2012 December 30 Sunday
Full Genome Sequencing: Use Computers, Not MDs To Understand

The argument that full genome sequencing results require doctors to interpret gets it exactly wrong. We need computers to interpret our genes to us because doctors can't possibly model that much data in their minds.

Concerns about a lack of regulation become even more intense when you get into sequencing the entire genome or exome (a smaller part that contains important DNA sequences that direct the body to make essential proteins), wrote Dr. James Evans and Dr. Jonathan Berg, of the department of genetics and medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been in talks with direct-to-consumer companies and is particularly interested in tests that influence medical decisions.

The cost of sequencing of one's entire genome has already fallen by orders of magnitude and is now below ten thousand dollars and still dropping. Once the cost hits below $1000 i want to get my full genome sequenced and keep that data stored where I can access it any time. As more discoveries are published about what each genetic variant means I do not want to take time off from work to go to a doctor's office to pay a doctor to look up to see if I have that variant.

Think about it will mean to know your 2.9 billion letter genetic sequence: The amount of data will be so large that to check on what it means will require interacting with a computer. Doctors won't know more than a few hundred genetic variants. The mind just can not remember that much info and it won't be worth trying. So we'll have to use computers to advise us on the ramifications of our genetic sequences.

We should be able to directly interact with computers in order to understand our genomes. The meaning of our genomes should not be accessible only to medical doctors and genetic counselors.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 30 07:51 PM 
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2012 December 24 Monday
FDA Approves Genetically Modified Atlantic Salmon

Atlantic Salmon enhanced for faster growth with genes from Chinook Salmon and Ocean Pout finally wins FDA approval 17 years after AquaBounty Technologies began the process of seeking regulatory approval.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it could not find any valid scientific reasons to ban the production of GM Atlantic salmon engineered with extra genes from two other fish species – a decision that could soon lead to its commercial production.

The salmon will be sterilized females and will be grown in land-based containers at lower cost than catching wild salmon. The wild Atlantic salmon are overfished (see page 12 of that NOAA report) like many other fish species around the world.

Given trends in world population growth (and not much being done about it) we need ways to feed ourselves that cause less ecological damage. Our living standards are based on unsustainable uses of natural resources. The demands on those resources are growing and wild habitats are shrinking. We need ways to create what we need in dense land areas. So I genetic engineering of fish as a necessary response to our living beyond our means.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 24 11:22 AM 
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2012 December 23 Sunday
Still Waiting For A Biotech Revolution

The first attempts at human gene therapy were made in 1990. The excitement around gene therapy was high in the 1990s. Yet not till 22 years later in 2012 the first gene therapy drug, Glybera for a rare genetic disease called lipoprotein lipase deficiency, was approved for clinical use in Europe. That same treatment might become the first gene therapy to get regulatory approval in the US in 2013. The great promise of gene therapy remains just that, a promise.

Use of cell therapies has expanded more rapidly. However, the only stem cell therapy in use is for bone marrow transplant in cancer treatments. Cell therapy usage still remains rare as compared to the number of diseases and disorders potentially treatable with cell therapies. In a nutshell, the biotech revolution so far has been a bust for curing diseases.

A look at the orders of magnitude drops in DNA sequencing costs shows at least some biotechnologies racing ahead faster than Moore's Law advances in computer processing power. But a much higher critical mass of biotechnologies is needed to easily make lots of stem cell therapies and gene therapies. We also need many more biotechnologies to be able to do the tissue engineering needed to grow replacements for most types of internal organs.

On the bright side the rate at which new drugs have been getting thru regulatory pipelines has increased. But the drugs have less financial impact. That suggests these drugs are aimed at narrower niches with smaller benefits.

In total, the world's 12 top pharmaceutical companies had 41 new drugs approved, with combined forecast revenues of $211 billion, while the year-earlier tally was 32 products with expected revenues of $309 billion.

My suspicion: most of the remaining problems that chemical drugs haven't cured or slowed down are problems that chemical drugs can't fix. For most of what goes wrong as we age we need gene therapies, cell therapies, and other techniques that are powerful enough to repair or replace aged tissue. Chemical drugs are just too simple in structure and in potential effects. They can't do much tissue repair. Though chemical drugs might at least be able to kill off a lot more damaged and dangerous cells. That leads us to a hopeful report.

An article in the New York Times about the attempts by Merck, Roche and Sanofi to make wide spectrum anti-cancer drugs against proteins made by mutated genes p53 and MDM2 suggests a big step toward a real biotech revolution might be within reach using only conventional chemical drugs. Imagine a drug that can wipe out half of all cancers.

For the first time ever, three pharmaceutical companies are poised to test whether new drugs can work against a wide range of cancers independently of where they originated — breast, prostate, liver, lung. The drugs go after an aberration involving a cancer gene fundamental to tumor growth. Many scientists see this as the beginning of a new genetic age in cancer research.

Read the whole thing. Very exciting. Imagine a small number of chemical compounds killing half of all cancers. Might be possible. Though I fear the slow rate at which drugs get tested will make this attempt take many more years.

Roche was the first to start testing a p53 drug in patients. The company began, as required, with an attempt to establish a dose strong enough to be effective but not too toxic. It took a surprisingly long time — three years — because Roche was cautious, starting with a tiny dose and gradually escalating it.

The slow rate of cancer drug testing and the regulatory environment that causes the snail's pace is tragic. In America alone about 600 thousand people per year die of cancer. So while Roche was doing toxicity studies almost 2 million people died of cancer in the US and millions more elsewhere.

If I was dying of cancer and had months to live I'd volunteer to take a large dose of an experimental drug to find out its toxicity. If I was really lucky I'd be cured. If I was only moderately lucky the drug would kill me quickly so I wouldn't have to spend months in pain slowly dying. I bet if dying cancer patients were given the choice of whether to risk a fast death due to aggressive testing of new drugs enough would say yes that drug testing could be sped up substantially.

The regulators who create this slow drug development environment also place high hurdles in the way of trying stem cell therapies and gene therapies for fatal illnesses. The US FDA has won a court case that gives it broad power to regulate stem cell therapies. Well, FDA regulation basically means "spend hundreds of millions of dollars and spend a decade getting approval". Got a disease that'll kill you 5 or even 10 years from now? Time to get a passport if you don't already have one. When the biotech revolution finally starts arriving with great clinical treatments you'll have to go abroad to get the latest treatments.

We need a faster rate of progress in biotechnology.

Update: It says something about how much faster cancer research could advance that when researcher Ralph Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer he experimented on himself and extended his life.

In the long struggle that was to come, Steinman would try anything and everything that might extend his life, but he placed his greatest hope in a field he helped create, one based on discoveries for which he would earn his Nobel Prize. He hoped to reprogram his immune cells to defeat his cancer — to concoct a set of treatments from his body’s own ingredients, which could take over from his chemotherapy and form a customized, dynamic treatment for his disease. These would be as far from off-the-shelf as medicines can get: vaccines designed for the tumor in his gut, made from the products of his plasma, that could only ever work for him.

He did things to himself much faster than he could have gotten permission to experiment on others who had similar very short life expectancies. Why not let people with very short life expectancies more easily get access to experimental treatments?

By Randall Parker 2012 December 23 03:52 PM 
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2012 December 22 Saturday
Biotech Apocalypse Zombies Seem Easy To Stop

Seeing that there's a big zombie apocalypse fiction genre I decided to read one the zombie novels and I'm part way thru Apocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End. I've also managed to get thru the first episode of The Walking Dead TV show. Still reading and watching. But I've got an initial reaction: a bioengineered zombie-causing virus seems pretty easy to stop.

The human race doesn't seem lame enough to allow zombies to totally overrun civilization. Why would most people let themselves get bitten by slow-moving zombies? In both zombie stories I'm following one has to shoot the zombies in the head to stop them. Well, how hard is that? Really easy. Would we have a sufficient supply of guns? Yes, at least in America where there are about as many gun as there are people. That's without even bringing military guns into the count. My guess is there's some high ratio of bullets to guns. But for a substantial fraction of the zombies one wouldn't even need to use guns. Beheading would work. We wouldn't even need many people to operate the guns. A single sharp shooter could shoot a lot of zombies in the head. Plus, police and other people could wear gear that would make bites hard to deliver. In the Apocalypse Z story the main character (in Spain, so fewer guns available) dons a diving wet suit to make bites harder to deliver when he goes out to get a gun from a zombie soldier. Just locking your car door would hold them off.

A zombie virus infection would need to be able to travel airborne in order to infect a lot of people. Airborne zombie virus is harder to stop. But not impossible. We would just have to stay away from zombies. The key is to increase the distance between uninfected and zombies. First, lock all doors of all buildings. Second, erect lots of barriers that break cities and regions up into zones and make the barriers so formidable (with kill zone layers and sharp shooters who can kill zombies at a distance) that zombies can not get thru them. Third, require air filtration mask wearing.

In order for a zombie virus to spread widely it would need at least one of the following attributes:

  • Faster, smarter zombies. Far greater retention of cognitive ability and speed of movement among the infected. Otherwise they can't compete with the non-infected.
  • Really long incubation period. Probably measured in weeks.
  • Airborne transmission.

I do not think airborne transmission would be sufficient. I'm not sure about whether faster and smarter zombies would be sufficient. Probably in the most early infected communities this would work. But as the threat became more widely understood the smartness of the less numerous zombies would not be enough to allow them to succeed. We'd have a pretty brutal global civil war though.

Update: We'll be able to use UAVs to kill the zombies.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 22 08:11 PM 
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Adderal As Autism In A Pill?

As Tyler Cowen has pointed out, atttributes of autistic minds have some economic advantages. Some companies are systematically utilizing these advantages to improve quality and enhance profits. A Jason Lisk essay about Adderall in the National Football League makes the point that Adderall causes mental hyperfocusing. The tendency hyperfocus is one of the advantages that autistics bring to many mental tasks. So you can buy a bottle of autism?

Of course, it’s not all positives. It can be abused. It can be addictive. You have to get a cardiac workup, and players that are sharing it without prescriptions could lead us to a Len Bias situation for Adderall. For me, I had a hard time sleeping at night. I was still on. That’s why you hear stories like Garrett Hartley, who claimed to have taken it to stay awake for a long drive. I would get so focused on things that I could not let go. I could always “hyper-focus” on things I enjoyed, but it intensified even more on Adderall. Staying up to play Civilization to wind down turned into six hours at the computer, and no sleep before returning to work.

Hyperfocusing is not the only attribute of the autistic mind. How many of the autistic attributes can be enhanced by drugs? The opposite effect is possible: Oxytocin enhances the ability of autistics to recognize emotions in the faces of others.

There's no mental state that is ideal for all situations. What we need: mental switches that will make it fast and easy to switch our minds into different modes. Shift into a socialization mode. Then switch on hyperfocusing to work on an intellectually demanding task without getting distracted. Get creative when you need to be. Then shift into a mode where you can analyze numbers and write up reports when that's what's needed.

We need cognitive state management technologies. Some already exist and not all of them are drugs. For example, bright lights will lessen the kind of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). You can also use white noise and noise suppressing materials and other changes in your environment to decrease mental distractions.

Which cognitive state management techniques do you use? Got any useful tips?

By Randall Parker 2012 December 22 01:08 PM 
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2012 December 17 Monday
Bye Bye Lion Habitats In Africa

Ever wanted to travel to Africa to see lions in the wild? Don't wait too long. Lion habitats and lion populations are in sharp decline.

DURHAM, NC – About 75 percent of Africa’s savannahs and more than two-thirds of the lion population once estimated to live there have disappeared in the last 50 years, according to a study published this week in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

The study, led by Duke University researchers, estimates the number of lions now living on the savannahs to be as low as 32,000, down from nearly 100,000 in 1960. Lion populations in West Africa have experienced the greatest declines.

Since the last 50 years of population growth has been far smaller than the next 50 years of population growth the next 25% of savannah will probably go much faster.

Will the national park strongholds survive?

Pimm and his colleagues used high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Earth, coupled with human population density data and estimates of local lion populations, to map areas still favorable to the big cats’ survival.

They identified only 67 isolated areas of savannah across the continent with suitably low human impacts and densities.

Of these, only 10 spots were deemed to be “strongholds” where lions have an excellent chance of survival. Many of the strongholds are located within national parks.

The long term survival of wild lion populations seems very unlikely. One projection from the UN Population Division has Africa's population more than tripling by the end of the 21st century to over 3.5 billion people. Apparently that was a revision upward because Africa's fertility rates aren't declining as much as previously predicted. Africa's still in a Malthusian Trap where more resources translate into more babies. So high fertility rates shouldn't be too surprising.

Population growth and resource depletion get tragically little attention in discussions about what is going wrong in the world.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 17 10:46 PM 
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2012 December 12 Wednesday
Danish Company Matches Autistics To Jobs

In Denmark Thorkil Sonne, who has an autistic son, founded a company, called Specialisterne, which supplies autistic consultants to companies for tasks where autistic minds perform better than normal minds (which are now referred to as neurotypicals).

Christian Andersen, another Specialisterne consultant, works at Lundbeck, a large pharmaceutical company. He compares records of patients who have experienced reactions to Lundbeck’s drugs, making sure the paper records match the digital ones. Errors can creep in when the reports are entered into the company’s database, and tiny mistakes could mean that potential health hazards would go undetected. So Andersen searches for anomalies, computer entry against written report, over and over, hour after hour, day after day.

Before Andersen arrived, his boss, Janne Kampmann, had a hard time finding employees who could do the job well. Most people’s minds wander as they go back and forth between documents, their eyes skimming the typos lurking there. Andersen, however, worked without interruption the morning I visited, attentive and silent until he lifted his head and, pointing to a sheet of paper, said to Kampmann, “Why do we have a 57 instead of 30 milligrams?” Kampmann told me Andersen is one of the best quality-control people she’s ever seen.

The article provides other examples of autistics outperforming neurotypicals in tasks that involve many precise steps and repetition. Relentlessness, hyperfocus, and a great memory for detail are required to excel at some tasks,

People who feel most comfortable communicating thru subtle social cues can feel frustrated dealing with autistics and can attribute malicious intent when none is present. Mutual misunderstandings are a big problem between autistics and neurotypicals. More managers should learn how to spot and deal with autistics because many autistics can excel if matched up to appropriate tasks and co-workers who know how to deal with them.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 12 07:24 AM 
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2012 December 11 Tuesday
How Much Electric Vehicle Battery Prices Have Dropped

Looking back at a piece Kevin Bullis did on A123's failure in the electric vehicle battery market place a statement by one of the A123 founders gives an insight into a recurring debate that has raged off and on in the comments of FuturePundit posts: electric vehicle battery costs are now at $500 per kilowatt-hour.

Battery makers have driven costs down over the last several years, from about $1,000 per kilowatt-hour to $500 per kilowatt-hour, says Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials scientist at MIT and one of the founders of A123. And those costs are likely to be cut in half again over the next decade, he says. If startups are to succeed, they’ll need to offer something far cheaper and higher performing.

But $250 per kilowatt-hour is still too much to allow EVs to succeed in the mass market. Yet with current trends in lithium ion batteries that's where we'll end up. So it is not surprising that Jim Lentz of Toyota says lithium ion batteries are a transitional technology. The start-ups that claim they can get down to $150 per kilowatt-hour or even less are the ones to pay attention to. For example, Alveo Energy claim they can hit $100 per kilowatt-hour. If they can pull that off many of us will be driving around on electric power.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 11 10:37 PM 
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Cheaper Wind Turbine Blades Using Fabric?

Kevin Bullis, a very good energy writer at Technology Review, has the details.

GE hopes to make wind turbines far cheaper, and open up new ways to design them, by ditching the stiff fiberglass blades they use now in favor of turbine blades made out of fabric.

The fiberglass blades are becoming too heavy as blades get bigger. A different approach is needed.

In North America cheap shale natural gas has driven down the cost of gas-fired electric power so far that wind, solar, coal, and nuclear can't compete. Larger blades reduce costs in part by reaching higher up into the air where wind is stronger. Wind blade size needs to grow much more to compete.

It’s estimated that to achieve the national goal of 20% wind power in the U.S., wind blades would need to grow by 50% -- a figure that would be virtually impossible to realize given the size constraints imposed by current technology. Lighter fabric blades could make this goal attainable.

This project is still at a research stage.

What I wonder: When will new large wind turbines start getting used to replace existing smaller wind turbines at old wind sites? A lot of the best sites were developed first and have higher quality wind. With turbines 2 or 3 times bigger a lot more power could be harvested from these sites.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 11 10:12 PM 
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2012 December 09 Sunday
Resveratrol Cuts Bowel Tumor Risk?

Two glasses of red wine per day might cut your bowel tumor risks in half. White wine has much less resveratrol. Go dark.

Researchers at the University of Leicester have been researching the levels of resveratrol which can be beneficial in preventing cancer.

Using laboratory models, they have found that a daily amount of resveratrol equivalent to two glasses of wine can halve the rate of bowel tumors.

Professor Karen Brown, a member of the University's Cancer Biomarkers and Prevention Group and one of the organisers of Resveratrol 2012, said: "This is the second conference that brings together all the world experts in resveratrol. We have got a fantastic line up covering cancer, heart disease, diabetes, neurological diseases and life extension.

"At the University of Leicester, we want to see how resveratrol might work to prevent cancer in humans. Having shown in our lab experiments that it can reduce tumour development we are now concentrating on identifying the mechanisms of how resveratrol works in human cells."

Other options for getting resveratrol: red grapes, grape juice, and peanuts.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 09 08:51 PM 
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Affluent Italians Eat Closer To Mediterranean Diet Ideal

Make more money so you can afford fish, olives, fruits, and vegetables.

Researchers analyzed information on over 13,000 people, a sub-sample of the widest epidemiological Moli-sani Project. Since 2005 this project has been recruiting about 25,000 adult subjects from the Molise region aiming to investigate the relationship between genetic and environmental factors in the onset of chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease and tumors. The authors explored the association between income and dietary habits of participants, evaluated according to specific scores of adherence to Mediterranean diet.

"We found that low-income people showed the poorest adherence to Mediterranean diet as compared to those in the uppermost group of income – says Licia Iacoviello, chairperson of the Moli-sani Project– In particular, high-income people have 72% odds of being in the top category of adherence to Mediterranean diet. This means a less healthy diet for the poorest, who are more likely to get prepackaged or junk food, often cheaper than the fresh foods of the Mediterranean tradition. In the lowest-income category we have recorded a higher prevalence of obesity as well. Low-income people report 36 % of obesity compared to 20% in the uppermost income class".

"Obviously we have considered all the possible confounding factors which may bias the observed effects – the authors say –The educational level, for instance, has a huge role in determining health status, as showed by previous studies. That is why we have further divided our population according to educational level but in this case too income appears to influence people's food choices".

I used to be too frugal when food shopping. Now I make myself buy the strawberries, dark grapes, cauliflower, and similar foods even when they are expensive in the winter. I buy large bottles of olives and use them in place of salt and other condiments.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 09 08:41 PM 
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Does EPO Really Boost Elite Cyclist Performance?

Would scientific researchers please do the fundamental research we need so that elite athletes can know which dangerous drugs are going to boost their chances of winning? Did Lance Armstrong threaten his health and get himself into trouble for no benefit?

The drug erythropoietin, often called EPO, is banned from sports because it is believed to enhance an athlete's performance and give people who use it an unfair advantage over unenhanced competitors. However a new systemic review of existing research, published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, reveals that there is no scientific evidence that it does enhance performance, but there is evidence that using it in sport could place a user's health and life at risk.

If the athletes could anonymously register their drug usage and changes in performance we could get to the bottom of this question. Or maybe groups of athletes could do their own secret studies so at least they would know.

Seriously, if we let professional athletes use performance-enhancing drugs their performance could be systematically studied and control and experiments compared.

Professional cycling is a popular sport, but over the last decades the sport's image has been tainted by high-profile doping cases. EPO, a blood-cell stimulating hormone, has recently made headlines, with the United States of America's anti-doping agency (USADA) claiming that it was used by record seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

"Athletes and their medical staff may believe EPO enhances performance, but there is no evidence that anyone performed good experiments to check if EPO would actually improve performance in elite cyclists," says lead researcher Professor Adam Cohen, who works at the Centre for Human Drug Research in Leiden, The Netherlands.

It is even more important for athletes to try out stem cell therapies and gene therapies. If they could use these cutting edge therapies then those therapies would become available more quickly for the rest of us to reverse aging. Imagine athletes in their 30s doing stem cell therapies to extend their professional careers. If the leading bleeding edge therapies worked for them they'd also work for granny and granddad in their 80s.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 09 08:27 PM 
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2012 December 08 Saturday
Moon Trip: $1.5 Billion Per Pair

$1.5 billion per pair of people for a trip to the moon.

On Thursday, at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a startup company called Golden Spike announced its intention to organize manned commercial expeditions to the moon by 2020, selling seats or cargo space to wealthy individuals, nations, and corporations.

There's a problem with this business model if the aim is to sell to billionaires. The world's billionaires are old. The top 5: Carlos Slim Helu at age 72, Bill Gates at 57, Warren Buffett at 82, Bernaud Arnault at 63, and Amancio Ortega at 76. A trip to the moon would be a pretty stressful undertaking. The g forces at lift-off and reentry would be hard on old bones. The whole trip would be demanding. Plus, the trip would be very risky and the by position 100 the net worth is only $9 billion. So $1.5 billion for a trip is a pretty steep price for a small target audience.

Corporations: Where's the ROI? What commercial endeavor on the moon capable of being done by 2 people with very little material could pay itself back? Any ideas?

Fully robotic factories on the moon might make sense at some point. Robots sent to the moon, unlike humans, could stay. While the sun shines the robots could be powered by solar panels. But what could they do better on the moon than on Earth's surface that is worth the expense?

By Randall Parker 2012 December 08 09:04 PM 
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Quality Copper Deposits Getting Harder To Find

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc has proposed to do two big acquisitions to enable it to get into North American oil and natural gas production. Many analysts are critical of the move, arguing that investors buy Freeport for copper exposure and if they want oil exposure they'll buy oil companies. Basically, investors want to do their own diversification. At first glance this sounds like just another squabble between big investors and top corp managers. But there's an interesting "Limits To Growth" angle: Freeport's motive. Suitable copper deposits are getting harder to find.

The latest deal would also give Freeport new growth opportunities. Analysts have said copper mining companies have found it increasingly difficult to find new projects in politically stable countries, and there are fewer deal targets after almost a decade of mega-mergers.

Freeport has a hard time finding sites suitable to develop into copper mining operations. New sites have lower copper concentrations, poorer locations, and other conditions that drive up costs. The cheaper sites have been developed first. This is a pattern across the entire mining industry. They have to use more expensive sites. They already operate in Africa, South America, and many other locations around the world. This brings to mind Jeremy Grantham's contention that natural resource depletion is limiting economic growth.Back in April 2011 Grantham pointed out that natural resource extraction companies already operate in politically unstable countries with poor infrastructure because industrialized countries are already heavily depleted.

A new power in the mining world is Glencore (soon to be listed at a value of approximately $60 billion). Its CEO, Ivan Glasenberg, was quoted in the Financial Times on April 11, describing why his firm operates in the Congo and Zambia. “We took the nice, simple, easy stuff first from Australia, we took it from the U.S., we went to South America… Now we have to go to the more remote places.” That’s a pretty good description of an industry exiting the easy phase and entering the downward slope of permanently higher prices and higher risk.

This rising cost for raw materials extraction applies to most or all raw materials. For example, coal extraction costs in the United States bottomed in 2000 and have gone up by about 2.5 times since then.

In his latest newsletter for GMO Jeremy Grantham points out that the world was on a long term declining cost trend for commodities until 2002. But the trend has since reversed.

As discussed before, in general the global picture until 2002 was one of erratic but generally declining resource prices. The average decline for 33 equally weighted commodities was 1.2% a year. This negative 1.2% is the sum of a positive increase in marginal extraction costs – deeper wells and thinner ores, etc. – tending to push prices up and a more than offsetting negative force from technology – finding and digging wells more efficiently, etc. – pushing prices down. My arbitrary but I hope reasonable guesses for the hundred years to 2002 is that technological innovations subtracted about 3.25% a year from resource prices and naturally rising marginal costs pushed them up by about 2% for a net annual decline of 1.25%. One could say that cleverness was overcoming increasing scarcity. But in 2002, the momentum shifts and scarcity gains the upper hand.

Grantham points out that we've seen a huge surge in commodities prices in the last 10 years.

However, even after an imputed 20% GMO 11 Quarterly Letter – On the Road to Zero Growth – November 2012 markdown, the prices will still have doubled in 10 years or compounded at 7% a year. This is far higher than global GDP growth and painfully higher than growth in the U.S. or other developed countries. This 7% a year increase, in my opinion, represents a paradigm shift in costs.

Exhibit 8 shows the total cost of commodities as a percentage of GDP. Prior to the time period of the exhibit, the share of commodities had fallen from close to 100% back in the Middle Ages in Europe, when almost everything went to survival, to way over 50% in the U.S. by 1700, and much higher elsewhere. The exhibit shows that by the early 1900s it had fallen to about 16% and finally to a remarkably low 3% of U.S. GDP around 2000. Since then, though, the percentage of GDP in resources has risen by an equally remarkable 4 percentage points to 7% of the total, more than double! This 4-percentage-point squeeze has therefore reduced the growth rate of the noncommodity world by, on average, 0.4% a year for the last 10 years. In comparison, in the previous 90 years resource prices had dropped by enough to raise the growth rate of the non-resource world by 0.2% a year, an increment that was missed in the official data. (The summary on this point is that when the costs of real resources fall, it creates unmeasured productivity gains. Conversely, real resource costs rising, as they are now, create productivity losses that are missed in the official data.)

As I've argued previously in my post Innovation Costs For Maintaining Civilization, a substantial portion of our advances in science and technology have to go to handle problems that arise due to population growth, resource depletion, and other effects of our industrialized civilization. In the last couple of decades it looks to me that the rate of technological advance has not been high enough to compensate for developing problems. As a result living standards in Western nations have stagnated. I do not know whether advances in computer software, biotechnology, and energy production will come to the rescue. Rejuvenation therapies from biotechnology alone could deliver a hugely bigger benefit than cheaper gasoline or cheaper construction materials. So possibly we will experience huge benefits for our health while becoming materially poorer. That sounds like a good trade and I'd be happy to take it.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 08 02:18 PM 
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2012 December 03 Monday
Voyager 1 Nears Interstellar Space

The absolutely most amazing thing of all about this story: 35 years after it was launched Voyager 1 is still sending back data and we are able to receive its signal even though it is nearing interstellar space where the sun's heliosphere stops. If we built a space probe to send beyond the solar system today would we use technology that lasts as long?

"Although Voyager 1 still is inside the sun's environment, we now can taste what it's like on the outside because the particles are zipping in and out on this magnetic highway," said Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "We believe this is the last leg of our journey to interstellar space. Our best guess is it's likely just a few months to a couple years away. The new region isn't what we expected, but we've come to expect the unexpected from Voyager."

Since December 2004, when Voyager 1 crossed a point in space called the termination shock, the spacecraft has been exploring the heliosphere's outer layer, called the heliosheath. In this region, the stream of charged particles from the sun, known as the solar wind, abruptly slowed down from supersonic speeds and became turbulent. Voyager 1's environment was consistent for about five and a half years. The spacecraft then detected that the outward speed of the solar wind slowed to zero.

The intensity of the magnetic field also began to increase at that time.

Voyager data from two onboard instruments that measure charged particles showed the spacecraft first entered this magnetic highway region on July 28, 2012. The region ebbed away and flowed toward Voyager 1 several times. The spacecraft entered the region again Aug. 25 and the environment has been stable since.

"If we were judging by the charged particle data alone, I would have thought we were outside the heliosphere," said Stamatios Krimigis, principal investigator of the low-energy charged particle instrument, based at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md. "But we need to look at what all the instruments are telling us and only time will tell whether our interpretations about this frontier are correct."

So where does Voyager get the electricity to send a signal back to Earth? plutonium-238 nuclear power. The US stopped producing it in 1992. But this has been restarted to use in future space probes.

What I'd like to know: Could we build a probe with today's technology that would use nuclear propulsion to get into interstellar space much more quickly? 35+ years to get a probe to interstellar space is just too long.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 03 09:51 PM 
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2012 December 02 Sunday
Robotic Trucks For Australian Surface Mines

While robotic cars on highways still lie some years in the future robotic trucks in surface mines are happening right now.

BHP Billiton has followed Rio Tinto's lead in using automated and remote technology at West Australian iron ore mines, revealing it plans to run a fleet of robot trucks at its newest mine in the Pilbara region, co-ordinated from a recently established remote-operations centre in Perth.

Rio Tinto is also going to implement robotic trains.

These robotic trucks weigh as much as an Airbus A380 fully fueled. So they are giants. Since these trucks run continuously the labor expenses saved per truck per year is $1 million Australian dollars.

Komatsu and Caterpillar are competing to develop better robotic vehicles. Imagine the point where Caterpillar bulldozers, shovels, and other heavy equipment is totally automated. Picture construction sites where buildings go up without human labor and roads and parking lots get paved with only guards present to keep other people away from the working machines. Then throw in robotic factories for building the trucks and bulldozers. Blue collar jobs do not have a bright future.

Rio Tinto thinks totally robotic mining operations are still some years away. But they are clearly headed in that direction.

By Randall Parker 2012 December 02 07:40 PM 
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