attributes of humans.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – (August 17, 2011) – 23andMe, Inc., a leading personal genetics company has replicated over 180 genetic associations from a list of associations curated by the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Office of Population Genomics ("GWAS Catalog") demonstrating that self-reported medical data is effective and reliable to validate known genetic associations. The results, available online in the journal PLoS ONE, establish 23andMe's methodology as a significant research platform in a new era of genetic research.

"In this paper we confirm that self reported data from our customers has the potential to yield data of comparable quality as data gathered using traditional research methods," stated 23andMe Chief Business Officer Ashley Dombkowski. "As the 23andMe platform has been clearly shown to replicate known genetic associations as well as discover new ones, we have established our research platform as an innovative model for genetic research which has the power to move scientific research forward faster and more cost effectively working in collaboration with academic and commercial researchers," continued Dombkowski.

I think we are going to reach a stage where most research on identifying functional significance of human genetic variations will be done as a result of people donating their genetic test results and health and other information to researchers. The cost of genetic testing has fallen so far that most genetic testing will be funded by individuals just wanting to get their own personal genetic information. The only thing that could stop this better future? A clamp-down on direct-to-consumer genetic testing by US Food and Drug Administration. The FDA should be encouraged to stay out of the way of progress. Tell your Congress critters.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 19 10:30 AM  Biotech Assay Services
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2011 August 18 Thursday
Computer Reads Facial Expressions

Computers will get more and more able to read us. Meanwhile, we won't be able to see what their electrons are up to.

Researchers have developed new computational tools that help computers determine whether faces fall into categories like attractive or threatening, according to a recent paper published in the journal PLoS ONE. Mario Rojas and other researchers at the Computer Vision Center in the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, in cooperation with researchers from the Department of Psychology of Princeton University, developed software that is able to predict those traits in some cases with accuracies beyond 90%.

Imagine blind people (and even autistics) using a camera tied to a computer to let them know in real time (perhaps thru an ear jack) what facial expressions people around them are presenting. Or imagine cameras in airports, banks, and (especially) post offices scanning for someone about to go on some sort of rampage.

You can read the full paper.

State of the art machine learning methods are applied to a) derive a facial trait judgment model from training data and b) predict a facial trait value for any face. Furthermore, we address the issue of whether there are specific structural relations among facial points that predict perception of facial traits. Experimental results over a set of labeled data (9 different trait evaluations) and classification rules (4 rules) suggest that a) prediction of perception of facial traits is learnable by both holistic and structural approaches; b) the most reliable prediction of facial trait judgments is obtained by certain type of holistic descriptions of the face appearance; and c) for some traits such as attractiveness and extroversion, there are relationships between specific structural features and social perceptions.

I wonder whether any secret projects are underway to attempt to read facial expressions, eye dilation, pulse, voice intonation, and other indicators to detect lies. Governments would love that capability. Ditto companies. But it works the other way too. Is the boss sincere about a promotion if you work long hours for months and make some massive deadline? What's really going on?

By Randall Parker 2011 August 18 08:17 AM  AI Understanding Humans
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2011 August 17 Wednesday
15 Minutes Daily Exercise Adds 3 Years To Life

Even if the exercise was of light intensity just 15 minutes of exercise a day was found to extend life expectancy 3 years among Taiwanese.

HOUSTON -- Taiwanese who exercise for 15 minutes a day, or 92 minutes per week, extended their expected lifespan by three years compared to people who are inactive, according to a study published today in The Lancet.

"Exercising at very light levels reduced deaths from any cause by 14 percent," said study senior author Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Department of Epidemiology. "The benefits of exercise appear to be significant even without reaching the recommended 150 minutes per week based on results of previous research."

All the way up to 100 minutes of exercise per day more exercised translated into additional reduction of risk of death.

Lead author Chi-Pang Wen, M.D., of the National Health Research Institutes of Taiwan, and colleagues also found that a person's risk of death from any cause decreased by 4 percent for every additional 15 minutes of exercise up to 100 minutes a day over the course of the study. Those exercising for 30 minutes daily added about four years to life expectancy.

If you live just a mile from some place you now drive to consider walking instead. Want to have a conversation with a friend? Do it while walking.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 17 11:36 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2011 August 16 Tuesday
Genetically Engineered T Cells Kill Leukemia

Longer life thru genetic engineering.

(PHILADELPHIA) -- In a cancer treatment breakthrough 20 years in the making, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center and Perelman School of Medicine have shown sustained remissions of up to a year among a small group of advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients treated with genetically engineered versions of their own T cells. The protocol, which involves removing patients' cells and modifying them in Penn's vaccine production facility, then infusing the new cells back into the patient's body following chemotherapy, provides a tumor-attack roadmap for the treatment of other cancers including those of the lung and ovaries and myeloma and melanoma. The findings, published simultaneously today in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine, are the first demonstration of the use of gene transfer therapy to create "serial killer" T cells aimed at cancerous tumors.

It worked fast and better than expected.

"Within three weeks, the tumors had been blown away, in a way that was much more violent than we ever expected," said senior author Carl June, MD, director of Translational Research and a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Abramson Cancer Center, who led the work. "It worked much better than we thought it would."

A big improvement over existing treatments.

The results of the pilot trial of three patients are a stark contrast to existing therapies for CLL. The patients involved in the new study had few other treatment options. The only potential curative therapy would have involved a bone marrow transplant, a procedure which requires a lengthy hospitalization and carries at least a 20 percent mortality risk -- and even then offers only about a 50 percent chance of a cure, at best.

They targeted a protein on the surface of cancer cells called CD19 and they are now going to go after more cancers.

Moving forward, the team plans to test the same CD19 CAR construct in patients with other types of CD19-positive tumors, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and acute lymphocytic leukemia. They also plan to study the approach in pediatric leukemia patients who have failed standard therapy. Additionally, the team has engineered a CAR vector that binds to mesothelin, a protein expressed on the surface of mesothelioma cancer cells, as well as on ovarian and pancreatic cancer cells.

What I do not understand: Normal B cells in the blood also express CD19. So what happens with all the healthy B cells? How can a patient survive without them?

Any cancer with unique surface proteins is potentially targetable via this therapy. So the question in my mind: Do all cancers have unique surface proteins? Otherwise a therapy could wipe out a needed type of tissue.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 16 07:21 AM  Biotech Cancer
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2011 August 15 Monday
6 Hours Per Day TV Cuts 5 Years Off Life Expectancy?

Television as mass murdering machine.

Watching TV for an average of six hours a day could shorten the viewer's life expectancy by almost five years, indicates research published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The impact rivals that of other well known behavioural risk factors, such as smoking and lack of exercise, the study suggests.

Sedentary behaviour - as distinct from too little exercise - is associated with a higher risk of death, particularly from heart attack or stroke. Watching TV accounts for a substantial amount of sedentary activity, but its impact on life expectancy has not been assessed, say the authors.

Want to watch an hour TV show? That'll cost you 22 minutes of life. This is like a Twilight Zone episode where the devil makes a deal with someone. Free cable with 500 channels in exchange for your soul.

In 2008 the authors estimated that Australian adults aged 25 and older watched 9.8 billion hours of TV, which led them to calculate that every single hour of TV watched after the age of 25 shortened the viewer's life expectancy by just under 22 minutes.

You could pedal in place while you watch your favorite TV shows. But exercise while watching TV seems like too much a distraction. I gave up TV in large part to do more reading. I go for walks while reading books on a Kindle (gotta notice street crossings). But that only works when it is light out and not raining and it only works for what one has on an e-reader. It seems hard to integrate exercise with a modern lifestyle.

Also see Television Watchers Die Sooner.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 15 10:09 PM  Aging Lifestyle Studies
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2011 August 12 Friday
Universal Anti-Viral Drug Found?

Too good to be true? You might think this is impossible.

Now, in a development that could transform how viral infections are treated, a team of researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory has designed a drug that can identify cells that have been infected by any type of virus, then kill those cells to terminate the infection.

It works against 15 viruses tested so far.

In a paper published July 27 in the journal PLoS One, the researchers tested their drug against 15 viruses, and found it was effective against all of them — including rhinoviruses that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza, a stomach virus, a polio virus, dengue fever and several other types of hemorrhagic fever.

When they infect a cell some (all?) viruses cause a type of RNA to be produced that makes the infected cell distinct from uninfected cells. Hence the ability to target and just kill the infected cells.

The drug works by targeting a type of RNA produced only in cells that have been infected by viruses. “In theory, it should work against all viruses,” says Todd Rider, a senior staff scientist in Lincoln Laboratory’s Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group who invented the new technology.

Because the technology is so broad-spectrum, it could potentially also be used to combat outbreaks of new viruses, such as the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, Rider says.

Imagine this works and has few side effects. If one could get hundreds of millions of people to all take the drug at the same time viruses could be wiped out over a large area. The problem of course would be with travelers. Trying to get everyone on the planet to take a drug at the same time seems impractical. Even getting everyone in a country to take the drug simultaneously seems impossible.

A drug of this sort might work well for a submarine crew. At the start of a voyage into isolation everyone could take the drug and wipe out all viruses in the crew.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 12 10:02 PM  Biotech Pathogen Control
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Lasers Spur Bone Marrow Stem Cells To Do Heart Repair

Laser light summoned the stem cells from out of the dark bone marrow to do battle in the heart of the beast.

Prof. Oron, who has long used low level lasers to stimulate stem cells to encourage cell survival and the formation of blood vessels after a heart attack, was inspired to test how laser treatments could also work to heal the heart. He and his fellow researchers tried different methods, including treating the heart directly with low level lasers during surgery, and "shining" harvested stem cells before injecting them back into the body.

But he was determined to find a simpler method. After a low-level laser was "shined" into a person's bone marrow — an area rich in stem cells — the stem cells took to the blood stream, moving through the body and responding to the heart's signals of distress and harm, Prof. Oron discovered. Once in the heart, the stem cells used their healing qualities to reduce scarring and stimulate the growth of new arteries, leading to a healthier blood flow.

To determine the success of this method, Prof. Oron performed the therapy on an animal model. Following the flow of bone marrow stem cells through the use of a fluorescent marker, the researchers saw an increase in stem cell population within the heart, specifically in the injured regions of the heart. The test group that received the shining treatment showed a vastly higher concentration of cells in the injured organ than those who had not been treated with the lasers.

This leads to the important question: What mythology maps well to the summoning of stem cells using lasers? I don't see a fit for Lord Of The Rings. Do you? Which mythology summons legions of good soldiers using a light wand?

Professor Oron says his technique is ready for clinical trials...

By Randall Parker 2011 August 12 12:13 AM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2011 August 10 Wednesday
Multiple Sclerosis Genes Double In Number

The number of genetic variants which are related to risk of multiple sclerosis has just doubled. Given the continued rapid rate of decline in the costs of genetic testing and genetic sequencing the corresponding explosion in genetic discoveries as in this report should not come as a surprise.

Dr. John Rioux, researcher at the Montreal Heart Institute, Associate Professor of Medicine at the Université de Montréal and original co-founder of the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium is one of the scientists who have identified 29 new genetic variants linked to multiple sclerosis, providing key insights into the biology of a very debilitating neurological disease. Many of the genes implicated in the study are relevant to the immune system, shedding light onto the immunological pathways that underlie the development of multiple sclerosis.

The research, involving an international team of investigators led by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, was published today in the journal Nature. This is the largest MS genetics study ever undertaken and includes contributions from almost 250 researchers as members of the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium and the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium.

That many of these genes play a role in immune function adds support for the theory that M.S. is either an auto-immune disorder or some other malfunction of the immune system.

At least 29 new genetic associations were added to the existing 23 known genetic associations with M.S.

In this multi-population study, researchers studied the DNA from 9,772 individuals with multiple sclerosis and 17,376 unrelated healthy controls. They were able to confirm 23 previously known genetic associations and identified a further 29 new genetic variants (and an additional five that are strongly suspected) conferring susceptibility to the disease.

It used to be the case that just finding one genetic association was a big discovery. Now a single study turns up at least 29 associations and 5 more suspected associations. That's what happens when the volume of data that can be collected goes up by orders of magnitude due to due to orders of magnitude declines in genetic sequencing costs.

Another recent study on genetic influences on intelligence provides another illustration of how cheap DNA testing technology has made large scale searches for genes that each play small roles in some attribute or disease.

Rapid advances in technology have improved the efficiency and dramatically lowered the cost of genome-wide scans like the one conducted by Deary and colleagues.

“We now have the tools to look at large numbers of genes in large numbers of people at the same time,” says Julio Licinio, MD, of Australia’s National University Canberra.

The brain gene scan for intelligence only used 3500 subjects. Since the genes contributing to intelligence are suspected of being large in number with each playing only a small role it is necessary to use hundreds of thousands or millions of people to identify each of the genes that contribute to intelligence. But given the continued rapid decline in genetic technology that scale of research is going to become possible in a few more years. Our Dark Ages of understanding of human genetics is about to come to an end.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 10 10:52 PM  Biotech Genetic Diseases
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Exercise After Bacterial Infection Protects Brain

Suppose you and your pet rat both come down with a bacterial infection. It could even be you and the rat that lives in your yard or basement. Okay, there's a rat in your life somehow or other. So you both get an infection. You both get over the infection. Suppose you don't get much exercise after the infection. But the rat either runs away from your cat or it rides an exercise wheel. The rat getting exercise will avoid memory loss that a bacterial infection will otherwise cause. So the rat's going to gain on your mentally unless you exercise too.

A small amount of exercise shields older animals from memory loss following a bacterial infection, according to a study in the August 10 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings suggest moderate exercise may lead to several changes in the brain that boost its ability to protect itself during aging — a period of increased vulnerability.

In the new study, researchers led by Ruth Barrientos, PhD, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, found running on an exercise wheel protected older rats from memory loss following an Escherichia coli (E. coli) infection. Wheel-running also blunted changes in the hippocampus — an area of the brain involved in learning and memory — that typically follow bacterial infection in aging animals. In humans, older adults are more likely than the young to suffer memory impairment following severe bacterial infection or injury.

The rats are probably all telling each other to shake the lead out and get going. They don't want to lose their memory of when the cats come around or where to find the best garbage.

Some people are waiting for drugs to reverse aging while the rats are busy exercising.

"While many of us are hopeful about developing a pharmaceutical intervention to reverse the effects of aging, this study provides exciting evidence that a little moderate exercise is protective against age-related problems with health and immunity," said Jonathan Godbout, PhD, an expert on aging at Ohio State University, who was unaffiliated with the study.

One thing regular FuturePundit readers should know by now: The rats, mice, rabbits, and assorted other animals manipulate scientists into giving the lab animals all the cool new treatments first. So once the drugs for reversing brain aging arrive you just know the rats will get these drugs 10 years before humans do. You can't compete with rats using drugs. Make peace with this fact and get more exercise for your brain.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 10 09:22 PM  Aging Brain Studies
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2011 August 09 Tuesday
Flax Seed Against Radiation Damage

A lot of people ask me "once the human-robot war begins how can I survive thermonuclear combat toe-to-toe with the robots?" and until now I haven't had a good answer. Well, science has come thru with a solution. Time to start stockpiling flax seed in your underground survival shelter (along with water filters, mini-EMP weapons for use against robots, and other survival essentials) because flax improved survival of mice exposed to lethal levels of radiation.

PHILADELPHIA - Flax has been part of human history for well over 30,000 years, used for weaving cloth, feeding people and animals, and even making paint. Now, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that it might have a new use for the 21st century: protecting healthy tissues and organs from the harmful effects of radiation. In a study just published in BMC Cancer, researchers found that a diet of flaxseed given to mice not only protects lung tissues before exposure to radiation, but can also significantly reduce damage after exposure occurs.

Flax is pretty much all you've got to go with today once you've gotten the exposure. Though underground shelters (with HEPA air filters of course) to avoid radiation exposure in the first place are a great option for anyone who can afford them and who can manage to stay near a shelter entrance.

"There are only a handful of potential mitigators of radiation effect, and none of them is nearly ready for the clinic," says the principal investigator Melpo Christofidou-Solomidou, PhD, research associate professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Division. "Our current study demonstrates that dietary flaxseed, already known for its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, works as both a mitigator and protector against radiation pneumonopathy."

Would you rather have a 40% chance of survival or a 70% to 88% chance?

In several separate experiments, the researchers fed one group of mice a diet supplemented with 10 percent flaxseed, either three weeks before a dose of X-ray radiation to the thorax or two, four, or six weeks after radiation exposure. A control group subjected to the same radiation dose was given the same diet but receiving an isocaloric control diet without the flaxseed supplement. After four months, only 40 percent of the irradiated control group survived, compared to 70 to 88 percent of the irradiated flaxseed-fed animals. Various studies of blood, fluids, and tissues were conducted.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 09 09:46 PM  Survival Thermonuclear Combat
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Singularity 2045?

Ray Kurzweil predicts a breakthrough in artificial intelligence will enable the emergence of near immortal transhumanists by 2045.

That was Kurzweil's real secret, and back in 1965 nobody guessed it. Maybe not even him, not yet. But now, 46 years later, Kurzweil believes that we're approaching a moment when computers will become intelligent, and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans. When that happens, humanity — our bodies, our minds, our civilization — will be completely and irreversibly transformed. He believes that this moment is not only inevitable but imminent. According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 35 years away.

The underlying assumption here is that artificial intelligence will speed up the rate of technological innovation by orders of magnitude. But is that really true? Look at the trend today: Computer power is still following the pattern of doublings, albeit with more difficulty. The shift toward use of more CPU cores to achieve this does not work for all problems.

A contrarian view is that in spite of the repeated doublings of computer power the rate of technological innovation slowed up starting in the early 1970s, the low-hanging technological fruit has all been picked, and we are being held back by depleting natural resources. For signs of the latter look at a big shift in the long run trend in natural source prices. The Julian Simon-Paul Ehrlich bet on natural resource prices stopped coming out out in Simon's favor starting in 1994.

The rosier Singularity view seems based on a few assumptions:

  • Humans will create artificial intelligence.
  • Humans (in some form) will survive the creation of artificial intelligence.
  • Artificial intelligences will be far more productive than human minds.
  • The nature of physical reality is such that large numbers of innovations remain to be found.
  • Artificial intelligences will be capable of finding the remaining innovations fairly quickly.

While I expect the computer industry will create artificial intelligences I'm less sure we will survive once they become far smarter and more powerful than us. Yes, I expect they'll be more productive.

What I'm least sure about: How much computing power do we need to turn currently extremely hard problems into easily solved problems. Consider that Moore's Law of computer power doubling every couple of years or so has been running for decades. Yet, for example, it hasn't enabled plasma physicists to come up with workable fusion reactor designs. Nor has it enabled the solar photovoltaics industry to suddenly come up with ways to drop the cost of photovoltaics by orders of magnitude. Nor has it prevented the big run-up in commodities prices as Asia industrialized and ore concentrations declined.

Some substantial (and I suspect growing) portion of all innovation goes to basically trying to keep running in place. How to grow enough food as world population grows? How to manage water more carefully as aquifers get drained? How to use oil more efficiently as the remaining oil is in harder to reach places?

Maybe things get worse for years until the Singularity suddenly ushers in a Golden Age. But even if true we have to live thru the intervening years before we reach the Singularity.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 09 08:40 AM  Trends Technological Advance
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2011 August 07 Sunday
Security Risk Of Hacked Computer Chips

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending money to come up with counters to the threat that chips in servers, PCs, routers, and other computer equipment could contain Trojans.

The Pentagon’s top research division is trying, however. Over the past two months, Darpa, has awarded nine contracts totaling $49 million for its Integrity and Reliability of Integrated Circuits (IRIS) program to check for compromised chips. Seven companies and two universities received the awards.

This problem has non-defense dimensions that are far more pedestrian. Companies create clones of chips made by other companies. Some unethical companies even make counterfeit memory cards which have prompted the development of software to test USB memory sticks for fakes which perform worse than the real thing and which fail at higher rates. There's even a Fake Flash News blog reporting on it.

More complex electronic devices get cloned by counterfeiters, especially in China. While existing known cloners make the fakes in order to make profit from the designs of others it isn't that big a step to make clones that appear to be functionally identical but which have monitoring circuitry that patches into the OS of, say, a router or server and then sends information back to some spy server for analysis. This is what the US military and intelligence agencies fear.

One can imagine the US and NATO allies agreeing to strike deals with computer equipment makers for the manufacture of certain categories of chips or equipment aimed for use in military and other government facilities and in government contractors to get built in NATO countries. Anyone heard of cases where this is done?

By Randall Parker 2011 August 07 11:25 PM  Computing Security
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2011 August 04 Thursday
Centenarians: Diet, Habits No Better Than Rest Of Us

Highly virtuous living key to hitting 100? Nope. Those living for a century might just have better genes.

August 3, 2011 — (Bronx, NY) — People who live to 95 or older are no more virtuous than the rest of us in terms of their diet, exercise routine or smoking and drinking habits, according to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

Their findings, published today in the online edition of Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, suggests that "nature" (in the form of protective longevity genes) may be more important than "nurture" (lifestyle behaviors) when it comes to living an exceptionally long life. Nir Barzilai, M.D., the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research and director of the Institute for Aging Research at Einstein, was the senior author of the study.

It seems unlikely you can add decades to your life expectancy by diet and exercise. We really need gene therapies, cell therapies, cures for cancer, the ability to grow replacement organs, and other rejuvenation therapies.

At age 70 the long lived had lifestyles not much different than others at that same time of life.

Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet. For example, 27 percent of the elderly women and an equal percentage of women in the general population attempted to eat a low-calorie diet. Among long-living men, 24 percent consumed alcohol daily, compared with 22 percent of the general population. And only 43 percent of male centenarians reported engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity, compared with 57 percent of men in the comparison group.

But just because genes protect centenarians does not mean the vast majority of us can be oblivious to our diets and lifestyles.

"Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity," said Dr. Barzilai. "We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan."

You can do damage by the way you live. But aging still gradually ravages your body regardless of what choices you make.

Suppose you make it to 100 and beyond. What will kill you as you near the 114 year wall? Good chance it'll be Senile Systemic Amyloidosis (thanks Lou Pagnucco). Deposits of transthyretin protein (one of the large amyloid family of proteins) build up in the heart or other locations. Whether this is due to inflammation, an immune system gone awry, or perhaps mutations in control mechanisms for amyloid protein production remains to be discovered.

Since most of us will need assorted rejuvenation therapies (gene therapies, stem cells, replacement organs) to even reach 100 I wonder whether those of us who reach 100 by use of biotechnology will then develop Senile Systemic Amyloidosis? Or will the therapies needed to get us that far make us different enough from the natural centenarians that we won't develop amyloidosis?

Update: Seventh Day Adventists provide the evidence that diet and lifestyle really do matter.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 04 09:53 PM  Aging Studies
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Chocolate Compound Epicatechin Boosts Exercise Benefit

Beware of well-read mice trying to get into your chocolate stash. Mice given daily doses of epicatechin, a compound found in chocolate, who were given light exercise for a couple of weeks while receiving epicatechin easily surpasses mice that did not get epicatechin.

By and large, the animals that had been drinking water were the first to give out during the treadmill test. They became exhausted more quickly than the animals that had received epicatechin. Even the control mice that had lightly exercised grew tired more quickly than the nonexercising mice that had been given epicatechin. The fittest rodents, however, were those that had combined epicatechin and exercise. They covered about 50 percent more distance than the control animals.

A sixth of an ounce of dark chocolate per day will provide you with a similar dose. Eat some dark chocolate (not the nearly worthless milk chocolate) and take a long walk.

Click thru and read the details. If you are going to eat something that tastes good you might as well make it something that is also good for you.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 04 10:28 AM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Low Omega 6 Eggs Do Not Cause LDL Oxidation

Hens fed a diet low in omega-6 fatty acids and high in antioxidants produced eggs which are better for your arteries.

Dr. Niva Shapira of Tel Aviv University's School of Health Professions says that all eggs are not created equal. Her research indicates that when hens are fed with a diet low in omega-6 fatty acids from a young age — feed high in wheat, barley, and milo and lower in soy, maize and sunflower, safflower, and maize oils — they produce eggs that may cause less oxidative damage to human health. That's a major part of what determines the physiological impact of the end product on your table.

Eggs made from the conventional cheaper chicken diet produced worse effects on the blood of human study participants.

There were vast differences in outcome among the treatments. Daily consumption of two industry-standard eggs, high in omega-6, caused a 40 percent increase in LDL oxidizability in participants. After eating two per day of the specially-composed eggs, with both high anti-oxidant and low omega-6 levels, however, LDL oxidation levels were similar to the control group eating only two to four eggs a week.

An egg industry that produced healthier eggs would have to charge more for them. But some people who refrain from eggs due to health reasons could more safely choose to eat many more of them.

Surprisingly, with the "healthier" eggs, we might be able to eat more than twice today's generally recommended egg intake and still maintain a healthy level of LDL oxidation, Dr. Shapira concludes.

What's needed: a standard that would allow people to buy eggs certified to have dramatically better effects on the cardiovascular system.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 04 10:03 AM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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2011 August 03 Wednesday
Fake IDs From China Of High Quality

A Washington Post article on a Chinese company that is making very high quality fake IDs and selling them to American college students and credit fraudsters suggests to me something about the future of privacy: We are in a identification technology arms race between elaborate identity faking and identity verification capabilities. The inevitable result: less privacy. Less anonymity.

To the naked eye — even the practiced eye of most bartenders and police officers — the counterfeits look perfect. The photo and physical description are real. So is the signature. The address may be, too. The holograms are exact copies, and even the bar code can pass unsophisticated scans.

If drivers licenses were only rarely and poorly faked then police and financial institutions would have much less incentive to, for example, deploy biometric scanners to verify identity. But since the capabilities of the fakers and deceivers keep growing and the amount of identify faking and theft grow as well an escalating response by the verifiers (e.g. bar bouncers, bank tellers, police) is a foregone conclusion.

When will bartenders start scanning drivers licenses and taking pictures of patrons to upload to an ID check database on the web? Will pictures be insufficient? Will young people need to get their fingerprint or retina scanned every time they enter a club? How soon will this change come? Will banks start asking for a fingerprint or retina scan when you sign up for an account?

What's the technologically fanciest form of ID check you've experienced to date and where did it happen? Are defense contractors the biggest users of biometric ID technology? Or do other industries lead the way in use of cutting-edge means to identify who enters their premises?

Update: With so many pictures of people up on the web facial recognition technology will make it easy for you to identify anyone you see.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 03 07:32 PM  Surveillance Identification
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2011 August 02 Tuesday
Leaky Calcium Channels Weaken Muscles With Age

As your muscles age they leak calcium which activates enzymes which attack the leaky muscles.

There is a reason exercise becomes more difficult with age. A report in the August Cell Metabolism, a Cell Press publication, ties the weakness of aging to leaky calcium channels inside muscle cells. But there is some good news: the researchers say a drug already in Phase II clinical trials for the treatment of heart failure might plug those leaks.

A drug isn't the ideal solution. Some day a gene therapy that fixes the cells might be able to address a root cause. Though if the root cause is too complex cell therapies might be needed. It will be interesting to see how much of aging will be repairable with gene therapy alone.

The same leaking is seen with heart failure and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Earlier studies by the research team led by Andrew Marks of Columbia University showed the same leaks underlie the weakness and fatigue that come with heart failure and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

This illustrates how therapies aimed at treating diseases will end up turning into more general anti-aging rejuvenation treatments. Future effective treatments that address root causes of muscle diseases will also end up getting used to rejuvenate muscle.

"It's interesting, normal people essentially acquire a form of muscular dystrophy with age," Marks said. "The basis for muscle weakness is the same." Extreme exercise like that done by marathon runners also springs the same sort of leaks, he added, but in that case damaged muscles return to normal after a few days of rest.

So will this drug work to reduce general muscle weakness with age?

Loss of a subunit called calstabin1 causes a calcium release channel to malfunction.

The leaks occur in a calcium release channel called ryanodine receptor 1 (RyR1) that is required for muscles to contract. Under conditions of stress, those channels are chemically modified and lose a stabilizing subunit known as calstabin1.

"Calstabin1 is like the spring on a screen door," Marks explained. "It keeps the door from flopping open in the breeze."

As is the case with many other mechanisms of aging failure begets more failure in a vicious cycle of aging and destruction of tissue:

Calcium inside of muscle cells is usually kept contained. When it is allowed to leak out into the cell that calcium itself is toxic, turning on an enzyme that chews up muscle cells. Once the leak starts, it's a vicious cycle. The calcium leak raises levels of damaging reactive oxygen species, which oxidize RyR1 and worsen the leak.

The Marks lab has been working on calcium channel stabilization for years. Best wishes for their continued progress. The sooner they succeed the more of us can avoid becoming weak with age.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 02 11:33 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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2011 August 01 Monday
Gastric Bypass Surgery Causes Aversion To Dietary Fat

Does cutting the size of the stomach thru bariatric surgery cause weight loss by cutting the appeal of fatty foods?

Bethesda, Md. (July 27, 2011)—Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, the most common type of bariatric surgery in the United States, is currently considered the most effective therapy for morbid obesity. Patients who undergo this procedure, in which the stomach is reduced to a small pouch and connected to the middle of the small intestine, often lose massive amounts of weight. However, the reasons behind this surgery’s success have been unclear. Shedding more light on why this procedure prompts such dramatic weight loss, a team of researchers has found, in a study using both humans and rats, that Roux-en-Y appears to lead patients to significantly reduce their intake of dietary fat. This effect, which was present for both solid and liquid dietary fat, lingered for up to 200 days after surgery in the animals. Further experiments suggest that this fat avoidance is triggered through digestive consequences, rather than just altered taste, and may be the result of an excess of hormones previously linked to food avoidance.

Unpleasant gastrointestinal sensations as a consequence of fat consumption might play a role in causing an aversion to fat after gastric bypass surgery.

What mechanism causes this aversion to fat? One hormone linked with reduced appetite, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), was found to be higher in those who have undergone gastric bypass surgery. Perhaps injections of GLP-1 and/or other appetite-suppressing hormones could some day emulate at least some of the effects of gastric bypass surgery. Or perhaps a messenger RNA drug or a gene therapy could adjust the stomach to secrete more GLP-1 or Peptide YY in response to a meal. Turn up the body's sensitivity to food to more quickly and intensely suppress appetite when food hits the stomach or intestines.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 01 10:23 PM  Brain Appetite
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Brain Reading Speeds Car Braking

Drive by thinking. Brain reading speeds car braking.

This is what German researchers have successfully simulated, as reported in the Journal of Neural Engineering. With electrodes attached to the scalps and right legs of drivers in a driving simulator, they used both electroencephalography (EEG) and electromyography (EMG) respectively to detect the intent to brake. These electrical signals were seen 130 milliseconds before drivers actually hit the brakes—enough time to reduce the braking distance by nearly four meters.

Problem: Drivers will start slightly delaying their decision to apply the brakes as the brakes respond more quickly. One can imagine this system would still improve safety when a kid runs out in the street. But a Wired piece finds researchers on semi-autonomous vehicles are concerned that improved computer assists for drivers make drivers more complacent and therefore more dangerous.

Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University who studies multitasking, put it more bluntly. “People are always happy to be lazy, and it’s sort of a rule of safety design,” he said. “So if you give people the slightest opportunity to be lazy, they’ll take to it with great gusto and joy.” This is especially true for frequent multitaskers — and most apparent with young people, whose brains have developed to crave new information.

The challenge becomes how to make all the computer driving assists really deliver a net improvement in driver performance. The article discusses how to keep the driver engaged even as computers do more of the driving work.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 01 08:18 AM  Robotics Cars
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Microfluidic Chip For Medical Testing In Remote Regions

Of course it will work in a suburban tract home too.

New York, NY—July 31, 2011—Samuel K. Sia, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering, has developed an innovative strategy for an integrated microfluidic-based diagnostic device—in effect, a lab-on-a-chip—that can perform complex laboratory assays, and do so with such simplicity that these tests can be carried out in the most remote regions of the world. In a paper published in Nature Medicine online on July 31, Sia presents the first published field results on how microfluidics—the manipulation of small amounts of fluids—and nanoparticles can be successfully leveraged to produce a functional low-cost diagnostic device in extreme resource-limited settings.

Sia and his team performed testing in Rwanda over the last four years in partnership with Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and three local non-government organizations in Rwanda, targeting hundreds of patients. His device, known as mChip (mobile microfluidic chip), requires only a tiny finger prick of blood, effective even for a newborn, and gives—in less than 15 minutes—quantitative objective results that are not subject to user interpretation. This new technology significantly reduces the time between testing patients and treating them, providing medical workers in the field results that are much easier to read at a much lower cost. New low-cost diagnostics like the mChip could revolutionize medical care around the world.

The chip is expected to cost $1 and the reader device $100. Imagine the ability to plug the chip into a future generation smart phone and test yourself to find out whether you have a bacterial or viral infection. Or test yourself to find out whether your diet of late has done bad things to your blood lipids and blood sugar.

30 years from now (if not much sooner) most medical testing will be done before you show up in a doctor's office. Your data will get uploaded to a expert system diagnostic server. You will show up for a doctor's appointment for treatment when necessary. I expect in the longer run most doctors will shift their attention to delivering rejuvenation therapies rather than diagnosing common illnesses. Diagnostics expert systems running in cloud computers will do most of the work for illnesses unrelated to aging.

By Randall Parker 2011 August 01 08:05 AM  Biotech Assay Tools
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