2012 September 27 Thursday
German Government Backs Away From 2020 Electric Car Goal

It is all about the cost of batteries.

The German government is going to scrap its goal of having one million electric cars on the roads by 2020, Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported Saturday, citing a report from the country's Ministry for Education and Research.

As Nissan Leaf electric car sales drop sharply Nissan has cut lease costs to try to get more buyers.

Nissan Motor Co. sold only 4,228 Leafs this year through August, almost a third fewer than a year ago.

Nissan also introduced discounts for buyers of over $3k. If you happen to have a long commute and the ability to recharge while working the discounted Leaf might make economic sense for you. But conventional hybrids offer a better value proposition for the vast majority of drivers. The Toyota Prius and Ford's greatly improved Fusion hybrid seem most compelling.

In the run-up to the point where world oil production goes into permanent decline what matters is how soon the decline comes, how steep is the decline, and how many technologies we have in hand to compensate for it once the decline comes. The bumpy plateau of world oil production has lasted longer than some pessimists predicted. But advances in car battery technology have come slower than some optimists predicted. These two developments have effectively canceled out each other.

The longer lasting bumpy plateau of world oil production has been beneficial because it has caused the higher oil prices needed as incentives for development of alternatives. But the development of alternatives has been slow so far. Will that continue to be the case? A lot rides on the answer.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 27 08:06 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2012 September 26 Wednesday
Some Obese People Perfectly Healthy?

Are 30% to 40% of the obese at no higher risk of mortality than normal weight people?

A person can be obese and metabolically healthy at the same time, which means that this person will have the same mortality risk for heart disease or cancer that people of normal weight. This is the conclusion of a study published in the prestigious journal European Heart Journal [1].

"Obesity is associated with a large number of chronic diseases as heart diseases or cancer. However, there is a group of obese people that do not suffer the metabolic complications associated with obesity", the author of the study, Prof. Francisco B.Ortega, explains.

If the existence of a healthy minority of obese people is real then why? Exercise or genetic adaptation to higher weight?

Prof. Ortega et al. observed in their study that between 30-40% of obese patients were metabolically healthy. "We made two findings: firstly, metabolically-healthy obese people exhibited better cardiorespiratory fitness –or aerobic fitness-. Secondly, this subgroup has a lower mortality risk rate for heart disease or cancer than other obese people, and has the same mortality risk than people of normal weight." "This study concludes that, regardless of body weight and fat, people with better aerobic fitness have a lower risk for heart or cancer disease and death", Dr. Ortega states.

The obese probably ought to be metabolically profiled to identify those who most need to lose weight.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 26 10:14 PM  Aging Weight Studies
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2012 September 24 Monday
Implications Of Lots More Genetic Variants

Been meaning to comment on this report of a couple of weeks ago: We don't carry around anywhere near as much junk DNA as previously claimed. Not too many slacker letters in the genome going along for the ride.

"Our genome is simply alive with switches: millions of places that determine whether a gene is switched on or off," says Ewan Birney of EMBL-EBI, lead analysis coordinator for ENCODE. "The Human Genome Project showed that only 2% of the genome contains genes, the instructions to make proteins. With ENCODE, we can see that around 80% of the genome is actively doing something. We found that a much bigger part of the genome – a surprising amount, in fact – is involved in controlling when and where proteins are produced, than in simply manufacturing the building blocks."

This report has a number of important implications:

  • A larger portion of the genome being functionally significant brings with it a larger number of genetic variants. Many variants that were thought to be functionally insignificant really cause changes in how our bodies function.
  • Therefore we have far more genetic variation between humans at all levels of aggregation. We are more different in more ways due to genes than previously asserted.
  • It will be harder to figure out what each genetic variant does because it will be harder to control for most variants to look at the effects of a small number of variants.
  • It will also be harder to figure out what each genetic variant does because so many more variants will need to be studied. Some may cancel out the effects of others.
  • We will have more functionally significant existing genetic variants to choose among when creating genetically engineered super offspring.
  • Our genetic load of harmful mutants (we all carry harmful mutants) is much larger. We are more flawed than we previously thought. So that also opens up greater possibility for making better humans. More flaws to get rid of. This even can work for those of us already born since we can use cell therapies built from cells with fewer harmful mutants.

If we had cheaper genetic sequencing equipment 30 years ago we would have made very good use of the data because of the cost of computer memory, disk, and CPU. The amount of data we need to process thru to tease out what genes do is huge. We each have about 3 billion genetic letters. But when sequencing a genome it has to be sequenced many times to identify errors and to fit together overlapping pieces. So each genome's sequencing requires processing of tens of billions of genetic letters with lots comparisons and building up of data structures to gradually connect all the pieces together.

Once each genome's sequence is known then using it to compare against other genomes requires even more computer powers. The differences in those letters need to be compared with many attributes of each of us for tens or hundreds of millions of people in order to discover all their effects.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 24 09:17 PM  Bodies Perfected Genes
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2012 September 23 Sunday
Big Chevy Volt Discounts Boosting Sales

GM loses some unknown amount per Chevy Volt sold.

Sales rose mostly because of discounts of almost $10,000, or 25 percent of the Volt’s sticker price, according to figures from TrueCar.com, an auto pricing website.

Combine US federal rebates, in some cases state rebates, and GM's discount, and it becomes an affordable car. But since GM is losing some undisclosed amount per sale and taxpayers are footing another part of the loss we obviously have a long way to go before PHEVs make the grade. How big is GM's manufacturing cost loss per car?

Fred Schlacter reports that All-Electric Cars Need Battery Breakthrough. Agreed. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office finds that electric vehicles cost more to own even after cutting their cost by a $7,500 subsidy. Cut $12000 out of the cost of an electric car and then it becomes competitive.

At current vehicle and energy prices, the lifetime costs to consumers of an electric vehicle are generally higher than those of a conventional vehicle or traditional hybrid vehicle of similar size and performance, even with the tax credits, which can be as much as $7,500 per vehicle. That conclusion takes into account both the higher purchase price of an electric vehicle and the lower fuel costs over the vehicle’s life. For example, an average plug-in hybrid vehicle with a battery capacity of 16 kilowatt-hours would be eligible for the maximum tax credit. However, that vehicle would require a tax credit of more than $12,000 to have roughly the same lifetime costs as a comparable conventional or traditional hybrid vehicle.

Using 16 kwh of expensive lithium ion battery capacity in a pluggable hybrid Volt seems a waste of expensive battery capacity. Consider by contrast the new 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid which manages to get 47 mpg with just 1.4 kwh of lithium ion battery capacity. The same amount of battery capacity as used in the Chevy Volt capacity can be used to make 11 conventional hybrids with a far larger net fuel savings. That's a far more cost effective use of expensive lithium ion batteries.

Ford's use of lithium in the Fusion hybrid will provide lots of demand for battery manufacturers to develop better batteries, probably more total lithium ion battery demand than comes from the far lower production volume Chevy Volt.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 23 10:16 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2012 September 16 Sunday
Blood Stem Cells To Produce Skin Collagen?

A company in Glasgow, Scotland is going to try injection of stem cells into the skin to restore elasticity and fullness.

The cells will be injected beneath the skin where they will grow into new skin cells to help restore the elasticity, claims Pharmacells, the Glasgow-based company behind the technology.

I really want to see stem cell therapies for appearances to take off because the revenues will help fund stem cell technologies for a wider range of purposes. What plastic surgeons do is usually funded directly by patients without insurance company or government involvement. So it is a commercial space within medicine where more rapid iteration and innovation is possible.

The US FDA treats autologous (from your own body) stem cell treatments as drugs. That makes stem cell treatment regulatory approval a very high and very expensive hurdle in the US. This slows down the development of stem cell treatments. One problem: We need many different kinds of stem cell treatments. As illustrated by recent work at Scripps to identify yet another stem cell type in the brain, we have many kinds of stem cells. If therapies to replace each kind must get separate regulatory approval and if each approval costs hundreds of millions of dollars then most stem cell treatments (at least in the United States) lay decades in our future.

A beauty-enhancing stem cell treatment is the sort of thing that healthy people will travel to get. One can imagine, for example, a stem cell treatment approved in Britain offered at a clinic in Bermuda. A person's own blood stem cells will be used as the source of therapeutic cells.

They have licenced the technology to harvest a new type of stem cell – called a blastomere-like stem cell (CORR) – which is found circulating in the blood.

We need a big industry to grow up around stem cell treatments so that revenue from product sales provides a stable source of funding for lots of scientists and engineers to improve and extend existing products. Expect to do some traveling to get access to some of those therapies.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 16 08:50 PM  Rejuvenation Skin
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2012 September 10 Monday
War Against Athletic Doping Has Failed

In a Wired piece Ian Steadman argues How Sports Would Be Better With Doping and how the war against doping has already failed.

Dwain Chambers, the UK’s fastest sprinter in the 100 meters, was banned from competing in the Olympic Games after testing positive for the anabolic steroid tetrahydrogestrinone. He claimed in his autobiography that at least half of the U.S. racing team at the 2008 Summer Games used illegal substances. The battle to control drug use never, ever seems to end. Why don’t we accept doping will always happen and legalize it?

The article quotes professors who argue that most doping is not detected. Very likely many world records are now held by athletes who did it with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Steadman' article hits many of the points about the advantages of athletic enhancement I've been making for years. Why suffer the limitations that nature gave us in our genes? We can do better. Use of drugs to boost performance basically turns athletes into guinea pigs for treatments that will some day help the rest of us. We'll get faster progress in biomedical science if athletes are allowed to do doping.

In the 2020s I expect gene therapies to finally mature to the point where they move into widespread use for many purposes. Fewer humans will be fully genetically natural even before offspring genetic engineering begins. Parents will choose to give their kids gene therapies to do many types of enhancement to boost their quality of life and potential for success in many endeavors. We should not create regulatory regimes that discourage this development.

We are hurtling toward a future where most humans from birth will not be genetic wild type. We'll genetically engineer offspring to reduce the genetic load of lots of slightly harmful mutations that we all carry. Will those offspring be allowed to compete in the Olympics? They'll have advantages far larger than those that can be gained from drugs used for athletic doping and will be much healthier with longer life expectancies.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 10 11:29 PM  Biotech Athletics
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2012 September 09 Sunday
TV War Images Bad For Mental Health

Um, TV watching is a bad idea anyway.

Repeated exposure to violent images from the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the Iraq War may have led to an increase in physical and psychological ailments in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, according to a new UC Irvine study.

The study sheds light on the lingering effects of “collective traumas” such as natural disasters, mass shootings and terrorist attacks. A steady diet of graphic media images may have long-lasting mental and physical health consequences, says study author Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI professor of psychology & social behavior, medicine and public health.

Probably some people can watch this stuff and be totally unaffected and others get stressed out.

A friend likes to call me up and ask what I think about some event she saw on TV. I point out (repeatedly) that I do not own a TV and am blissfully ignorant about assorted wars, revolutions, and terrorist attacks. Living in a heavily filtered cocoon and liking it. I want better filters. I want to be able to do minuses on stories on Google News so that once I minus (as distinct from plus) a story I never see articles about it. Just give me substantive analyses of patterns of data and cut out events and partisan political rhetoric. Remember, if you don't avoid the traumatic images on TV you could end up like Sharon on South Park, unable to stop watching a war (about 3:50 in).

Avoid pictures of trauma. They are bad for your mental health, maybe.

Seeing two particular kinds of images in the early days of the Iraq War was associated with post-traumatic stress symptoms over time: soldiers engaged in battle and dead U.S. and Allied soldiers.

We need much better filters for dealing with stimuli from the world. Online news filtering tools still seem very primitive to me. I also want better ways to cut noise from my local environment. Imagine software that heard the approach of a truck, predicted the truck's future sound pattern, and created noise cancellation waves. Or imagine sirens that turned off when sensors showed no humans were about to get in the way of a rescue vehicle.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 09 06:44 PM  Comm Tech Society
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Men And Women See Colors Differently

Men are better at tracking rapid movements while women are better at color.

The way that the visual centers of men and women's brains works is different, finds new research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Biology of Sex Differences. Men have greater sensitivity to fine detail and rapidly moving stimuli, but women are better at discriminating between colors.

In the brain there are high concentrations of male sex hormone (androgen) receptors throughout cerebral cortex, especially in the visual cortex which is responsible for processing images. Androgens are also responsible for controlling the development of neurons in the visual cortex during embryogenesis, meaning that males have 25% more of these neurons than females.

What job specializations selected for these differences? Hunting versus gathering?

Women and men literally do not see colors the same way.

When the volunteers were required to describe colors shown to them across the visual spectrum it became obvious that the color vision of men was shifted, and that they required a slightly longer wavelength to experience the same hue as the women. The males also had a broader range in the center of the spectrum where they were less able to discriminate between colors.

Some rare number of women are tetrachromats who have 4 cone types in their eyes and can see finer gradations of red.

One can imagine in the future when offspring genetic engineering becomes possible prospective parents will discuss whether to give their kids much greater color range or greater ability to see movements or fine details. What would be most handy: to have 20-10 vision like the late great baseball player Ted Williams. I had 20-15 vision could see at 20 feet what others could only see at 15 feet) when young and I would love to get it back again. Very handy for reading and working with small stuff.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 09 05:54 PM  Bodies Perfected Sensors
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Little Health Benefit From Organic Foods?

Organic isn't a ticket to great health.

STANFORD, Calif. — You're in the supermarket eyeing a basket of sweet, juicy plums. You reach for the conventionally grown stone fruit, then decide to spring the extra $1/pound for its organic cousin. You figure you've just made the healthier decision by choosing the organic product — but new findings from Stanford University cast some doubt on your thinking.

"There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods, to be published in the Sept. 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

A team led by Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford's Center for Health Policy, and Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in the school's Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, did the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods. They did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.

My take: There's a real advantage to be gained from shifting away from eating cheaper less healthy non-organic foods toward more expensive and healthier non-organic foods. In particular, drop cheap grains in favor of more expensive fruits and vegetables. For fruits eat more berries, cherries, and dark grapes (darker have more good chemicals). Concentrations of polyphenols and other healthy compounds are higher in berries and cherries than in cheaper large fruits like bananas and peaches. Same for vegetables. Go for the ones with the richest colors (no worthless iceberg lettuce when you can go for arugula and radicchio instead) and smaller sizes.

So if you are limiting the quality of your food due to budget limits don't splurge on organic when you can splurge on strawberries, kiwis, and blackberries. Also, want to improve your root vegetable diet? Get some sweet potatoes. Lots of carotenoids and other beneficial chemicals.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 09 05:18 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2012 September 08 Saturday
Electronic Book Readers Increase Reading?

At a presentation Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made for a new line of Kindles an interesting claim was made: electronic book reader devices are causing a surge in reading.

11:09 AM: Stats of post-Kindle world: People are reading more, according to Amazon. 2.5 times as much in 2008. In 2009, 3.5x. 4.21x in 2010. 4.62 in 2011.

Is that true? I can that it at least close to true for me. I buy a lot more books when I can get them instantly and no longer have to worry about full bookshelves. I have a Kindle DX. That is far from the cutting edge tablets. But I love the low power consumption and eInk readability. The internet makes it easy to come across reviews and recommendations for books. So I come across more worthy candidates for reading.

However, the internet boosted my online reading even more than it boosted my book reading. Online web pages compete (rather effectively) for my attention against books. My reading of articles has increased relative to my reading of books

So I'm wondering: As the internet has gotten bigger and electronic book reading devices have become cheaper and more powerful what has happened to your absolute total amount of reading and the relative split between books and non-book reading materials?

Also, when you buy books now are you more or less likely to read them than, say, 10 years ago? I'm not sure what the answer is for me.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 08 11:11 PM  Comm Tech Gadgets
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2012 September 03 Monday
The Future Does Not Include Brain Privacy

I hear Mick Jagger singing "these days its all secrecy, no privacy". Do not take for granted the privacy of your own thoughts.

A team of security researchers from Oxford, UC Berkeley, and the University of Geneva say that they were able to deduce digits of PIN numbers, birth months, areas of residence and other personal information by presenting 30 headset-wearing subjects with images of ATM machines, debit cards, maps, people, and random numbers in a series of experiments.

Imagine how an interrogation system could be constructed to show assorted pieces of information along with questions in order to measure how the brain reacts.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 03 09:16 PM  Brain Surveillance
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2012 September 02 Sunday
Denisovan Girl Died 80,000 Years Ago

Neandertals aren't the only hominin line that branched off from humans a long time ago and later bred with humans. Ancient hominins named Denisovans (after a Siberian cave where their remains were found) bred with humans as shown by DNA sequence comparison. Recently scientists in Svante Pääbo's lab did a full DNA sequence of a Denisovan girl who died tens of thousands of years ago in Siberia.

In a stunning technical feat, an international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of an archaic Siberian girl 31 times over, using a new method that amplifies single strands of DNA. The sequencing is so complete that researchers have as sharp a picture of this ancient genome as they would of a living person’s, revealing, for example that the girl had brown eyes, hair, and skin. “No one thought we would have an archaic human genome of such quality,” says Matthias Meyer, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “Everyone was shocked by the counts. That includes me.”

The Denisovan girl might have died 80,000 years ago. See the Scientific American coverage by Katherine Harmon for implications this discovery has for migrations of early humans.

Modern humans come from a branch that split off from Denisovans a few hundred thousand years ago.

The analysis suggests that the modern human line diverged from what would become the Denisovan line as long as 700,000 years ago—but possibly as recently as 170,000 years ago.

Bringing Denisovans back to life would let us better study the effects of their genetic variants. Suppose it is found that the Denisovans have some genetic variants that would be useful in humans. Should it be legal to add these genetic variants into human offspring?

I expect scientists who work with cell cultures will do something less radical first: integrate sections of Denisovan DNA into human cells in culture. Then watch how their genes get expressed in different conditions in cell culture. If scientists integrate some of that DNA into lab mice then Denisovan DNA expression could be studied even more realistically.

By Randall Parker 2012 September 02 02:23 PM  Evolution Primates
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